Judge Jim Thomas wanted to extol the virtues of a good magic wand, but it just sounded so dirty.
"My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I'm a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I'm the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under 'Wizards'. Believe it or not, I'm the only one there." -from Storm Front, the first novel of The Dresden Files.
Based on a series of books by Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files was initially developed as a theatrical movie. But Keanu Reeves and Constantine hit the big screen first, and Lionsgate didn't think the world was ready for another movie about a wizard detective. So they shifted gears and developed the concept as a television series for the SciFi Channel. It ran for a single season, getting pretty good ratings for its late Sunday timeslot, but got cancelled nevertheless, to the extreme annoyance of Butcher's loyal fan base. (Full disclosure: Your judge is a member of said fanbase.)
Lionsgate brings the complete series to DVD in a three-disc set. So, does Dresden conjure up the goods, or is the series led astray by a few too many wizards stirring the cauldron?
Facts of the Case
A supernatural subculture thrives all around us, full of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and worse. Much worse. Humanity goes about its business, blissfully unaware, the supernatural goes about its business, and most of the time, never the twain shall meet. When they do, the High Council, a ruling body of wizards, steps in to maintain order, meting out swift, sure, and on occasion, even fair justice.
Harry Dresden (Paul Blackthorne, 24) is one of Chicago's resident wizards. The High Council doesn't really trust Harry, perhaps with good reason: Five years ago, Harry broke one of the most inviolate of laws, using black magic to kill his uncle. Normally, Harry would have been summarily executed, but he got off on a technicality—it was self-defense. Nevertheless, the Council does not trust him; in fact, Morgan (Conrad Coates), a High Council Warden, tends to keep an eye on Harry, hoping that one day he will find justification to execute Harry on the spot.
Tensions between Harry and the Council are further exacerbated because Harry doesn't hide in the shadows like the rest of the wizarding world. He's an openly practicing wizard, specializing in finding lost items and missing persons. To make ends meet, he acts as a paid consultant to the Chicago PD. Lt. Connie Murphy (Valerie Cruz, Nip/Tuck) calls him in on cases that don't seem to make any sense. Murphy doesn't believe in magic, but Harry usually gets results, and that's all that matters to Murphy.
Harry's other ally is Bob (Terrence Mann, A Chorus Line), a cursed ghost with a wealth of magical lore at his disposal—which is pretty much the only reason Harry puts up with his snarky attitude.
As I've been painfully reminded during the fall TV premieres, you can have great writing, you can have crappy writing, but if your leads can't sell it, you've got nothing (**cough**Bionic Woman**cough**). These guys sell their characters completely. Paul Blackthorne somehow manages an odd mix of boyish charm and world-wearyness. You feel Harry's anguish when someone he's protecting is hurt, despite his best efforts. Valerie Cruz is a typical no-nonsense cop in atypical situations, struggling to make sense of the craziness around her. Everything she sees points to the conclusion that magic is real, but that can't be right…can it? Furthermore, Cruz and Blackthorne have great on-screen chemistry, and you can easily imagine the relationship developing into either a strong friendship or something more intimate. Cruz' character suffers from too little screen time; by the time she fulfills her functions as representative of the CPD, there's precious little time to spend on her relationship with Harry, or her coming to terms with the reality of magic. Finally, Terrance Mann steals almost every scene he's in as Bob, a role that all-too easily could have been Bert Viola in Moonlighting's "Atomic Shakespeare," lamenting "Is it my fault I get stuck with all the exposition?" Mann, a stage veteran who originated the Broadway roles of the Rum Tum Tugger in Cats, Inspector Javert in Les Miserables, AND The Beast in Beauty and the Beast, has tremendous presence, an invaluable asset for a character who cannot physically interact with those around him.
To boost the review's UI (Useless Information) quotient, let me add that the series features an Englishman (Blackthorne) doing a solid American accent alongside an American (Mann, who's from Kentucky) doing a solid English accent. You're welcome.
The show, wisely, does not adhere slavishly to the books, keeping things that work well for television, and dropping things that don't. One change that works is Harry's wardrobe. Instead of book-Harry's black leather duster and honest-to-Gandalf wizard's staff, our Harry wears pretty nondescript clothes, and wields a mean hockey stick—and in a few eps, a drumstick (the drumming kind, not the eating kind). The overall effect gives Harry a not particularly intimidating appearance, making it much easier for people to dismiss both him and the idea of magic. When you get right down to it, Harry looks pretty damn silly brandishing his drumstick while entering a room.
The episodes are generally solid. There are a variety of supernatural beings, from the more traditional werewolves to more surreal beings such as skinwalkers, who kill people and, obviously, walk around in their skin. There is some scary stuff in these episodes. The writers avoid traditional monster stories, without veering anywhere near the borderline camp plots of the original The Night Stalker.
There are also hot vampire chicks, and you just can't go wrong with hot vampire chicks.
The mysteries are well thought out and, once the truth is revealed, make sense within the show's continuity. At times the narratives are a little rushed, but that's natural for a first season. As the writers gained experience, they would have incorporated backstory and exposition into the scripts more efficiently.
Episode titles are followed by the production number, indicating the order in which the episodes were filmed. The discs play the episodes in broadcast order; however, newcomers to the series should really watch the episodes in production order (See the Rebuttal Witnesses).
