Hindsight: The Dresden Files


(Experimenting with a slightly different Hindsight format here, because the precedented format is a bit…excessive for a show that only ran twelve episodes.)

Original Airdates: 2007-2008
Network: Syfy*
Creator: Jim Butcher, Hans Beimler, Robert Hewitt Wolfe

The Dresden Files, based on a series of novels by Jim Butcher, tells the story of Harry Dresden (Paul Blackthorne), private investigator/police consultant and wizard. His wand is a hockey stick – sometimes a drumstick for smaller jobs – , he fries technology with mere touches, and he is a terrible housekeeper. His best friend is the ghost of an ancient sorcerer called Bob (Terrence Mann). He is the go-to consultant for Chicago detective Connie Murphy (Valerie Cruz) for all things wild, weird, and exceptionally disgusting. Other recurring characters include Murphy’s partner/underling Kirmani (Raoul Bhaneja), magical High Council member Morgan (Conrad Coates), and Inarra Serra’s vampire twin Bianca (Joanne Kelly).

The cases investigated by Dresden and Murphy provide the backbone for most episodes and include such paranormal staples as vampires, werewolves, possession, ancient relics, and magically aided petty theft. There are a few series-long plot arcs involving the death of Harry Dresden’s uncle Justin Morningway (Daniel Kash), Dresden’s own flirtation with black magic and its addictive properties, and of course the unavoidable slow-burning almost-romance between the lead and his female “very close friend.”

STRENGTHS:

1) Paul Blackthorne
How good is Paul Blackthorne, exactly? I-was-so-impressed-that-I-went-and-looked-him-up-and-realized-he-is-someone-I’d-seen-before-who-I’d-already-been-really-impressed-by-but-I-didn’t-notice-because-the-character-was-so-different-from-the-previous-times good. He embodies the semi-slobby Chicagoan hero so completely, you’d never know he was actually a Brit. Nevermind the Brit who played the awesomely villainous Stephen Saunders of 24‘s Day 3. Blackthorne has a great ability for both comedy and emotion, physical and verbal. And he has the hallmark ability that assures my admiration for any actor, male or female: he convinces me that he is attractive, even when I don’t particularly think he is. Even when the other elements of the series get dull-verging-on-irritating, Paul Blackthorne’s performance maintains my interest.

2) Settings
The environments for this show are of an immense quality, exterior locations and interior dressed sets both. When the action or writing failed to hold my complete attention, just looking at the details and completeness of sets like Harry Dresden’s lab was more than enough to occupy me. Everything (or everywhere, rather) felt completely formed and perfectly suited to the purpose and mood of the locations and the scenes taking place within them. Neither costumes nor special effects are particularly worth mentioning for this series, but the settings give The Dresden Files a level of visual success worthy of note.

3) Solidity
In a very real way, The Dresden Files hits the ground running. There’s no toddler period where the actors and characters struggle to establish relationships with each other and with the story. You know who Harry Dresden is the moment he introduces himself, and you know that he knows himself as well. Even before you learn that Bob is a ghost, and long before it is explained that he was Harry’s teacher, you understand the relationship between the two of them. The series was lucky in that way, because at least there was no time in only twelve episodes wasted on a concerted effort to make old friends act like that’s what they are in a way that the audience believes. I believed from the beginning, and that’s pretty rare when you get right down to it.

WEAKNESSES

1) Episodes
The biggest struggle for me in watching this series was the fact that, of only twelve episodes, three of them were The Vampire Episode and The Werewolf Episode and The Ghost Episode. And, the really unfortunate part, none of these took particularly creative forms. The vampires are dull and predictable, cousins of the Buffyverse breed but without the teeth, so to speak. And when the Twilight werewolves rank as more inventive and interesting, well… Fact is, the format of American television requires a formula of 3/4 filler and 1/4 story. The story portion of The Dresden Files is great, absolutely. But it fails fairly epically at filler. And you can’t get ratings to continue on for more story when your filler sucks, nor is anyone going to care enough to try and help you.

2) Comprehensibility
This is maybe the unfortunate consequence of a few things coming together in a less-than-ideal way. The original pilot for The Dresden Files was actually cut down into Episode 8, which pushed a lot of exposition so far back that by the time it got to the audience, everyone with half a brain had put the bits together through pure intuition and also the scattered details that were desperately thrown into earlier episodes to make up for the fact that the entire set up of the world and story got thrown off. But even taking those things into account, there was just a lot that needed to be explained earlier and more clearly. Often I complain that series overcompensate for potential stupidity on the part of their viewers. It is the opposite case for The Dresden Files. It would be lovely to just have some linear presentation of basic facts. When Bob says “Did you remember your wand?” I’d like to not have to go “Wait. Is that the hockey stick? Or was it a drumstick? What?” until the object in question starts shooting blue lightning.

3) Fluff
Perhaps the greatest fault of the series is that it does not at any point demand to be taken seriously. If it was not explained that Harry Dresden has a dark past and dark addition to black magic, we would have no idea, simply because the sort of intensity implied in that situation is never presented. We don’t see Dresden struggle with it – or, at the very least, not in any way that for even the briefest moment we worry he might succumb to his sinful side. Asking the audience to worry about Dresden’s struggle with the darkside is like asking someone to be afraid for their life in a lasertag arena. It’s a pretty simple concept that The Dresden Files fails to realize: no risk, no reward (no renewal).

BEST EPISODE: “Birds of a Feather”

http://www.hulu.com/embed/FVkwav-D_WHxPKiDnnCKDg

This episode became the pilot for the series after “Storm Front” was cut in half and shuffled back to the end of the series, and it made a great first introduction. This is the one episode where concrete storytelling and innovation really worked. We see Harry Dresden as an adult and as a child echoed in an adult. We also get not one, but two pretty original magical creatures, the skinwalkers and the anthropomorphized crows (the speaking voice of the latter is possibly my favorite thing that happened over the entire course of the series because it is just so perfectly done). It’s a successful episode, especially as a pilot, because it really does inspire curiosity and induce you to watch more of the series. Not least because it implies a future storyline (one that never comes to fruition, but still).

WORST EPISODE: “Bad Blood”

http://www.hulu.com/embed/qrIMzde6LPevASXoyKGl2w

aka, The Vampire Episode. The concept is tired, the vampires are uninteresting, the end is predictable…as is much of the middle. If there are any great one-liners or jokes to redeem this episode, I’ve forgotten about them. The episode isn’t terrible, but it is pretty boring. If you have ever seen any episode of any series remotely involving any creature vaguely reminiscent of a vampire, you have seen “Bad Blood.” Ditto if you’ve ever seen something involving gang/turf/drug conflicts and scantily clad women.

There’s an uncomfortable dichotomy to my opinion of The Dresden Files. I enjoyed it so much while I was watching, but I wasn’t disappointed when I hit the last episode and that was all. I really struggled to come up with three “strengths” of this show that were in fact strong enough to incorporate into this post. Not because the series is bad, but because there is almost nothing fantastic enough to be worth mention.

The mark of a great series is often that, when it ends, no matter how much there has been of it, you still want more. A few excellent elements aside, there’s nothing to make me wish for more of this show. I’m curious about the books, maybe, but mostly because I’m hoping the television series didn’t do them justice and that they contain the meaty story I was missing all twelve episodes. I don’t say this to discourage anyone from watching; this half-season is worth watching. It lives out its welcome exactly, without leaving too early or staying too long. And maybe that’s the secret to a different sort of great television.

*When The Dresden Files aired, the network was still branded as Sci-Fi.

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Comments

  • Boycool  On January 8, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    Please do a Hindsight: Chuck in late January or early February. Thanks.

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