Superheroic Judge Brett Cullum has red-laser vision, and he can hear in 5.1 channels of sound.
Boy the '90s were trippy for weekly crime thrillers, thanks in large part to the supernatural success of The X-Files. Most networks weren't content to have a normal hero—we had to have superheros like Fox's The Pretender, a vigilante that could imitate anyone thanks to a lab experiment gone wrong. Not to be outdone, UPN launched The Sentinel about a guy with hyped up sensory perception the same year in 1996. It lasted for 65 episodes, and was a fan favorite that developed a loyal, vocal base of supporters. Still, it never was a true ratings success in the traditional sense. But now, seven years after it was canceled, The Sentinel: The Complete First Season appears on DVD featuring all ten of the midseason replacement's freshman batch of shows.
Facts of the Case
Some people have good hearing or a great sense of smell. Thanks to a year and a half in a Peruvian jungle, Jim Ellison (Richard Burgi, Desperate Housewives) has all five senses on overdrive. He was a special forces operative who survived a horrific plane crash in the wilds of South America. The series picks up five years later when Jim works as a detective in the fictional Cascade, Washington (a subtle substitute for Seattle which feared being labeled a crime city if the show was set there). He partners up with an anthropology student named Blair Sandburg (Garett Maggart, Because I Said So) who tries to help him come to understand and hone his superhuman powers. Blair determines that the cop is now a "Sentinel"—an evolutionary throwback of genetically superior warrior-hunters who protected early tribes of man. Together they work under Captain Simon Banks (Bruce A. Young, Jurassic Park III), a proactive African American police chief who plays hardball in pursuing criminals. The first season relies on ten standalone episodes that work to introduce all of The Sentinel's powers, such as: hearing so finely tuned he can pick up a radio on a car fleeing a scene, touch so sensitive he can discern burnt plastic ashes from wood, vision so keen he rarely needs binoculars to spot his target, smell so acute it can discern anybody in the dark, and taste that makes paprika unbearable. I'm not sure how that last one comes in handy other than as a diet aid to keep him away from Taco Bell, but the man is a super-sensitive, walking crime lab.
Ellison is played convincingly by Richard Burgi, who is enjoying a career high by playing Susan's (Terri Hatcher) ex-husband on Desperate Housewives. Here's where he cut his teeth on prime time drama after a failed series in 1994 called One West Waikiki. Richard has been acting for almost three decades, and has had stints on soaps like Another World and Days of Our Lives. He was nearing forty when The Sentinel first hit the airwaves, and it seems hard to believe a decade later he's looking just as good on Desperate Housewives. My gossip connections in Los Angeles claim he's a super sweet guy who is in a happy marriage that has survived over a decade (that's probably good for thirty years of marital bliss anywhere else on the planet). He's got a buff body, rugged profile, and piercing blue eyes. Yeah, I kind of hate him for all that. Burgi is one of the reasons the series actually works because he's so convincing and committed to the character. He gives Ellison a gravitas that elevates the proceedings above its own gimmick, allowing action and emotional turmoil to bubble up in his performance.
The supporting players are the usual suspects for a crime thriller with a buddy cop formula. Blair Sandburg is played by Garett Maggart, who was cast as the grunge slacker scholarly sidekick along for the ride. His character sports long hair and possesses a super-honed sense of sarcasm to balance Ellison's super seriousness. Then there's the black captain played by Bruce A. Young (who has a buzz cut which evolves into a bald look) who tows the line of authority. He quickly suspects his best officer is operating with something more than just normal cop instincts. I really enjoyed the supporting cast, and casting assistant Jennifer Wilson deserves a lot of credit. All of the acting is above what you would expect to find from a simple action show.
Another aspect that elevates the show above normal television is the writing. For a series that could have easily sank into a one trick pony formula, they find new, interesting ways to engage the idea of a detective with advanced senses throughout all ten of these episodes. Usually with the format established formulas emerge, but The Sentinel avoids that trap nicely by keeping everything unpredictable. The writers delve in to each character's back story, weaving in human drama such as divorces and lost family members to inform us of why these characters react the way they do. I admired the show for following an intense action scene with frank discussions about personal lives which made the material seem richer and more fully realized.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fans seem to be excited about the series finally arriving on DVD, but the jumping for joy may subside when they get their hands on the Paramount set. The Sentinel: The Complete First Season offers only the episodes with no extras. It's as bare bones as they come. Worse still, the visual transfer isn't stunning. It has easily detectable grain throughout the episodes that mucks up the night scenes, and hints of edge enhancement scattered throughout. The stereo audio transfer is fine, even if it's a bit high on the treble and lacking serious bass. The packaging seems hastily put together: Garett Maggart is credited as "Garrett," a typo that ironically also appeared in the pilot's opening sequence. You get a cardboard slip cover housing three single sided DVDs in plastic slim cases with four episodes on the first two and two on the last. There's certainly a lot of room for either higher bit rate delivery or some well placed extras. It's kind of a cheat when you consider you only get ten episodes with nothing to support them.
UPN was never known for its production values. The Sentinel: The Complete First Season sports silly attempts at CGI special effects and all-too-traditional camera moves. The weakest part of the series is when the action tries to amp up to Mission Impossible levels of razzle dazzle, but just ends up looking like a poorly executed, syndicated television series. For every smart move a script provides, it quickly undermines itself with a cheesed out shot of someone dangling from a helicopter on a bad green screen process. It also looks a lot less stylish than all those Jerry Bruckheimer CSI franchises. The cinematography makes sparse use of the Washington setting, and looks far too much like Canada (where it was filmed) to convince me otherwise. I kept waiting for the mounties to come galloping up and help out at any second.
All gripes aside, The Sentinel makes for engaging viewing despite its gimmick. Although the whole "superhuman sensory perception" angle factors in to the show, it doesn't always hinge on it. Thankfully the writers cranked out some solid entertainment in the hour long episodes and the series was smarter than it needed to be. I wouldn't say it was as engaging as some other shows in the era, but it personified what was good about late '90s television. It was light, had just the right amount of grit, and kept things moving at an amiable clip. Richard Burgi certainly has the acting chops to pull the whole thing off believably, and he's a great action hero. He's tough enough to make guys want to be him, and easy enough on the eyes to make women swoon. He doesn't kick like Chuck Norris in Walker, Texas Ranger, but then again who does?
Guilty of being entertaining lightweight fare, The Sentinel is an engaging fantasy that survived on a goofy gimmick coupled with some above average writing and a strong leading man. It didn't change the face of television, but it sure made things fun for about four years.
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