Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger found this viewing dreary, and it left him weak and weary.
"I just think that when you have a series where there isn't a clear vision, and where the actors hate each other and don't trust each other…it was a mess. It was an awful, painful mess."—David Abramowitz
To be honest, I dreaded watching this show. After watching the final season of Highlander: The Series degenerate into a morass of poorly executed ripoffs of ripoffs of ripoffs of a spinoff idea, I held little anticipation for Highlander: The Raven. To my surprise, the first episode, though predictable and riddled with television clichés, was much better than I expected. It gave me hope for the rest of the show. That hope was soon dashed on the rocky shores of Scotland. The show is worse than my sour outlook could have fathomed. And yet, there is something singularly compelling about this boxed set, something that makes its $40 street price worth considering.
"The directors sometimes were more interested in trying to force a moment than letting it be spontaneous, and to me that's…it makes me feel cheap."—Paul Johansson
Facts of the Case
Amanda Derieux (Elizabeth Gracen, Marked for Death) is a highly skilled immortal thief. Hot on her trail is Nick Wolfe (Paul Johansson, Edge of Madness), a particularly gifted cop with a firm moral center. Amanda is about to discover that her flights of fancy are not the road to self-actualization, that perhaps more reverence and gravity are called for in her life. Nick's realization is more tangible: He works for a corrupt department, and if he wants to remain a good guy he'll need to leave it behind.
The two form an uneasy alliance, confronting evil and defeating it, whether it be caused by mortal or immortal hands. All the while, Amanda's trusty housemate Lucy (Patricia Gage, Dinner at Fred's) is on hand to provide comic relief and moral support.
"The difficulty I had was…because we had no real direction that made a lot of sense to me."—Elizabeth Gracen
You might remember Amanda, the comely cutpurse who periodically dropped by to complicate Duncan MacLeod's life. Where did Amanda go when she wasn't getting MacLeod up to his ponytail in trouble? What treasures did she plunder? What callers did she entertain? How did she flirt her way into and out of danger and excitement? If you want answers to these enticing questions, don't watch Highlander: The Raven; it is the cinematic equivalent of a shoehorn forcing Shaq's feet into a petite pair of pumps.
The producers and writers had an idea: spin the Highlander series off into a tale about an Immortal ass-kicking female vigilante and her capable mortal lover. It would be an edgy show, full of attitude and black leather. Mortal concerns would weigh as heavily as Immortal concerns. The Rules could be crisscrossed and bent because a mortal was in the mix. So, in Highlander: The Series, Season Six the producers introduced a handful of potential actresses to don the Raven mantle. None of these women fit the bill, so Elizabeth Gracen was promoted to series lead. The loss of the "immortals" mythology and the focus on action adventure was mainly a demand from the German network that co-financed the show: They didn't have the original series, and wanted to make sure that the spinoff was "different."
"It evolved this way as the chemistry between Elizabeth and Paul started to disintegrate, and in fairness, as the chemistry between Elizabeth and the rest of the show started to disintegrate."—Bill Panzer
At this point, one of the realities should have given way. Writers, directors, and most importantly Gracen herself had spent six years forging Amanda's character. As characters go, hers was straightforward: troublemaking minx. We might not know the details, but we had a pretty clear idea of what Amanda was up to when not under Duncan's watchful eye. She usually had police, rogues, or jilted lovers hot on her trail. We can assume that she wasn't a bastion of morality. Yet that is what the new concept called for.
"If people would have backed off and let me run with the show, I would've. But I think the show was flawed from the beginning."—David Abramowitz
They did not recast the lead to better suit their vision for Highlander: The Raven. Nor did they alter that vision. The result is a distinctly uncomfortable erosion of the Amanda we know centered in a drifting premise. The writing is below the common denominator, using clichés in the blandest ways. For example, one episode has Nick casually remark that he was on the bomb squad for six months. Do you think there will be a bomb later? Do you think Nick will have to run to intercept it in time? Will he have to choose which wire to pull? Will he stop the detonation countdown at .01 seconds? Will the relieved crowd of onlookers reward him with a golf clap? These are just idle ruminations…surely nothing that hackneyed would happen in a Highlander episode.
The chemistry between the two leads is rudimentary at best, with little to no character development. Essentially, we aren't holding our breath in anticipation of anything. There are no sparks of connection that make us want to see their next step together. Elizabeth Gracen is a poised, charismatic woman, and she somehow creates winning moments in the sea of drudgery that is The Raven. Hannes Jaenicke, a German actor who lives in Los Angeles, was supposed to have just one guest appearance. But he made a big impression on the producers and was brought back numerous times specifically because they thought Paul Johansson didn't work in the role.
"The chemistry between them was dead…We might have made a casting mistake." David Abramowitz
The creative team seems to have abandoned the elements that made Highlander: The Series so effective. Amanda gets few flashbacks in the first half of the series, and the ones that are there rarely form a centrally informative connection to the plot at hand. It's like exposition set in the past. The swordfights are lackluster. Nick's relative weight is unequal to the interest we have in his life. With few exceptions, the episodes in this series suppress the creative Highlander elements and supplant them with grating television clichés.
