Test Pilot: File #48, Aquaman

Test Pilot #48: Aquaman

Debut date: July 24, 2006 (iTunes)

Series legacy: As a series? None to speak of; Yet, one of the more high-profile “non-orders” in recent memory

Welcome friends, to the second Test Pilot Special Theme Week. We had such great success with the week devoted to Joss Whedon-produced series back at the first of the year that I thought it would be fun to take another stab at it.

Every day this week, a guest and I will take on a famous (or in a few cases, infamous) pilot focused on a famous comic book superhero. These characters have become massive properties in the film industry over the last 20 years (especially the last 10-12), driving many of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. This summer season kicked off with Whedon’s Avengers, perhaps the most anticipated film in the genre and one that succeeded all expectations. New Batman and Spider-Man films are soon to come. Superheroes are big business for film.

But on television? Geesh. Networks have attempted televised adaptations of popular superhero characters for decades, but most of them have failed, commercially, creatively or (in most cases) both. This theme will take a look at some of the high-profile attempts to make superheroes fly on the small screen and consider what worked and what did not.*

*Our discussions will focus solely on live-action superhero series. It is important to note that animated series centered on comic book heroes have thrived for years, and continue to do so. Surely there is more to the varying successes than simply visual effects and budgets, right?

Happy Thursday, ladies and germs. Can’t believe the week is almost through. Today, we move into the contemporary era of television and a somewhat special case. 2006’s Aquaman is a pilot most of you have probably heard about, and many of you have probably seen. However, it never actually made it to series, in one of the more staggeringly confusing decisions of recent memory (as my guest will momentarily discuss). What happened? And can we learn from Aquaman? Let’s find out.

Joining me today is Wesley Ambrecht. A student of television and a disciple of the late Brandon Tartikoff, Wesley graduated from Cornell University’s esteemed Department of Communication in 2011. Mr. Ambrecht has spent the last year or so working a series of short-term production gigs, while contributing to Miso. He frequently updates his Twitter status, and infrequently updates his blog. Wesley, take it away:

The CW launched 3 new scripted series over the course of its inaugural season. Can you name them? If not, don’t feel too bad. Runaway and Hidden Palms, the network’s two new dramas, were among the lowest rated programs to air on broadcast television during the 2006-2007 season, while The CW’s lone comedy addition, The Game, is more commonly associated with the BET Network these days. Not among that crop was Aquaman, one of the most talked about pilots of that development season and arguably the network’s best chance at a breakout hit.

When discussing a failed pilot, context is of the foremost importance. In January of 2006, both The WB and UPN were facing major financial losses. After 11 years on the air, neither network had become the ratings juggernaut their respective parent companies desired. In fact, they had lost a combined $2 billion over the course of a decade. It was because of this, and the ever shrinking TV market, that Time Warner and CBS Corp. decided to merge the two networks into what they perceived would be a legitimate power player. And thus, The CW was born.

Amalgamating the programming of two seemingly disparate networks was a responsibility that fell to former UPN topper Dawn Ostroff. Feeling confident about the plethora of current shows she had to choose from, Ostroff and her team only shot four pilots in the spring of 2006; two from each network (UPN: Runaway, Liz Tigelaar’s Split Decision The WB: Aquaman, Hidden Palms). Of the two UPN pilots, Runaway got the go-ahead because it was thought to pair nicely with 7th Heaven, a show that Ostroff chose to renew after incredibly high series finale numbers. Yes, you read that right SERIES FINALE. But, that’s a tangent I won’t get started on.

Prevailing wisdom suggested that Aquaman would be The WB offering chosen to join The CW’s schedule. But, when Ms. Ostroff took the stage in New York City that May, the fishy comic book adaption was conspicuously absent. Ostroff claimed the show was still in contention for midseason but, shortly after her presentation concluded, it became clear that wasn’t true. Then, someone at The CW inadvertently uploaded the image below to their website, inciting a firestorm of questions like “Had Aquaman actually been on the schedule at one point?” and “Why would the network have scheduled it behind America’s Next Top Model?”

