David Sarnoff, the founder of CBS and one of the pioneers of television, used to say that the purpose of TV programming was to entice people to watch commercials. Television existed to move product. If a particular show was engaging or entertaining or compelling, that was all to the good, because it would attract advertisers, but TV had no inherent responsibility to produce programming that was smart, or educational, or socially responsible, or, you know, good. That attitude lies behind FCC chair’s Newton Minow’s famous speech about TV being a ‘vast wasteland.’ And that speech is the reason why the boat that sank on Gilligan’s Island was the Minnow. They were making fun of Newton Minow, on a show the producers had no illusions about, that they knew was risible.
Boy, things sure have changed. I was talking to my son over the weekend, and I made reference to a TV commercial, and he hadn’t seen it. He hasn’t seen most commercials. Me, griping about the political campaign that just ended, and he said that the only political commercials he’d seen were the ones he’d looked up on purpose on Youtube. His generation essentially never ‘watches television.’ They watch TV shows, but they watch ’em on the internet. Ads? Oh, you mean popups. Yeah: annoying. The old idea that every Sunday night, you gathered with your family to watch Bonanza–NBC at seven o’clock–and that if you missed the show that night, you were out of luck–is as extinct as the dodo.
Though it’s entirely possible that dodo artifacts, or for that matter artifacts relating to Gilligan or Pa Cartwright, may well be found in Warehouse Thirteen. Along with the Ark from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For some reason, it’s impossible to talk about Warehouse Thirteen without referencing the first Indiana Jones movie, even though the show does not at any time so much as mention Raiders, at all, ever. But Spielberg ends Raiders with that great visual joke; the Ark parked in some massive government warehouse. Warehouse Thirteen is a SyFy network TV show based on that joke, about that warehouse. Or one rather like it.
See horrible events or places or people leave behind psychic traces on objects. And those objects thereby become dangerous, even lethal. It is the purpose of Warehouse Thirteen to house those objects. But some objects remain unhoused and uncatalogued. So it is the responsibility of the US Secret Service (!?) to find dangerous artifacts, neutralize them, and store them. Bag ’em and tag ’em, in Artie’s words.
Artie (get it, artifact, Artie?) Nielsen (Saul Rubinek) , a fussy, disorganized but lovable curmudgeon, runs Warehouse 13, with assistance from Leena (Genelle Williams), an empath, and Claudia (Allison Scagliotti), a computer nerd. The two main characters, however, are field agents Pete (Eddie McClintock) and Myka (Joanne Kelly). For the third season, they were joined by another field agent, Steve Jinks (Aaron Ashmore), as Claudia begins leaving the Warehouse as a field agent trainee. They’re supervised by The Regents, most particularly Mrs. Frederic (CCH Pounder), who seem to be very very ancient and have peculiar powers. There’s a reason it’s called Warehouse 13–there have been previous Warehouses throughout human history, in China, London, ancient Egypt. It seems that whatever nation-state is more or less running things gets a Warehouse.
My wife and I are nuts about this show. It’s great goofy fun. Pete and Myka have a terrific brother/sister type relationship. I think if they ever went all Moonlighting/Cheers romantic, it would wreck the show; they’re professionals, and they goof around , and both McClintock and Kelly are terrific comedic actors. I mean, it’s a sci-fi comedy show; the premise is just ridiculous to be great fun, while still just barely serious enough to keep the stakes high.
But my favorite character by far is Claudia. Scagliotti is adorable, and Claudia is a fun creation, a young, socially awkward girl genius. She loves Artie like the father she never had, and has a gangly klutzy quality that plausibly gets her in trouble. When Ashmore joined the show, it didn’t work at first; you felt like the show didn’t actually need a third field agent. But he’s won me over. He’s become Claudia’s best gay friend and confidante, and their interaction gives the show some poignancy. I know ‘best gay friend to a socially awkward girl’ is a terrible stereotype, but Ashmore makes it work–Jinks is, after all, an action hero-type character, exceptionally brave and good with a gun.
And the artifacts themselves are really inventive and fun. The agents are always looking for some weird thing that suspends gravity, say, or pauses time, or causes Santa Clause to appear. And then we get this quick bogus history lesson from Artie: ‘this is the rudder of the Andrea Doria, and if anyone touches it. . . .’ Kind of thing.
I love best of all how the show doesn’t take itself all that seriously. They’ll head into a fight scene, for example, and suddenly the music from Star Trek fight scenes underscores them. One episode featured Jewel Staite and Sean Maher from Firefly, playing a couple, and you think, ‘ah, Kaylee and Simon, together at last.’ Kate Mulgrew, Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, is a Regent; she’s also Pete’s Mom. And her name? Jane. All that Star Trek referential stuff is fun. My wife and I, certified Trekkie nerds both, love catching the insider jokes.
One of the things I love about the show is that the Warehouse is housed in South Dakota, and the field agents are out there looking for artifacts all over the world. And yet traveling to various locales is just no trouble at all. From South Dakota. In one episode, for example, they were chasing a bad guy in London. They had to return to South Dakota to report, and discovered a clue that led them to Egypt. They beat the bad guy there. So in other words, a bad guy took longer to get from London to Cairo, than it took Our Heros to get from London to South Dakota to Cairo. I honestly think the producers know how preposterous the travel is in this show; the characters never talk about it, but ridiculous travel arrangements are a plot point in so many episodes. Pete and Mika will discover an artifact in California, so off they go. Meanwhile Artie realizes there’s an important clue in New York. And he’ll go there, get the clue, fly to LA, stopping over in South Dakota to give some instructions to Claudia, ’cause everyone knows how routinely planes stop over in, like, Pierre, then fly on to LA, and still get there before Pete and Mika have a chance to check into their hotel. Gives us the giggles every time.
What makes Warehouse work is the tone, just tongue-in-cheek enough to keep us laughing, just serious enough for us to care about the people. Good actors, a goofy premise, funny writing every episode; formula for good TV.
See, this is what Sarnoff missed, what he couldn’t have predicted. We want TV to be good, on its own good, not just good in a way advertisers might like. The money nowadays is in content. The internet has changed the financial model. There are still ‘networks’ and ‘stations’ and ‘time slots’ and ‘ads’, but they function in a completely different way than in the past, and they’re going away. A show like Warehouse 13 can jokingly reference Firefly, a show from 2002 that completely bombed on commercial TV, a show where they only made fourteen episodes, because it’s a hugely popular show nowadays, initially through sales of the DVD and now through the internet, and those fourteen shows have taken on iconic status. My wife and I have never actually watched Warehouse when its aired. We’re really old-fashioned; we’re geezers, really. We watch it on Netflix.
We resisted it for awhile; it just seemed too silly. But our daughter recommended it, and we’ve fallen in love. Check it out. It’s on SyFy network, I think. Some night, some time. Or Netflix any time you want.