Taking a Chance on Fox’s ‘Human Target’

May 29, 2009

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.




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  2. I appreciate your in-depth attention to HUMAN TARGET. Even though you feel it may not have a long screen life, maybe by you taking the time to write a hefty blog about it, it will cause some folks to at least check it out and maybe stay on for good.
    From what I’ve seen of the trailer, HUMAN TARGET looks like fun. Fun is something sorely missing on the TV landscape right now. It’s littered with trailer trash reality shows that pander to the “Peeping Tom/Car Wreck” gene that lurks in everyone. The 10 PM slots are filled with depressing, some times demented crime shows where justice is rarely served.
    HUMAN TARGET seems to have much needed flavor of USA Network’s BURN NOTICE, IN PLAIN SIGHT and TNT’s LEVERAGE. All programs with appeal and well liked characters. TV Viewers deserve to see a showcase for actors like Mark Valley, Chi McBride and they also deserve to enjoy the talents of writer Jon Steinberg and the always enjoyable directing of Simon West.
    I hope HUMAN TARGET is given a fair shot by everyone to find it’s legs and it’s audience. The trailer is already leaps and bounds better than the recent comic book version of HUMAN TARGET. A little bit of humor and a lot of talent go a long way.
    Thank you for throwing some spotlight on HUMAN TARGET.
    Beau Smith
    The Flying Fist Ranch

  3. Well written and researched article. I’m really looking forward to that 1980s style watchabiltiy. But I’m hoping that FOX has not removed the show too far from it’s comic book and SciFi days, AKA the Rick Springfield version that was reminiscent of old school Mission Impossible.

  4. Note to webmaster. So sorry about the multiple posts.. it appears your Preview button acts as a Post button.

  5. _

  6. is really inspiring to us

  7. Hey, I love Mark Valley sense he was on “Days of our Lives” and I have watched everything he has been on and I for one will be watching or DVRing this everyweek and telling anyone I can to watch or DVR it. Good luck with “Human Target” I’m taking the “Chance” GiGi

  8. I’m kind of torn on HUMAN TARGET. I want to like it but it found its “damsel in distress” formula pretty quick and seems to be stuck there. There’s a lot you can do with a character like Chance (as seen in the Vertigo comics series) but so far, it’s pretty run of the mill action / adventure which is fine – we don’t have a ton of those at the moment – but ultimately it’ll live or die based on how the audience feels about the characters and aside from future Freddy Kruger (Haley), they’re not all that interesting at this point.

  9. I like the show. I know it’s not perfect, especially some of the acting, but it’s sort-of unique (in its own way) and very entertaining to say the least.
    The comic is excellent and Fox does a very good job converting it to a TV show. But as always the books are better than the TV series. I purchased a copy of the new Fox Human Target series here:

  10. Nice review.
    I second Beau Smith’s comments. I actually found the 1980s style kinda refreshing amidst the plethora of CSI’s, Law & Orders, etc. that are all ‘rinse and repeat’, as well as against the uber-intense ’24’ (my fav now that ‘Prison Break’ is history).
    Maybe TV producers/execs will rehash the old A-Team M.O. where 5000 bullets fly and nobody gets hit. Not every drama needs to raise my blood pressure through the roof.

  11. Wonderful article, thanks. Can you clarify the third paragraph in a little more detail please?

  12. thank you post

  13. Good quality post, it’s real awesome. I did a search on the subject matter and found most persons will agree with your blog. Thank’s for you notify. My secrets on best affiliate programs to promote. I consider you made some nice points in features also.

  14. Thanks for interteining me nice read

  15. I find that readers respond very well to posts that present your personal weaknesses, failings and the gaps in your individual information relatively than those posts the place you come across as figuring out every thing there is to know on a topic. People are attracted to humility and are extra possible to answer it than a post written in a tone of somebody who would possibly harshly reply to their comments.

  16. I like Mark Valley n have seen “Days of our Lives” and I have watched everything he has been on. Good luck with “Human Target” I’m taking the “Chance”

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