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Where Pilots Go to Die: "Aquaman" Drowns in Shallow Waters

I was planning on writing about ABC's new drama Six Degrees today, but last night I saw something so awful, so unintentionally hilarious that I needed--no, was forced--to share it with all of you. I looked into the darkness of the abyss where pilots go to die and the darkness looked back at me... and I laughed.

Yes, my friends, I am talking about the aborted CW pilot, Mercy Reef, a.k.a. The Reef, a.k.a. Aquaman, which recounts, as the tagline puts it, "The Legend of Aquaman." Helpful, that. Like Smallville before it, this pilot attempted to put a youthful spin on the origin story of another DC Comics superhero, this time the somewhat openly mocked Aquaman.

Let me begin by saying that I have nothing against Aquaman as a character. He's from the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, can swim really fast, and can communicate with sea creatures. I know all about how DC tried to toughen him up a bit and give him a rather, um, macho overhaul by having him lose his hand... which was soon replaced by a big harpoon and later a "water hand" (don't ask). I loved how Entourage's Vince was playing A.C. in a feature film directed by James Cameron last season. I even loved Aquaman in Mark Waid's brilliant series "Justice League: Year One."

That said, I have no idea why anyone--least of all Smallville's creators Al Gough and Miles Millar--would want to center a live-action television series around the swimming sensation. While I don't watch Smallville, I can definitely see the appeal of a teenage Superman. A teenage Batman? I'd love to see Bruce Wayne fighting crime as a wealthy, orphaned punk. As for others I'd sooner see ahead in the line of Aquaman? How about a teen version of Green Arrow or Green Lantern? Or hey, thinking on that tack, a version of The Bold and the Brave for the Noxema set? But Aquaman?

Mercy Reef/Aquaman (call it what you will) is bad... laughably bad. This version of the story of Aquaman brings us a nearly-twenty-year-old Arthur "A.C." Curry (Justin Hartley, who replaced Will Toale in the role), the survivor of a plane crash in the Bermuda Triangle that ten years earlier killed his beautiful and blonde mother (an underwater scuffle with a sea siren sort of sealed the deal). After the death of his mother and his rescue at sea, A.C. was raised by his rather gruff military officer father Tom Curry (Lou Diamond Phillips, slumming it here). Unaware that he is actually the heir to the throne of Atlantis (a prince called Oren), A.C. spends his time freeing dolphins and getting into trouble, that is, when he's not running the dive shop and bar he owns, called--snicker--The Old Man and the Sea. But his good pal Eva (Amber McDonald), who runs the dive shop/bar hybrid with A.C., tries her best to keep him out of trouble. But A.C. is no normal kid: he can swim--really fast--underwater and hold his breath for long periods of time and he has some sort of empathic connection with sea life.

But then weird things start happening: lights in the sky, big storms that don't show up on any conventional radars, weird, watery gateways to Atlantis open, and a stranger named McCaffrey (Ving Rhames) approaches A.C. and knows all about him. The military is doing some odd investigation into the Bermuda Triangle and some big muckety-muck assigns Air Force Lt. Rachel Torres (Denise Quinones) to do a fly-over (why?) but as she does, the weird gateway thingie opens and smashes her jet, causing her to fall into the ocean. Lucky for her, A.C. was swimming underneath her and he saves her life.

Meanwhile, a young man is found floating on a piece of flotsam and rescued by Tom Curry, but he has a message for Oren (that's A.C., remember): they're coming. And like A.C. and his dead momma, this kid has a rather cheesy seahorse necklace on too. The military determines that the kid is actually someone who disappeared 60 years ago in the Bermuda Triangle, but he hasn't aged... Dun Dun Dun! He's been in Atlantis the whole time but now there's some sort of danger he needs to warn the prodigal prince about and--guess what--trouble followed him to the surface world in the form of Nadia (the incredibly annoying Adrianne Palicki), the very same sea siren who killed his mother (who might just be Amelia Earhart--wait, what?). Nadia and A.C. scuffle and he's saved by the arrival of the mysterious McCaffrey.