Fanboys never got any answers to those questions, but they did get to watch their favorite Atlantean take to the seas. On July 24, 2006 Aquaman became the first original program to bow on iTunes. The pilot quickly became the content provider’s highest selling TV program, validating Warner Brothers’ decision to release it atypically. I remember downloading iTunes that summer just so I could get my hands on the show, which is the principle reason I jumped at the chance to join Cory on this Test Pilot. At the time, I was floored by The CW’s decision to pass on the show, which made me curious to see how it would hold up nearly six years later.

After revisiting Aquaman last week, I remain utterly confused by The CW’s decision to pass on the series. Is Aquaman a particularly memorable pilot? No, nor is it a particularly good episode of television. Aspects of it are rather clunky and several of the narrative decisions creators Al Gough and Miles Millar made strike me as odd. Still, I don’t know how anyone at The CW thought this was less likely to succeed than Runaway or Hidden Palms.

Arthur “Aquaman” Curry made his first appearance in DC Comics’ More Fun Comics way back in 1941.  But, his origin story has been retconned no less than 6 times since then. And, while that is probably frustrating to diehard fans of the character, it gave Gough and Millar a lot of latitude to work. Unlike Clark Kent, who they brought to the small screen in Smallville, Arthur Curry’s personality wasn’t ingrained in the public conscious. If they wanted him to be sarcastic and brass, he could be. If they wanted him to be a womanizing bad boy with a heart of gold, well, he could be that too. And, as played by Justin Hartley in this pilot, Curry is all of those things and more. Hartley is charismatic enough to compensate for some of Gough and Millar’s deficiencies as writers, which is presumably why they brought him over to Smallville when this show didn’t move forward.

The actors around Hartley barely register, however, and that is certainly one of the pilot’s bigger problems, albeit one that a recasting or two would have remedied. Other than Hartley, only Ving Rhames brings anything to the table* and even he is playing the mentor role a bit too hammy for my tastes.

*Guest star Adrianne Palicki brings herself in a small string bikini, which I would of course welcome at my table or bed or anywhere really.

That notwithstanding, Aquaman’s biggest hindrance isn’t the show’s somewhat lackluster cast but, rather, the cavalier attitude the show exhibits towards super heroics. When we first meet AC in this pilot he’s been breathing underwater and swimming at record speeds for his entire youth, but thinks nothing of it. If I can stay under water for more than a minute, I feel a sense of victory. He hangs out for close to an hour and chalks it up to good genes. Curry is equally unfazed by the news that he’s an exiled prince from Atlantis. Alas, it’s not just AC who lets things roll off his back. His would be Chloe Sullivan, Eva, also reacts with little enthusiasm upon learning that her best friend is from the lost city. If even the character endowed with these abilities isn’t excited about them, it becomes difficult for the audience to get hyped up.

Earlier in the week, Cory mentioned that origin stories can be tedious for the viewer, especially if they’ve seen that story before in different iterations of the character. I agree with that to a certain extent. Most people know how Superman came to find himself on earth and why Peter Parker suddenly developed spider-like powers, but the same cannot be said of Aquaman. In this way, Aquaman would have benefited greatly from a bit less of the seemingly superfluous Bermuda Triangle plot that was created entirely by Gough and Millar, and a great deal more of AC coming into himself. After all, if your hero begins his journey without the slightest bit of trepidation, where can you really take him?

On Tuesday, DC made the announcement that Gangster Squad scribe Will Beall had been hired to adapt Justice League for the big screen. I’d wager that Aquaman will be included in that film. He may even receive a solo film because of it. And, if that happens, naysayers will use it as ammunition to support their claims that features offer a more productive outlet for comic book adaptations, a sentiment that I wholeheartedly disagree with.

One of the undeniable facts that my cohorts have ignored this week, when addressing the failure of comic book adaptations on TV, is the utter lack of adaptations that have actually made it to air in the last decade. Excluding Human Target, which was neither a faithful adaptation of its source material nor a superhero property, the last time one of the broadcast networks launched a DC property was The WB’s short-lived Birds of Prey… in 2002. Sure, The CW has flirted with more than one Smallville spin-off after passing on Aquaman, but they’ve never piloted any of them. Similarly, they’ve commissioned scripts based on Dick Grayson (aka Robin/Nightwing), Raven, and Deadman to name a few. None of them were lensed. Last year, Wonder Woman made it to pilot only to be soundly rejected by executives at NBC.