"Raven was not fun. There was a lot of tension, and it was very hard for stuff to take off. It wasn't fun. It was a tough show to do. Everything was very professional, unwarm, and unfriendly. It was not the spirit of [Highlander]."—Dennis Barry
There were exceptions. Of the early episodes, "So Shall Ye Reap" and "Crime and Punishment" string together plausible stories set in the present, which allows both Nick and Amanda to play key parts. David Abramowitz mentions that he's (rightfully) proud of "The Unknown Soldier," an episode that takes Amanda's nature into account, provides dire consequences for her flippancy, and helps explain her newfound emphasis on restraint. But the best episode of the bunch is "War and Peace." It wholly recaptures the magic of classic Highlander through carefully staged flashbacks, compelling moral questions, Immortal ethics, and amazing stunt work. (Either Elizabeth became much more sword-savvy as the season went on, or they decided to use stunt women. In any case, the later sword battles are distinct improvements over the early ones.) "Crime and Punishment" cohesively includes Nick, and provides a terse standoff involving both mortals and Immortals.
Despite these reprieves, the style of the show is somehow off, the music awkward, the direction formless. Annoying trends from the last two seasons of Highlander have been given free reign, such as the inexplicable emphasis on light comedy. I could go on as a critic and Highlander fan. But I'll leave it, because in a moment we'll get to the truly compelling part of this boxed set.
"One of the weak areas we had was in the music…It was like pulling teeth to get him [the composer] to do what had to be done."—Don Paonessa
For now let's discuss the technical quality of the disc. The show has a unique visual style, embracing the lower contrast of the television medium by truncating the value range. Slight fisheye effects distort our perspective. Snappy cuts and camera angles give the show a kinetic feel. Personally, I found the net effect distasteful and distracting, but I give the Highlander creative team full marks for coming up with a watermark visual style. The transfer carries the concept across well, bypassing its predecessor series in detail, clarity, and smoothness. There is some edge enhancement, but digital artifacts are not as bad as in Highlander: The Series.
The boxed set gives us a 5.1 remix that is empty in the center. Dialogue is difficult to glean; effects feel muffled and off to the sides. I downmixed to 2.0 in order to hear what was being said, and though the pseudo-mix did not snap into cohesiveness, it was at least sonically legible.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
And now for the hook: "Highlander Confidential: The Unraveling of a Series." This extensive featurette spans eight discs. It features interviews with the directors, actors, producers, creative consultants, and other crew members who helped make the show. When I first saw that title, I thought to myself "Do they realize what that title implies? The 'unraveling' of a series is not flattering." And yet that is precisely the intent. The entire featurette explains, in detailed, brutal honesty, why the show fell apart. Fantastic extras and honesty have been hallmarks of the Anchor Bay Highlander sets, and that tradition is carried to the ultimate level here.
"It was a little bit crazy on her part, a little bit desperate and self-destructive."—Dennis Barry
Did you ever see one of those featurettes where the director talks about what a professional everyone is, and the actors talk about how marvelous their co-stars are, and they polish the work in question until it gives off a rosy glow? In such featurettes, even if an actor despises another, he'll talk about how dedicated she is or find something neutral to say.
"For lack of a better word, let's say she was cutting him off at the knees."—Karen Harris
None of that here, thank you. Accustomed to such fluff pieces, I was shocked to hear the words being spoken in this featurette. Each utterance was more scintillating than the last. Bill Panzer criticized Paul Johansson for his expressions of (rightful) anger. Johansson criticizes the writing and Elizabeth's attitude. David Abramowitz says he was drained working on the set and flat out of juice; he compares working on Highlander: The Raven to the mythic labor of Sisyphus. Director Dennis Barry says that it was the worst time he's ever had working on any project, ever. And everyone talks about how professional, but stark raving neurotic, Elizabeth Gracen was. Not gently teasing, but talking about her break with reality, and how she was being manipulated by a sociopath boyfriend who had her convinced that the government and mafia were after her. Lest you fear that people have turned on poor Elizabeth, she pipes up to agree that she was a loon and was completely on another planet, being distant from everyone, wrapped up in paranoia. By all accounts, it was an awful situation.
"I believed he was a very bad person because I was living with this psychopath who told me that he knew all of this 'information' about it."—Elizabeth Gracen
Just when I started to think that they'd said all there was to say, more was revealed. The lead composer missed his marks and went out drinking instead of composing music. The boyfriend posed as the Ambassador to the Cayman Islands—from the Vatican. Elizabeth was convinced that Paul was a CIA plant there to spy on her. Paul would drop his pants on set and may have hit on Elizabeth, even though she detested him utterly. The litany goes on and on. Each accusation is more outrageous than the last.
You wonder if these people still respect each other, wonder why they aren't worried about carping on their coworkers. But the truth is unavoidable: They very well might not respect each other after the fiasco. They aren't worried at all: The series, the creative team, and the cast are unraveled, and may be without hope of reconciliation. Viewers will certainly detect hints of distaste and looks of outright disgust as people discuss the wretched hell of a show they were involved in.
It will be a long time before I again witness a featurette this brutal, honest, and forthcoming. Oh, there's also blooper reels and such.
The Raven was a precursor to many of the shows we're enjoying today, such as Alias. It crafted strong moments, particularly in the last half of the season, when it began to revert to methods forged over years of Highlander production (to the dismay of costar Paul Johansson, who by this point was probably ready to burst a brain artery). But the strengths of the show came far too late to salvage a deeply broken, limp, uninspired series, a series riddled with poor writing, bad dialogue, stilted chemistry, and a nasty case of behind-the-scenes purgatory.
The Raven is henceforth grounded, pending flight authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.
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