McCaffrey is another Atlantean exile and he wants to teach A.C. about his heritage, but first they have to defeat the evil Nadia--who had just skewered Eva in an earlier scene and killed the poor Atlantean messenger--which seems pretty easy, considering she's a deep sea baddy with a hypnotic gaze and really big teeth and claws. Afterwards, McCaffrey invites A.C. to his lighthouse, where he'll begin training him. And his first assignment: read Shakespeare's "Henry IV." Damn, but A.C.'s "not much of a reader." They laugh and we're expected to believe that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Aw.

Besides for the fact that the script's dialogue is so atrocious, the pilot's big weakness is in its cast, which is truly awful. As the lead, Hartley is especially cringe-worthy and his delivery is so wooden that you begin to hope that that next scene would focus on someone else. While the vacant eyes and bare chest school of acting may have worked on Passions, it takes more than just beefcake to make a series lead. (Seriously, if Hartley is this bad, I shudder to think what Toale, whom he replaced, was like.) I normally love Ving Rhames. This guy is The Man. Tough, gruff, with a trademark deadpan humor, he added needed spark to all three Mission: Impossible features. But here, it's as though he's reading from a Teleprompter; all his lines are delivered in the same monotone fashion. And poor Lou Diamond Phillips seems like he's sleepwalking through his scenes. But the worst has got to be the little kid and the mom from the pilot's opening scene, which had me rolling on the floor. Note to all producers: if you're going to cast a child actor, pick one that can actually ACT and not just look like a younger version of the lead.

In the version of the pilot I saw, the special effects were unfinished but for the most part were well done and expensive-looking, more like something you'd typically find in a feature film than in a teen drama. The scene with A.C. swimming in the ocean with the dolphins was especially breathtakingly beautiful; that said, the effects in scenes where he swims really fast were terrible and reminded me of CBS's short-lived series The Flash. (There must be a better way to show his speed in the water.)

Ultimately, it's no wonder that Aquaman wasn't picked up to series. Between the lousy script and the even lousier acting, I can understand why the CW wouldn't pony up the cash for what would have proved to be a very expensive series. I get why a youth-skewing network would want to set a series in and around the ocean, but it should be for a better reason that just an excuse to have the guys walk around shirtless and the girls in skimpy bikinis. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, from a viewer's standpoint.) And while Superman and Batman have huge mainstream fan bases, Aquaman is a niche character that few people, beyond the character's comic readers, really have an affinity for. (Lest we forget, remember the fiasco that was the WB's Birds of Prey?) Supes and Bats are national icons, instantly recognizable by millions, whose stories have captured the imagination of countless people for nearly a century. Superhero TV series either need that level of visibility in order to thrive or need to subvert that dominant paradigm (Buffy being the perfect example of that: blonde cheerleader by day, super-strong vampire slayer by night).

But, unfortunately, I'm going to have to toss Aquaman back in the sea; this vapid pilot is simply no great catch.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Gameshow Marathon (CBS); The Office/The Office (NBC); Smallville (WB); 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee (ABC; 8-10 pm); That '70s Show/That '70s Show (FOX); Everybody Hates Chris/Love, Inc. (UPN)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/The Office (NBC); Supernatural (WB); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX); Eve/Cuts (UPN)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS); ER (NBC); Primetime (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8-10 pm: The Office.

Oh, NBC, I take back all the awful things I said about you. Okay, well, not all of them. But it's a step in the right direction to schedule a mini-marathon of four back-to-back episodes of The Office. At 8 pm, it's "Fire," the episode where a fire breaks out in the Dunder-Mifflin office kitchen and forces the employees to evacuate to the parking lot. Next up at 8:30 pm, it's "The Client," the episode where Michael impresses Jan with his people skills in front of a prospective client. At 9 pm, it's "Performance Review," wherein Michael steals the employee suggestion box in order to impress Jan with his ideas. And rounding out the evening, it's "Email Surveillance," the episode where Michael begins to spy on the Dunder-Mifflin workers' email and somehow manages to upset everyone.