Things haven’t been any better for Marvel properties. The last time one of their characters made it to air was the Spike series Blade in 2006. Before that, it was the 1978 Spider-Man series. When Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, many of us assumed we would see a Marvel property on TV sooner rather than later, but that has yet to happen. AKA Jessica Jones couldn’t get past script stage at ABC and both Cloak and Dagger and Mockingbird appear to be dead at ABC Family.

My point is this; we can’t claim that comic adaptations don’t work on television, when so few have made it series in the last decade. Aquaman is a problematic pilot, for sure, but it may have become a terrific series. This fall, The CW will dip their tow back into the superhero pool with Arrow. If it’s successful, I suspect we’ll see a plethora of superhero series come down the pike, and I’m quite alright with that.

–WA

And my thoughts on the unaired Aquaman pilot:

Without trying to sound self-serving at all, let me just say that I really love these theme weeks because by the time we get to later in the week, the pieces start to interact with one another in really compelling ways. Wesley did a wonderful job of addressing some of the points that my guests and I failed to in the first three days of the week, points that now have me thinking.

While I agree with his assertion that we cannot ignore the sheer lack of comic superhero adaptations on television in recent years in our attempts to judge them as a whole, I do believe that that said lack helps support one of the week’s big thoughts thus far. I’m not one to automatically assume that network executives know what they’re doing or to “trust the process” as far as development goes, but isn’t the fact that many of these projects cannot get off the ground telling? Not entirely so, but certainly important nonetheless.

Plus, the handful of “original” (I use that term loosely) superhero-centric series to hit the airwaves in recent memory (Heroes, The Cape, No Ordinary Family to name the big ones) and their subsequent failure again supports this thesis that getting superheroes “right” on television* is not easy.**

*To be fair, we (read: I) stacked the deck a bit here by now tackling the one superhero series that actually worked (well, depending on your definition of “worked”), Smallville.

**Rowan Kaiser wrote a really great piece about the network’s failure on this front for The A.V. Club. Check it out.

Nevertheless, it’s not as if superhero stories are literally incapable of working on television, or that the networks are entirely to blame here. As we’ve addressed, superheroes are big business on the film side these days, which creates all sorts of challenges for television partners. For one, if media conglomerates are trying to get a film franchise starring a certain character (or group of characters) off the ground, that character is hands off to TV folks. The film project, which could bring in more money up front, gets protected. This happened all the time during Smallville’s run, where fans desperately asked for appearances by Bruce Wayne or Diana Prince, among others, but were denied because Warner Bros. and DC desperately wanted to re-start and start Batman and Wonder Woman film franchises.

Relatedly, the “saving” of certain characters for films means that television networks are stuck trying to strike when the iron’s hot with second- or even third- or fourth-rate characters mainstream audiences aren’t going to recognize. Take another look at many of the failed projects Wesley mentioned above. I bet most of the people who watched Human Target didn’t even know it was a comic first (I had honestly forgotten). I don’t even know who Deadman, Raven or Jessica Jones are. Arrow is likely getting its chance because Warner Bros. and DC are struggling to get non-Batman characters to work on film (see: Lantern, Green).

With all this in play, contemporary superheroes on television are stuck. If you’re interesting enough, you probably have a film franchise. If you’re not, you’re trying to get on television, but the interest isn’t that high anyway.

2006’s Aquaman is stuck somewhere in that murky area. Aquaman is the perfect character to build a television series around. The character is recognizable, but not on the upper-echelon of importance, as far as mass audiences go (i.e. he’s not Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, the X-Men and I guess now Iron Man). As Wesley noted, Aquaman’s origins aren’t totally codified and inflexible, meaning any changes in the adaptation could have worked as long as AC swam and still did “water stuff.”*

*I was going to say that Aquaman also HAD to be blonde, but America’s Aquaman is the immortal Vincent Chase, so there’s that.

