Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Serial Killer

When I first heard that Flash Gordon would be returning to television, I admit my interest was mildly piqued. Although never a die-hard fan of the original comic or serial -- both were well before my time -- I'll be the first to proudly proclaim my odd and unyielding devotion to the absolutely God-awful 1980 movie starring Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson and, for reasons unknown to this day, a host of people who could actually act. In addition to being the single worst career move in Brian Blessed's lifetime -- as there's little doubt that he's since been forced to endure frequent and infuriating shouts of "DIVE!" from various live audiences while attempting to perform, say, Shakespeare's Richard III on the Haymarket stage in London -- the film is best remembered for its campy style, punctuated by a brilliantly absurd score from Queen.

I was curious as to whether the new series would take the traditional route or purposely party like it's 1980 and go completely over-the-top. Regardless, it had one thing going for it right off the bat -- it was being given a run on cable's Sci-Fi network, which, despite having successfully exhausted the entire "-Saurus" genre, had carved out a certain place in my heart by bringing the whip-smart reimagining of Battlestar Galactica to television.

So, yesterday, I downloaded the pilot episode of the new Flash Gordon free on iTunes, settled in with a bag of Bugles and a depth-charge-sized cup of Crystal-Lite raspberry lemonade and watched from start-to-finish.


It's just fucking terrible.

I'm not talking destined-for-kitschy-cult-classic-status terrible; I'm talking unwatchably bad.

The entire thing feels like an Ark II-esque Saturday-morning venture (and not in the good, old-serial sort of way), it looks like it was produced -- special effects and all -- by a junior high AV class, and the dialogue sounds as if it were written by Dawson of Dawson's Creek when he first got that Spielberg jones -- say, around age five.

The goddamned thing was free, and I still wanted my money back.

I found myself immediately demanding to know just who was responsible for such a painful atrocity, as I hadn't done much in the way of research before sitting down to watch -- nor would I be able to live with myself had I actually taken the time to delve too deeply into the parentage of fucking Flash Gordon. That's when I realized that I had missed the opening credits entirely -- no doubt in the kitchen at the time, grabbing the aforementioned Bugles and Crystal-Lite.

So I skipped back to the beginning, careful not to subject myself to even a momentary second-viewing of the nonsense I'd just witnessed, and when I got there, you can imagine my surprise -- or complete lack thereof -- at what I found.

Robert Halmi Sr.

The Godather of crap.

For the blissfully uninitiated, Robert Halmi Sr. was once known as the "King of the Mini-Series." He was the man responsible (read: to blame) for a huge swath of supposedly epic, Tolkein-on-the-cheap, TV sweeps extravaganzas -- beginning with Gulliver's Travels in 1996, starring (oh dear God) Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, eventually winding its way through an entire catalogue of fantasy titles like Merlin, The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland, and The 10th Kingdom, and finally coming to a merciful end with 2002's Dinotopia. During Halmi's heyday, there wasn't a magical land of make-believe beyond his reach, as long as cut-rate CGI could support it.

Infinitely more entertaining though than Halmi's leviathan ten-hour televised elementary school pageants was Halmi himself. A diminutive, 80-something Hungarian immigrant with an obligatory streak of white hair -- his unpredictable temper and bitter disdain for the very TV executives who regularly and inexplicably agreed to fund his schlock was the stuff of legend. I've never actually seen an interview with Halmi, but knowing his demeanor all-too-well, I always picture his mannerisms being quite a bit like Patton Oswalt's impression of surly TV painter William Alexander.

I was picking up a paycheck from NBC when Halmi's flame-out began -- when his magical fantasy world started to crumble, so to speak, and his banishment from network television seemed all-but-assured.

In 2000, after a series of projects which became known for their consistently escalating budgets and consistently diminishing returns in the way of ratings (as well as one, The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns, which became fodder for late-night comedians everywhere thanks to its rather un-PC portrayal of the Irish), NBC wisely reacted with hesitation when presented with Halmi's latest opus -- The 10th Kingdom. More than a few cracks had developed in the network's once mighty primetime juggernaut and the powers that be were weighing their sweeps choices more carefully than usual; Garth Ancier, the programming chief at the time, simply wasn't sure it was worth the risk involved in tying up five nights of valuable airtime with another of Angry Bob's whimsical epics.

His Solomon-like solution: Straddle it at the end of the book -- with the first episodes inside the sweeps period and the last ones safely outside. As expected, it bombed -- leading NBC's mini-series chief Lindy DeKoven to fall on her sword for signing the thing in the first place.

Halmi's response to all of this?

He went fucking ballistic.