10 pm: 5 Takes: Pacific Rim on the Travel Channel.

New night, new time, new episodes. The 5 Takes gang returns with a new batch of episodes, this time from New Zealand. In tonight's installment ("Queenstown"), the gang sets out for the resort town of Queenstown, which coincidentally is the extreme sports capital of New Zealand. Hmmm, I predict Josh will enjoy some bungey jumping while Gabe samples some of the region's pinot noir.

10 pm-Midnight: Waking the Dead on BBC America (or 9 pm for you East Coasters).

The fifth season of one of my favorite British crime dramas continues. On tonight's episode ("Subterraneans"), the body of a missing millionaire businessman is found in an underground cellar, one year after he disappeared. In a rather odd twist, the kidnapper never made any demands and the victim appears to have committed suicide... Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.


Anonymous said…
Wow, that sounds BAD.

I would love a Brave & the Bold series!!! Come on CW!
Anonymous said…
I'm actually a big comic book fan but I am so sick of these dumbed down versions on both TV ("Smallville") and in film ("X-Men") and am very happy that we don't have to suffer through yet another cheesy superhero interpretation as "Aquaman" didn't make the cut for the fall season. Thank goodness for that.
ticknart said…
As a person who enjoys the Aquaman comics (as well as the jokes from Entourage), I was apalled early on at what I read about this series. I'm so glad that the CW realized how bad it was and didn't pick it up. I'm also glad that Aquaman's lameness to the world will remain trapped in old Super Friends episodes and not the teeny-bopper TV set.
Anonymous said…
oooh - I can't wait to watch!! ;)
Anonymous said…
Are you sure you saw the same pilot I did?

I liked it. Justin Hartley was particularly good, and I really enjoyed the effects (which appeared finished to me).

-- Craig @ KryptonSite
Jace Lacob said…

Yes, we did see the same pilot.

I work in TV development for a living and while my standards are high, I'm also an entertainment writer (even went to grad school for journalism) and I always watch a show with an unbiased point of view. Additionally, I've seen nearly the entire crop of Fall 2006 pilots that were ordered... and there was a reason why CW didn't take a chance on the Aquaman pilot.

As for Justin Hartley, I wouldn't hire him on any of my projects. While he may have looked the part, his delivery was wooden and uninspired; he did not seem to me to be able to anchor an entire cast as the series' lead.

That said, entertainment is extremely subjective and, at the end of the day, all I can say is "to each his own." But I can appreciate your opinion, even if it differs vastly from mine.

Great site, BTW.
Anonymous said…
I'm just glad someone else is noticing the annoying-ness (I don't think that's a word) of Adrianne Palicki!
Anonymous said…
how have you seen the pilot of Aquaman ?? I want to see it for several weeks ! please answer me !! :)
Anonymous said…
I noticed you mentioned your graduate school training in journalism. Graduate courses in journalism don't automatically qualify you to be a journalist. I am curious what school you attended, what grades you earned and how MANY courses you took. I, too, studied journalism (at Ball State University) and had a 4.0 in the more than 20 courses I took. Based on that, I disagree with you that you view films with an unbiased opinion. For one thing you cross the line on fair comment and criticism by singling out Justin Hartley and saying you wouldn't hire him. You are entitled to comment on performances and characters, but you are NOT permitted by law to make statements about the actors themselves. But that is Mr. Hartley's problem. Unfortunately, everyone with access to a computer and with even mediocre writings skills fancies him/herself a journalist and/or critic. In the end it seems they are just people who are insecure and who need to lambast whatever crosses their paths in order to build their own self-esteem."I saw something so awful, so unintentionally hilarious that I needed--[sic.]no, was forced--[sic.]to share it with all of you." Chances are you feel better now.

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