I had not heard much about this, but what little I did, I liked. A show about two government agents assigned out of the blue to a cross between area 51 and that warehouse in Indiana Jones? And then they have adventures and squabble with each other? Sounds like fun. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, actually. Even bad shows can be good if they’re fun or funny enough, intentionally or not.
There are three ways a show like this can go:
§ It can have a purposefully silly (and surreal) premise, and have a lot of throw-away curiosities which will never be questioned or resolved. It adds color and can be fun. Anything, no matter how crazy or improbable can happen and probably will. (The Middleman, Doctor Who, Pushing Daisies).
§ It can take its premise mostly seriously, and have questions only lead to more questions.. Anything, no matter how improbable, can happen as long as it adds to the mystery. (Lost or the X-Files).
§ It can take its premise mostly seriously, and have a fairly clear-cut set of rules by which its fictional world and narrative will operate. Every mystery invented exists to be solved, most likely in a season finale. Unexpected things can happen, and the writers are usually making it up as they go along. Occasionally, there may few hints towards other mysteries here and there to give them things they can go back and build on, if need be, and create the illusion of continuity and foreshadowing. (Supernatural, Stargate). **EDITORS NOTE: SUPERNATURAL does not really fit in this, because they’ve had their 5 year plan in stone from the start. They knew exactly where they were going. If you decide to go back and watch Season 1 episodes after having watched it all, you’ll go “wow, that was a smart set up that we had no clue of.” So they aren’t making it up as they go along.**
Warehouse 13 chose to do…..really, none of the above. Or maybe a weak mix of all three. It has a few moments of humor and whimsy. Especially in the beginning, I had hopes that it was going to be kind of an awesome mix of adventure and tongue-in-cheek cheesiness. Given the set up, it seems like that’s the only route that would have worked. And in fact, those brief moments of humor and fancy were really the only ones that worked. It has far too many flaws to work as the type of show found in categories two and three. The first is that everything- from premise to plot to character development- is entirely arbitrary. When the resolution of something is that arbitrary, it’s usually termed an example of ‘deus ex machina’. When the entire show is that arbitrary, the only word for it is….contrived. When absolutely anything can happen for no reason in particular, anything that does will be attributed simply to the writers requiring that things turn out that way. It is a compete and utter failure of the illusion of depth. Consider the example of Doctor Who :
The silly/surreal premise is that there is a man who travels the universe having adventures and saving the world with beautiful young women in his time-traveling spaceship, which resembles a police call box. This premise leads to questions such as: Why a time-and-space-traveling glorified phone booth?
The true answer, of course, is that it is – or was- a cheap and relatively simple prop that could be used as a plot generator. This is where the illusion of depth comes in, because that is not the answer that would pop into the mind of a viewer. A viewer would think of the in-story reasons the TARDIS looks like it does and why the Doctor spends so much of his time sight-seeing and saving the day. The show has enough internal narratological consistency that the viewers ignore the mechanics of the storytelling.
Not so with Warehouse 13, where the illusion of depth fails entirely, if the writers ever gave it any effort at all. The answer to pretty much every question it engenders is, ‘Because,” or – if the show is feeling particularly inspired – “Because it’s mysterious.” The show wants to be seen as alluring and mysterious. One (mysterious!) character even remarks that the titular agency/building contains “endless wonders.” [NB: She says this in a monotone enough voice that makes me wonder if one of the writers has a very dry sense of humor and panache for self-deprecation]. In this it fails. Spectacularly. Even Night at the Museum 2, which was a terrible film, managed to create a world that was interesting. Who wouldn’t want to see the entire Smithsonian come to life? It’s an idea that catches the imagination, as should a secret warehouse full of mysterious! artifacts. Instead, it’s hard to care about anything in the show, including its supposed wonders.
The trick to mystery and wonder in these kind of shows is to be able to imply that their are answers (or at least, interesting implications) lurking just out of reach. This in turn requires an eye for detail and a subtle touch. There needs to be at least the appearance of subtle consistency, for without it, there is nothing to explore, as everything seems utterly arbitrary. Warehouse 13 is so utterly lacking in this eye for detail that not only are its random elements of steam punk (et cetera) uninteresting and unnecessary, it cannot even remain consistent in regards to the larger plot details within its pilot episode. There’s a Chekhov’s Gun introduced in beginning of the episode which becomes important right on schedule in the third act. Yet it does not work at all as had been earlier (and quite firmly) established. Why? Because it was convenient. The writers needed a way to resolve the situation, and the previously established rules wouldn’t have worked. So they changed it. Without reason, comment, or justification.
This lack of attention for detail extended beyond contrived plot developments and into sloppy writing. One example would be when in the same scene that a character is praised (not ironically) for her preternatural attention for detail, she ends up walking up a huge pile of manure…without noticing. I’d really like to believe that there’s a writer on the staff with a very dry and ironic sense of humor, but if there is, it’s obvious that no one else working on the show caught the joke. The universe the show has created is utterly nonsensical. It has all the logic of Looney Tunes, which would be fine if it were funny and played with the fourth wall like the cartoons so magnificently did. I suppose it’s technically possible that Warehouse 13 is a magnificent attempt at surrealist commentary on television, but I doubt it. It’s not clever enough.
I’d give this show a pass. It’s not good, but it’s not even interesting enough to be awful. It’s just….dull. One exception: If you are a huge fan of Eureka, you might be able to enjoy this show. Eureka has a few of the same flaws (mainly, the arbitrariness), but not to the same extremes. You may be more forgiving of them than I am.