And although this pilot is far from perfect, this is the only one of the four “straightforward” (i.e. not featuring WAM-POW-BOOM imagery) pilots I watched for this week that actually makes that approach work. Which, of course, means it is fitting that Aquaman failed to make it to series (despite all evidence to the contrary, as Wesley nicely outlined) because Dawn Ostroff was terrible at her job, literally, from day one.*

*The fact that Mark Pedowitz made sure to bring a superhero series to The CW’s schedule in his first year in charge is pretty telling to me. Something should have been paired with Smallville in its final few seasons (and again, it’s not like The C-Dub didn’t try, but still); Pedowitz knows what works for the network.  

Written, produced and directed by crucial members of the Smallville creative team, Aquaman plays, well, a lot like Smallville. Gough and Millar’s script isn’t good (no surprise there) and Wesley makes a great point about the glib nature of many of the events. Nevertheless, this pilot works because it tells a solid opening story that eschews a full-bore origin tale and instead fills in important parts on the fly. The backstory here is silly, but it’s not told in a didactic manner; the narrative is always moving forward in these opening 42 minutes.

And as someone completely unaware with a single Aquaman villain (other than dry land, hey-o!), layering in mythology about the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis and the sudden arrival of long-missing people (apparently the creators of Alcatraz have an iTunes account, or did in 2006) creates notable challenges that would have been awaiting AC in future episodes. Like The Flash, Aquaman is kind of a ridiculous, goofy character, but Gough and Millar don’t run from that. Though their script tries to give this story some gravitas (and sort of fails), it also mostly embraces the dumb fun in a story about a dude who can swim fast and breathe under water for a while. This pilot is pure popcorn entertainment, and I think it is aware of that fact – or at least doesn’t take itself that seriously.

Now, before it seems like that I only like comic book hero stories that are at least partially funny or self-aware, let me say that I would absolutely love for a network to bring a dark, complex version of these familiar stories to life. If a great writer could make something like Nolan’s Batman or even Rami’s Spider-Man (the first two only, obviously) work on television, I would be all for it.

The problem is that too many television projects attempt to reach that level of depth and just end up looking stupid on accident (can I interest you in The Flash?). I’m pretty sure this is what happened to The Cape, or, my reading of that series is wrong and it was the best comedy series of 2011. These are stories about people with extraordinary abilities and skills, oftentimes wearing outrageous outfits and saying terrible lines of dialogue. It’s really okay for the people involved to have some fun (without being completely stupid, of course), because that’s really all most of us watching want to do.

This is why I more or less enjoyed Aquaman. It’s unbelievably stupid, but well-constructed in its stupidity. Ving Rhames chews a shocking amount of scenery, Lou Diamond Phillips knows how to scowl disapprovingly in this pilot’s version of Jonathan Kent and it’s no surprise that The CW wanted to be in business with Justin Hartley after his work here. The character isn’t that well written on the page, but Hartley brings AC to life with his solid combination of wit, charm and moderate depth. Somehow, Hartley makes sure lines about speaking to dolphins delivered in a straightforward fashion hit okay and intense sequences where AC pours a pitcher of water on himself to power up are only moderately hilarious.

It’s hard to say what would have happened had Aquaman been picked up by The CW in 2006. Well, other than the fact that it would be entering its seventh(!) season this fall. More seriously though, it’s likely that the series would have done fine (for CW standards). Maybe Aquaman’s success would have convinced DC and Warner Bros. to push for more content on The CW, or elsewhere on television. But then what?

Returning to Wesley’s points and my initial thoughts, I still struggle to see what it would take for a superhero series to work on broadcast television. Smallville ran for 10 years, but never captured the mainstream consciousness that much, and it was about Superman, one of the most popular characters in the world. Sure, it was sometimes awful, but it was oftentimes populist fun.

Why is it that we’ve embraced the heck out of comic book heroes in film in an epic way, but mostly ignored them on the small screen? Is it simply that we’ve grown to expect superhero stories to be grand-scale events that television just cannot reproduce? Shouldn’t fans used to reading comic stories unfold in consecutive segments be comfortable with the long-form storytelling that television provides?

Most frustrating to me is that these film franchises we now love are constructed almost exactly like television series. Individual films always lead to something else, build to more and leave you waiting for the next installment – just like television (or a comic). This is a development that permeates throughout all popular film genres today, yet, the disparate successes of comic heroes on film and comic heroes on television is simply confounding, and Aquaman is yet another example of that confusion.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: Not groundbreaking, but certainly should have been ordered to series

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