Open Mic

Taking a Chance on Fox's 'Human Target'

Jace Lacob Posted May 29, 2009 at 5:40 PM

Tags: Fox, Human Target, Pilots

I really wanted to like FOX's new procedural drama Human Target, which launches on the network next year, but found myself wondering about what the series could have been rather than what it actually is.

Based on a DC comic by Len Wein and Carmen Infantino (and later redeveloped into a Vertigo title by Peter Milligan), Human Target tells the story of Christopher Chance (Fringe's Mark Valley), a man who protects those in danger by becoming a literal human shield, a moving target capable of drawing the fire of those out to imperil his well-paying clients.

Chance is assisted in these high-stakes missions by his best friend and business manager Winston (Pushing Daisies' Chi McBride) and a tech-savvy nutcase named Guerrero (Watchmen's Jackie Earle Haley) whose allegiances seem as fluid as quicksilver. But rather than just watch his clients from afar, Chance forces his way into their lives, posing as someone who has access to their every move.

In the pilot episode, written by Jon Steinberg (Jericho) and directed by Simon West (Keen Eddie), we glimpse three such cases involving an array of clients. We're introduced to Chance, in fact, during a hostage situation at a bank where an irate and recently fired employee, Hollis (Desperate Housewives' Mark Moses), is threatening to kill his boss Ken Lydecker and detonate a bomb, killing everyone inside. Chance manages to free Lydecker (and switches places with him in the process), manages to disarm Hollis and shoot him, but doesn't manage to prevent him from detonating the plastic explosive on his vest. It's an explosion that kills Hollis and injures Chance in the process.

Rather than follow the advice of the gruff but well-meaning Winston and recuperate from his injuries, Chance accepts another assignment: to protect an engineer named Stephanie Dobbs (Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer) who is working on California's first bullet train, a train whose upcoming maiden voyage has seemed to coincide with an attempt on her life. Despite Winston's misgivings about Chance's state of mind, Chance agrees to become her human target, posing as her Japanese interpreter on the train's test run in order to unmask her would-be killer.

It's an assignment that brings them back in touch with the shady operative Guerrero (Haley), a man of dubious moral certainty who seems to be working both sides of the equation, providing security here, possibly flexing his knuckles there. Guerrero is one scary guy and Winston is uneasy about partnering with him on the Dobbs case but they have need of Guerrero's particular skill set.

What follows is a pretty straightforward procedural action-thriller, as Chance attempts to keep Stephanie safe from a number of potential murder attempts even as the clock in running out before the state-of-the-art bullet train will derail at 220 mph, thanks to some cost-cutting that Stephanie uncovered during the construction phase. There's a nice sense of frisson between Helfer's icy Stephanie and Valley's Chance but there's little time for any real emotional connection between them, given the nature of the series' episodic formula.

Likewise, it's hard to shake the feeling that there's no real emotional stakes here for the cooly-detached Chance whatsoever. The original pilot script indicated why Chance seems to have a what Winston calls a "death wish" (hint: it involved a missing woman) but without any real information in the shot pilot about just what happened to Chance, Winston's concerns come off as more than a little puzzling, given that we don't really see any indication that Chance is acting out of the ordinary or might be acting with less than his normal professionalism.

Valley, McBride, and Haley are all well-cast in their respective roles but aren't given much to do with any real depth of character. The guest cast, which includes Culp, Helfer, and Danny Glover (who, rather shockingly, turns up in the final scene as a new client) are all fantastic but also seem to be going through the motions of the plot without much nuance in their guest roles. Everything in Human Target, in fact, is very much operating on the surface level and there's a decided dearth of emotional stakes as well as a shocking lack of humor, a real shame given that each of the three leads excels at deadpan humor.

FOX has made a cottage industry of late out of procedural dramas and Human Target does work best as the sort of procedural series one might have found in the 1980s, meaning that it feels a little dated and somewhat creaky. Human Target attempts to be a fun thrill-ride but there's no real hook here, due to the shallowness of the characters and the feeling that we know Chance will not only survive his assignments but nicely wrap up each case by the end of the hour.

But rather than suggest that the producers graft on a serialized plot, I'd instead urge them to deepen Chance's character and give the audience a reason for being invested in his particular situation. The pilot episode doesn't offer us an origin story for Chance and his cohorts, nor does it tell us why the story is picking up at this precise moment in time, which is a major misstep. Stories like this usually benefit from starting at the beginning (seeing Chance and Winston work together for the first time, for example) or by showing us these characters at a precise moment of change and upheaval in their lives.

We're told that Chance has a "death wish," but we don't really see why this is the case, which (as mentioned before) was at least touched on in the pilot script. If Chance is changing his M.O., taking unnecessary risks, and placing himself in danger needlessly, the writers had better show us why he's doing so, what his motivations are, and what's changed in his outlook. It's a disservice to the viewer, to the character, and to the series as a whole to do otherwise.

Human Target could be an action-packed adrenaline thrill-ride but it comes across as a little cold and stiff, thanks to the lack of humor here. Chance and Winston should be quick-witted verbal sparring partners, tossing off colorful quips with the speed of a semi-automatic, but instead they seem more like a bickering old couple. The series needs to be slicker, smarter, and craftier. The identity of the killer in the main assignment this week was painfully obvious to anyone who has ever watched a single television mystery, from CSI to Agatha Christie's Poirot, or read any detective novel. These cases need to keep the audience guessing and keep the action and tension high at all times, even as lightening the mood with some badinage.

Ultimately, unless Human Target can find the fun and funny in Chance's life both on and off assignment (and keep the mysteries of the week engaging, twisty, and surprising), there's no real hook here to keep viewers coming back week after week, making this series a likely target for termination.

Human Target launches in early 2010 on FOX.