Judge Ben Saylor is stocking up on ibuprofen after sitting through this subpar T.V. series.
I was supposed to die that day…I didn't.
Television history is littered with shows that have caught on with a relatively small but loyal fan base: the original Star Trek, Arrested Development, Firefly, etc. These shows, despite the qualities that endear them to their fans, are generally cancelled before their time, and go on to have a great cult—or even popular—following.
Painkiller Jane is not one of those shows.
Facts of the Case
DEA Agent Jane Vasco (Kristanna Loken, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) is recruited by a top-secret government unit that hunts human beings known as "Neuros"—short for neurological aberrants. Neuros have the ability to manipulate their surroundings and/or other people with their minds. Also on the team are Jane's old DEA partner Maureen Bowers (Alaina Huffman), the tough, Neuro-hating Connor King (Noah Danby), tech geek Riley Jensen (Sean Owen Roberts), the compassionate Dr. Seth Carpenter (Stephen Lobo), and team leader Andre McBride (Rob Stewart, Sweating Bullets). Throughout the course of the season, Jane must contend not only with Neuros, but also with her own mysterious ability to heal from any injury.
The first (and what appears will be the only) season of Painkiller Jane is spread out across six discs as follows:
Painkiller Jane, based on a series of comic books by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada, is a hodgepodge of different science fiction ideas. One that immediately comes to mind is Blade Runner, as the world of both that film and Jane involves one group of people hunting another group of people who have special abilities that make them dangerous. And don't think the show isn't aware of that; the name of the disused subway station where Jane and her teammates have their command center is Deckard Street Station. In addition, in both Painkiller Jane and Blade Runner, the central characters question whether they are one of the targets they are hunting. On a basic level, Jane's ability to heal quickly is reminiscent of Wolverine from X-Men.
Other sci fi concepts are brought to mind within individual episodes. "Something Nasty in the Neighborhood," about a Neuro who brainwashes an entire community into one big (seemingly) happy family, is somewhat reminiscent of The Stepford Wives. And "Friendly Fire," in which Jane wakes up in a hospital and is accused of killing Riley, kind of reminded me of The Prisoner in the way that the antagonist creates an elaborate ruse in an attempt to trick the protagonist into revealing sensitive information.
Unfortunately, Painkiller Jane never lives up to any of its genre antecedents. Filled with stock characters, marginally compelling scripts, and just-okay performances, it's not hard to see why the show didn't catch on.
First of all, we've seen these characters before. Jane is the tough-but-vulnerable heroine, who is, unfortunately, prone to dime-store philosophizing, which we get to hear in the form of the cringe-inducing voiceovers Loken delivers at the beginning and end of episodes. Through these moments, we are treated to such nuggets of wisdom as, "The thing about dreams is they can turn into nightmares faster than you can click your high heels," and "You know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Maybe it's the same way with people." If that weren't enough, in the episode "Lauren Gray," Jane goes undercover as a supermodel and begins questioning her appearance, even confiding her insecurities to her boyfriend. I find it extremely hard to believe that anyone as hot as Loken would seriously be insecure about her looks. I feel justified in arguing that point because we get to see a lot of Loken's body on this show, whether she's in her underwear or in the shower. Loken even jokes about the shower scenes on one of the commentary tracks, saying, "We gotta sell the show somehow."
All the other characters are cardboard cutouts: the tough guy (Connor), the tech geek (Riley), the no-nonsense, secret-softy team leader (Andre), etc. None of the actors is terrible, but none of their characters is fleshed out, and there's no excuse for that, as the show's writers had 22 episodes to build these characters.
Something else that's sort of frustrating about Painkiller Jane is that in its first episode, it seems to be setting up a running storyline for the season centered around the mysterious Vonotek company, but then more or less jettisons it until the last few episodes. Thus, most of the episodes end up being "Neuro of the Week." There's apparently no limit to what Neuros can do, and no one Neuro is like another, meaning the writers had plenty of freedom; unfortunately, they largely squander these expansive creative boundaries with tired, generic sci fi plots. Most of the episodes are at least moderately entertaining, but they also remind you that other shows and movies have explored these concepts much, much better. In one episode, "Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself," the team stays in an old house that conjures up each team member's greatest fear. And in the afore-mentioned "Friendly Fire," Jane is duped into believing she murdered one of her team members, a premise that is never believable, even from the beginning. Similarly, in "Catch Me If You Can," a Neuro who can predict the future foresees the deaths of three of Jane's team members. Evidently, the Neuro didn't know that his episode was only the fourth of the season, and that bumping off half the cast that soon in the run wasn't very likely.
Speaking of bumping off cast members, one is dispatched in "Something Nasty in the Neighborhood." By the next episode, "The League," the only way that we would know that person is no longer with the show is by their absence from the opening credits. Within the episode itself, I don't think the character is mentioned once, and none of the rest of the team seems to be having trouble coping with the loss.
In addition, the show's visual style, which is made up of lots of quick cuts and MTV-style camera moves that seem commonplace on television these days, gets old fast. The show's sets and locations also smack of a low budget (although the old house in "Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself" is impressive).
Anchor Bay's DVD package of Painkiller Jane certainly isn't the best I've seen for a short-lived TV show (or any show for that matter). The image seems too dark at times, although that could be the way it was shot. No subtitles are included, and for extras, we get a five-and-a-half minute making of featurette from when the show filmed in Budapest for its last four episodes, along with a pair of commentary tracks. The commentaries, which appear on "Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself" and "Something Nasty in the Neighborhood," are both done by Loken and Danby. The two have a nice, joking rapport, but for some reason, they explain the entire premise of the show at the start of each episode, which makes no sense, as "Fear" is the fifth episode in the set and "Neighborhood" is the twelfth. There are sizable gaps in the tracks, and sometimes they just explain what we're watching. The six discs are housed in three slim cases with identical cover art. Episode synopses are printed on the back of each case, and the three cases go into a cardboard sleeve that is decorated with what I assume is supposed to be Jane, but looks nothing like Loken.
Painkiller Jane is a middling, unoriginal sci fi series that is only occasionally interesting. Anchor Bay doesn't help matters with its lackluster DVD package.
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