He screamed to anyone who would listen about NBC's lack of vision and how no one at the network appreciated "imaginative fantasy" anymore, and he vowed to take his next project elsewhere -- leading to the compulsory public statement of remorse from NBC, followed immediately by the private Don't-Let-the-Door-Hit-You-In-the-Ass-On-the-Way-Out party.

That next project, by the way, was 2002's incomparably silly Dinotopia; the "elsewhere" was ABC.

The ratings were as you might expect.

In the space between Halmi's initial descent at NBC and his final crash-and-burn at ABC, he managed to piss-off every other network executive in the contiguous 48 -- at one point inundating CBS big gun Les Moonves with faxes designed to antagonize the living hell out of him after learning that Moonves had publicly insinuated that Halmi did little more than crank out bad special effects.

But time heals all wounds apparently, and Halmi has allowed himself -- and has been allowed -- back under the tent of one of the big networks, as Sci-Fi is owned by NBC Universal. Apparently and unfortunately however, one thing that hasn't changed is his almost preternatural knack for being able to get away with churning out ridiculous garbage -- as evidenced by the new Flash Gordon.

Like much of what Halmi has done in the past, his latest effort is an embarrassment to the network carrying it, and the presence of it makes it crystal clear just how much Sci-Fi is going to suffer come next May when Battlestar wraps-up for good. If this is the kind of brand the network is set on advancing, and NBC is content with accepting, it's pretty much doomed to a consistent level of failure.

But hey, with Halmi on board, at least Sci-Fi can be assured that it'll never run out of badly produced dinosaur movies.

Coming soon: Carnotopia.


Fungi said...

its weird how 10 people can watch the same thing and give you 10 different reactions to it. i watched flash gordon saturday morning. i didn't think it was very good, but i didn't think it was terrible. i tried to watch battlestar galactica and to me, its unwatchable. garbage. i wasted 2 hours of my life on it.

*i dare you to watch the SciFi original movie "Lake Placid 2" and still have a place in your heart for the network.

Dave said...

If you want someone to blame try god...... it's the easy out.

Chez said...

Even God isn't this cruel.

deadbeatJONES said...

Honestly, I expect more from the network that brought us Supergator, Ice Spiders and Mansquito (and, coming soon: Frankenfish).

t.j. boone said...

if you can't blame god, then blame the devil. remember, he and his minions walk the earth and do evil every day.

when i was a kid, i used to watch the old buster crabbe flash gordon serials on an indianapolis tv station on saturday mornings during the late 1960s. they were entertaining in a silly/funny way because of the 1930s special effects and costumes.

and i especially remember charles middleton as ming the merciless. he was dressed like some bad scripwriter's take on fu manchu. i bet there would be no way anyone could do that today; it was very un-p.c.

She Remains Anonymous said...

"It's definitely shit, but it gets a bit better."

My husband works on the show and has absolutely and without reservation admitted that it's absolute crap.

BUT - it's only crap until Episode 6. Supposedly it gets better. But who's going to stick around that long to find out?

Also, the reason the sound is crap is because the director is an asshat. There are birds in the set rafters. He either doesn't notice or doesn't care. But, because they squawk over dialog, everything has to be re-recorded afterwards and re-synced (which, when you're doing entire scenes, doesn't always sound believable).

I'm definitely not defending it, and I can't guarantee it'll turn into a great show, I just wanted to share the info.

Anonymous said...

SciFi didn't pick up Babylon 5 when it faced cancellation after season 4. They kept Stargate Sg-1 instead of Farscape. Even their TV movies starring Bruce Campbell are unwatchable, just like Flash Gordon. BSG is the only reason why i haven't burned down their corporate headquarters and with it's end drawing near... so does theirs

Anonymous said...

My gal and I attempted to watch the pilot. We turned it off in the middle and deleted the program from our Tivo. I don't believe we even got to witness bad special effects.

I had questioned who produced that piece garbage and she immediately knew from the credits (because she is awesome in many ways... one of which is being a die hard credit watcher. Thanks for elaborating on Halmi.

I kind of wish you had more to say about the episode itself, but I understand why you didn't. Although I watched the episode completely sober I can't recall a single remarkable portion. It was just that dull, humorless and uninspired.

I caught a promo for it during another Sci-Fi show that included a positive review from TV Guide.


sherry Bithell said...

Gotta agree. I, too, hold a special place in my heart for the original film. ("Go, Flash, Go!") And even though I knew better than to get my hopes up, I was still exceptionally disappointed. The leads have the charisma of a pair of eggplants. And that's marginally insulting to eggplants.

And... come on. Flash is the QB for the New York Jets. Not a schlubby runner living at home with mommy. So much for the savior of the universe. Sigh...

VOTAR said...


John said...

As soon as I saw the killer "robot" in the kitchen, I changed the channel. Godzilla movies from the 80's had more realistic creature effects.