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The Small Picture
by David Liss

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Small Picture columns.]

The Dresden Files: Series Premiere
Sci Fi Channel
Sunday 9:00 PM

The Dresden Files Back in the old days, fictional wizards and witches were made, not born. You gained magical powers either through study of arcane texts you weren't supposed to read or through bargains with supernatural beings you weren't supposed to know. Very ambitious sorcerers hedged their bets and went for both. It's a great tradition, going back to antiquity. We were happy with it literally for thousands of years, and then came the cultural shift. In the mid-60s, witchcraft and sorcery suddenly became not the hard earned rewards of strategy and study, but rather a biological windfall, a kind of ethnic or racial tag with which you were either born or you weren't. What triggered this change? As near as I can tell, it was the TV show Bewitched, and though I could offer a socially contextualized reading of why this shift in cultural narrative should emerge at that historical moment, I'm not going to do so. I am going to say that when I come across a story about witches and wizards born to their powers, it always suggests to me that I'm dealing with a tale whose cultural roots don't predate the Johnson administration.

With that preamble, we turn now to the story of a wizard named Harry. Though born with astonishing magical powers, Harry's childhood is shattered by the loss of a parent through a mysterious magical attack. Raised in a home where his powers are discouraged and feared, Harry will eventually find a place for himself as -- wait for it -- a private detective.

Am I the only one who thinks having a wizard named Harry, in this day and age, is a bit over determined? Yet Harry it is in The Dresden Files, a program which borrows from the A-list of modern popular fantasy -- Harry Potter, The X-Files, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, and its less inspired offspring Angel -- to produce a solidly B-list product. I did not hate, or even dislike, The Dresden Files, and it's always tricky to judge a show by its pilot episode, but in its current incarnation, The Dresden Files is just not quite up to the standard of today's strong plot and character driven dramas.

In The Dresden Files, Paul Blackthorne plays the eponymous Harry Dresden, a wizard who advertises in the phone book, though he clearly operates in a pretty close analogue to the real world, one in which most people don't believe in magical powers or beings. What fools those mortals be, because magical creatures are everywhere, and not especially subtle in how they interact with ordinary folk. It's actually kind of strange that more people don't accept this stuff considering the number of monsters, spells and general mysteries in plain view.

The pilot episode begins with a flashback in which young Harry's wizardly alienation is presented without subtlety. Convinced there are monsters after him, Harry can't make his magic-free and magic-hating father believe in the danger, despite the fact that he knows Harry is a wizard and that supernatural creatures are real. Why doesn't he believe it? Because it's a plot device, that's why. We're then brought to today's Harry, a wizardly private detective and ordinary joe, dealing with money and alternate side parking problems. Harry is contacted by young Scott Sharp who is about the same age as Harry in the flashback, and he is convinced monsters are after him. But Harry doesn't believe him because -- because, well, it's a nice analogue of the inexplicable plot device we've already seen. Plus now we've got a way of creating false tension and showing Harry's internal struggle to -- I don't know -- to do something, but Harry means it. That much I'm sure of. It doesn't make much sense, and in a show with more charm, wit, thrills, or action I might not dwell, but here it reflects The Dresden Files's pervasive feel of being only halfway conceived.

When Scot is abducted by a face-stealing monster, Harry decides to take everything seriously, but now to find the boy he has got to defeat the "skin walker" by joining forces with a group of black-lipsticked raven-men who look like they've just tumbled out of a Sisters of Mercy reunion concert. Blackthorne is likable as Harry, and he does as much as he can with the material, but he's not supported either by writing or by strong supporting characters. Aiding Harry's quest is begrudging cop Connie Murphy, a character who feels like an afterthought, played absently by Valerie Cruz. More promising, and more disappointing, is Bob, the petulant, alchemically-inclined ghost. Bob's role has clearly been conceived as a combination of comic relief and deus ex machina, but the character doesn't work, mainly because Terrence Mann recites his lines as though he's reading cue cards written in a language he doesn't understand. Who can blame him, though? The lines are turgid, the humor forced, and the plot devices uninteresting. At the beginning of the episode, Bob is constructing a "doom box." Neat. At the end of the show, Harry uses said "doom box" to defeat the villain. Convenient.

It's hard to say exactly why magic in The Dresden Files is never magical. I know the program is based on a series of much beloved novels by Jim Butcher, and, not having read the books, I can't say if there is something as basic as a translation problem at work. My gut feeling is that the writers have made a mistake in dropping us into the middle of Harry's life. Far better to bring in the audience as Harry first opens his private investigation business. Let us discover the world he inhabits at the same time he does.

As it is, we're bludgeoned with references to magical councils and intrigues and forces at war, but rather than suggesting a deeper and richer universe, these dropped hints feel like lame maguffins meant to produce tension where otherwise there would be only three characters in search of a purpose. At one point, Harry ominously tells Bob that he will be calling in an associate. Bob's eye-rolling and histrionics suggests that this character is going to prove meaningful, but she dies in the next act. We were never attached to her and we don't care that she's dead. The episode is replete these strange pressure points, at times shooting for the sentimental, at times humor, but never really achieving either. When I finished watching the episode I honestly couldn't say what the creators had been hoping to accomplish, but I was pretty sure they hadn't done it.

Copyright © 2007 David Liss

David Liss is the author of four novels: A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, and The Ethical Assassin. He can be contacted via his web page

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