"The Boone Identity" (104)
"Hair of the Dog" (105)
"Rules of Engagement" (102)
"Soul Beneficiary" (108)
"Storm Front" (101)
"What About Bob?" (109)
"Things That Go Bump" (111)
"Second City" (112)
Video quality is excellent. The show makes extensive use of lighting to establish atmosphere, and all the subtleties of the lighting are rendered clearly, particularly in Harry's apartment and workshop, which feature a lot of oil and candlelight. At times there is evidence of grain in the darker scenes, but that's more a function of the film stock than the transfer.
The 5.1 Dolby soundmix is impressive. A show like this relies a lot on ambient sound for mood and tension, and the sound imaging is first rate, filling the room while keeping the dialog focused in the center channel. There are no subtitles available, though closed-captioning is supported.
The two episode commentaries are a bit on the chatty side, but it's clear that all three participants enjoyed working one the show a great deal. There is a lot if interesting stuff about camera angles and set design, though, demonstrating that director Michael Grossman is a very detail-oriented guy. He pointed out a lot of little hints and clues that had been deliberately worked into the various scenes to suggest what might be coming up next, whether though lighting, or judicious prop placement.
Overall, there's a lot to like about this set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One word: Extras.
You might have noticed that the production number of the eighth episode, "Storm Front," is 101, indicating that it was the very first episode filmed (The first digit denotes the season, while the second two denote the episode number within that season. So, episode 213 would be the 13th episode of the second season). In fact, it was filmed as a two-hour pilot, based on the first Dresden novel. The idea was that the two hours would provide some additional time to establish some important backstory and get the series off to a good start. After the pilot had been finished, SciFi and Lionsgate decided to make some changes. That in itself isn't a problem—it happens all the time. One of the changes was changing Bob into a ghost, in order to provide Harry with a human presence with which to interact (initially, Bob was a talking skull, as in the books).
No, the problems began when someone decided not to air the pilot, in its entirety, as a series premiere, but rather to turn "Storm Front" into a regular 1-hour episode. Not a two-parter, mind you, but a one-hour episode. (I can only conclude that someone at the SciFi Channel realized that "Storm Front" would be a good original TV movie, and the available evidence suggests that those are not allowed on the SciFi Channel (but that's a rant for another place and time)).
Here's a little exercise for you: Take a standard 90-minute movie, and edit it down to 45 minutes. Just how coherent is the result? Next, how long is it going to take you to figure out how to edit that poor episode so that a viewer at least has a fighting chance of following the plot? And finally, consider all the material that fell to the cutting room floor. The Facts of the Case clearly establish that there's a LOT of backstory here, and the two-hour movie would have been the perfect venue to establish key components of the story. Instead, we get a truncated episode with a number of obvious narrative gaps and jarring transitions.
That mistake was compounded by more mistakes. Because of the additional time needed to re-edit "Storm Front," it was not going to be ready for the series premiere. In a clumsy attempt to finesse the problem, they picked an episode that they thought would be a good introduction to the character-"Birds of a Feather"-and then rearranged the remaining episodes. "Storm Front" got dropped in towards the end, which caused some inconsistencies. The show isn't a full-blown serial, but there are some serial elements to it. The most obvious of these is Murphy's growing realization that magic is real. By rearranging the episodes, Murphy comes off looking a little addle-pated, on the verge of acceptance in one episode, then back to total denial the next. There are similar inconsistencies with Harry's relationship to the High Council, but the Council's mercurial nature mitigates those inconsistencies to a large degree.
Furthermore, because of the changes made to the series between the pilot and the rest of the episodes, there is a decidedly different look-Harry apartment is filmed in a completely different manner, he has a different car-hell, he even has a cat.
That original two-hour pilot symbolizes a lot of the missteps Lionsgate and SciFi made with the series. And it also symbolizes a problem with the DVD set—the pilot is not on it. Lionsgate initially announced that the pilot would be included, but at the last minute decided leave it out without announcing the change. I've read speculation that there may have been legal issues involved. More likely, including the pilot would have necessitated a fourth disc, and Lionsgate didn't want the additional expense. Whatever the reason, the pilot isn't there, and the set is substantially weaker for it. And if there were absolutely no way to include the entire pilot, a viable alternative would have been to provide an additional commentary track for the aired episode—one that touched on what was changed and why.
Also included are a paltry three deleted scenes—two from "Rules of Engagement," one of which is a classic Harry-Bob discussion that should have been shoehorned into the aired episode by any means necessary, and features the only appearance of Harry's cat (named Mister in the novels) apart from "Storm Front." The other is forgettable, as is the third, a 5-second clip from "Hair of the Dog." Really, they weren't even trying here.
Lionsgate and The SciFi Channel didn't realize what a good thing they had going with The Dresden Files. Instead of supporting the series, giving it time to grow into its potential, they neglected it. They even cancelled it neglectfully, dragging their heels on the matter for so long that Paul Blackthorne had no other choice but to sign on with another series, at which point SciFi Channel just said, "well he's not coming back, so we guess the show is cancelled."
For failing to deliver the advertised 2-hour pilot, Lionsgate is hereby sentenced to reside inside Bob's skull until it learns a lesson about fulfilling its promises. The SciFi Channel can join Lionsgate in the skull for its criminal mishandling of a show with a wealth of potential.
The verdict may seem a little harsh, but that's High Council justice—swift and brutal.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary for two episodes
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