When I first took up this Rewatch-in-One series I knew that there would be a variety of reasons for cancellation of shows. Some were just bad to begin with. Some suffered from poor programming or marketing decisions. Some had writing or acting issues. And some? Well, I knew going into this that there would be a few I just couldn’t quite explain, shows without any weakness that I could tell, cut down for no good reason.
Case in point, The Dresden Files. Solid acting, cool set design and cinematography, what seems to have been a high budget and good effects, a load of excellent source material from which to draw. Why the hell was this only one season? A mystery indeed. Maybe it was cursed?
Refresher Course: Adapted from Jim Butcher’s long running paranormal investigation series, The Dresden Files is about a Chicago wizard for hire (Paul Blackthorne), part detective and part bodyguard depending on the assignment. Harry Copperfield Blackstone Dresden (named for various stage magicians) has a shady past and the Powers That Be (or wait, that’s in Buffy) called the High Council keeps him on a shortish leash. He often partners up with police detective Connie Murphy (Valerie Cruz), a tough cop who is mostly willing to work with Harry. Harry lives with Bob (played by Terrence Mann, a hybrid of Hugh Laurie and Tim Curry), the trapped soul of a once-powerful magician, Hrothbert of Bainbridge, who functions as an advisor. Together they keep bad guys from doing bad stuff and solve supernatural crimes.
Bob is totally different in the show and the books. And I could take this opportunity to list all the ways in which the show and the books don’t line up, but I’m not going to, because that’s tedious. Read the books; they’re a hell of a lot of fun. Watch the show; it’s cool, too.
I should mention that Nicolas Cage was one of the producers. Is that significant? I really can’t say. I know that Cage is a geek through and through. How much influence he had on the show I don’t know and don’t much care. I have mixed feelings about him. I generally think of him as a very talented person who frequently forgets that he’s very talented and ops for half-assed parts in unremarkable (or remarkably bad) films. But still, he was perfect in Adaptation and for his role as Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart I will forgive him for a great many mistakes. But that’s all acting. As I said, he was the producer, here. So, um, never mind.
The Best and the Worst: Paranormal investigation stories are mysteries, first and foremost. The paranormal aspect is generally a substitution game. Harry has magic instead of forensics, for example, a blasting rod instead of a pistol, etc. Bob functions at times in ways a computer or informants would in a regular mystery. The Dresden Files works because it’s mostly a detective show without being reliant on the supernatural as a get-out-of-plot-conflict-free card.
My favorite episode focuses particularly on investigation. In “The Other Dick,” Harry has to get a proper private investigator license, and teams up with Claudia Black (whose décolletage gives me amnesia about how much less convincing her American accent is than Blackthorne’s) after the course instructor, a likable old crusty PI, is killed. Along the way they have all sorts of flirty “I hate you but you’re hot” banter and find out that the killer is an incubus using a fertility clinic for nefarious reproduction. What a great, icky idea! The episode reinforces the detective fiction and noir traditions from which Harry Dresden comes and is a lot of fun in the process. Also, this was written by George Mastras, who also wrote my second favorite episode, “The Boone Identity.”
The worst? “Things That Go Bump.” This is a locked room “One of us is a secret bad guy” set up, in which Ancient Mai and Morgan (the leader and enforcer of the High Council) seek refuge in Harry’s shop, which later gets surrounded by a cloud of black swirly evil sauce. It’s not really a bad episode, but it doesn’t fit, either. Had the show gone another season, it would give us time to care about Ancient Mai or Morgan, or understand why they’d have come to Harry even though they don’t trust him. Tensions don’t mount as they could have because fairly unsubstantiated characters are at risk.
What Went Wrong?: Some have said the show deviates too much from the books and waters all the magic down and Harry is sanitized. I suppose there’s something to that, but though the series isn’t as dark as the books are, I do think that, in a broad way, they tried to retain something of the original ambiance.
Had the show gone on, and continued to translate Butcher’s world into TV, we’d have seen, I think, a fuller and more engaging story all around. With one season, they’ve barely introduced the High Council, the vampires, scarcely touched on the Never-Never, and there were no fairies to be found. Eventually, we’d have had all the above. Instead we got one season that did a good job of introducing the viewer to a world we haven’t been allowed to return to on the screen.
Also, as so often happens with sci-fi and fantasy shows, it was aired out of order. The pilot is episode eight. Why? Because the universe hates us, probably. The show is mostly episodic but there is a larger arc as well as exposition that’s thrown all wonky when you do this sort of nonsense.
I hope that there will someday come feature film adaptations of the books. And, no offence to Blackthorne, I say the man for the title role (as Dresden, not as the files) is James Marsters, who was offered the role once, and has narrated the audiobooks. Plus, he’s freakin’ cool and would nail the part, right? Who’s with me?
Jason Henninger has a skull on his desk, too, but is not a wizard.