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Where Pilots Go to Die: An "Ultra" Letdown

Welcome back to another installment of "Where Pilots Go to Die." Last time, I took a look at the CW's underwater drama Aquaman/Mercy Reef which failed to make it onto the CW's fall schedule. I have a fascination with series that don't go any further than the pilot stage. So imagine my excitement when a copy of CBS's dead pilot Ultra ended up in my greedy little hands.

When I first heard of the project a few months ago, I was surprised to learn that CBS was developing a series based on Jonathan and Joshua Luna's superb comic of the same name ("Ultra: Seven Days"). I was even more surprised to discover that other than sharing a title, the two projects had nothing in common whatsoever...
The Luna Brothers' "Ultra: Seven Days" (pictured below) is a smart, edgy, sophisticated comic that's rather like Sex and the City... with superpowers. It recounts the story of Pearl Penalosa, a sexy Latina superhero with the codename of Ultra, as she saves the day and tries to find love in the big city. In this comic, superheroes are more akin to supermodels, with multi-million dollar endorsement deals, savvy agents, and magazine covers. They're celebrities in the biggest, splashiest sense of the word and Pearl and her two fellow superhero best friends--activist Cowgirl and slutty Aphrodite--are the biggest celebrities of all. But Pearl is torn between her duty as a super and her need to find that one true love of her life. And when a fortune teller predicts that Pearl will find love within seven days, she ends up on a quest that redefines who Pearl and Ultra really are. It's a brilliant reflection on rampant consumerism and celebrity in 21st century America, a sometimes raunchy romantic drama, and a ripping yarn to boot.

I was worried, and with good cause. How would this work on television? On CBS? Doesn't anyone remember the last time CBS attempted a superhero series? (Namely, the early 1990's Flash series, starring John Wesley Shipp, who would later be known to teenagers everywhere as Dawson's Dad.) So I was curious to see how the Luna Brothers' work had translated to the small screen and sat down with the 27-minute cut that was available for screening.

Written by Barbara Hall, CBS' Ultra is rather like Hall's last series, Joan of Arcadia. Except that this time, the lead doesn't speak to God (just to the audience) and has the more traditional superpowers of super-strength, heightened senses, and telekinesis. (Really, telekinesis? Um, why?) From the start, I'm a little concerned by Hall's decision to basically throw out the plot and characters of the Luna Brothers' work and instead create a show that revolves around a rather mundane female superhero who has no real connection to the sexy, strong, and sassy Latina superhero Ultra. First off, Ultra's not Latina in the show nor is she named Pearl. Instead, our lead is Penny (Lena Headey, above), a poor and vaguely Southern girl from an abusive and rag-clad family who escaped to Manhattan. I love Lena Headey and while it wouldn't bother me at all to have her as the lead of a series (really, it would be a pleasure), she's not Ultra or Pearl.

I'm not quite sure why Hall and the producers opted to take "Penny" away from her more ethnic roots and turn her into some Southern Gothic urchin. Flashback scenes--accompanied by copious, exposition-laden voiceover--seek to establish Penny as a survivor; we see her first as a bedraggled little kid who hurls herself off of a tall wooden structure and walks away unscathed but she's unable to prevent her leering father from beating up her creepy, emotionless mother. Later as a teenager, Penny suddenly has developed a Southern accent and dreams Big Dreams about becoming a writer, unaware that the boy with her wants nothing more from her than sex. We're told later by Cryptic Man (Coupling's Melty Man himself, Richard Coyle) that most superpowers develop as the result of a bad childhood. Whah huh? So neglect and abuse bring about an evolutionary leap? Color me confused.

Instead of jumping into Penny/Ultra's story in the swing of things, we're instead treated to what amounts to a rather ho-hum origin story, replete with B-grade special effects of explosions. While the Luna Brothers had created an entire world for Pearl/Ultra to have as a playground, Penny's world seems drably similar to our own. The main action of the plot begins after Penny has graduated from NYU and has dreams of being a novelist. But instead she's working a trivial job and living in a grubby underground apartment. And then one day, her amazing abilities suddenly seem to manifest themselves while she brushes her teeth (yes, you read that correctly). She's able to move her water glass around in the air... with her mind! Oooh. And then when she's nearly mugged in the street, she picks up her attacker and throws him through the air... with her strength! She's superhuman! And before you know it, she's contacted by the mysterious Cryptic Man (Coyle), a fellow superhuman with confusing shapeshifting abilities that seem more like teleportation to me, who urges her to see the even more mysterious person called The Scientist (Peter Dinklage, slumming it here), who determines that Penny is in fact special!

When Penny manages to save a number of people from a disastrous traffic accident, she instantly becomes a bit of a minor celebrity, lands an agent, and receives a "cape" from Cryptic Man (really a white sheet) with the name "Ultra" emblazoned--well, written--in silver all around the edges. Her agent then assists her in designing a "costume" to accompany her "cape." The end result looks more like a member of the heavenly choir crossed with... Pocahontas? While I didn't think the producers would necessarily be able to use Ultra's purple and white costume from the comic, I was hoping they would have come up with something that looked a little more television-friendly and realistic. (No X-Men-style black leather here, kids, it's the bedding department of Bed, Bath, and Beyond.) Penny does a commercial hawking some fizzy drink in which she pretends to fly (unlike the comic, this Ultra can't fly, or couldn't yet anyway), and soon acquires a villain of sorts in her deranged stalker, Veronique Nemesis (Marissa Jaret Winokur), a human with delusions that she has superpowers and a fixation on Penny... one which ends in blood when Veronique casually shoots her on a New York City street.

No sign of Ultra's friends Cowgirl and Aphrodite, though some research turned up that actresses Majandra Delfino (Roswell) and Aimee Garcia (George Lopez) were cast as Penny's friends Suzette and Kyra and would have eventually developed powers of their own. They did not however appear in the 27-minute cut that I watched.

It's sad when you see a pilot with fantastic actors working with material so far beneath themselves. Headey, Coyle, and Dinklage are all superb actors, but they can't overcome the truly awful writing, mind-numbingly painful voiceover, and way too earnest tone of the piece. Ultra lacks any of the off-kilter (and sometimes blue) humor of the comic as well as the innate "smartness" of the subject matter. "Ultra" the comic was a glorious combination of superheroics, soap opera, and self-aware humor; that this pilot shares a similar title only makes me question why Hall didn't just create her own twenty-something female superhero for a softer-than-brie drama instead of filleting everything that made this franchise unique and compelling.

Ultimately, I couldn't really see how Ultra would have worked on CBS amid all the crime procedurals and juggernaut reality shows, nor on the CW, which briefly considered picking up the series. At least I still have my dog-eared copy of the Luna Brothers' "Ultra."And in the end, maybe that's for the best as the world doesn't need another sub-par superhero. Especially one that's as much of an ultra-letdown as this one.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers (CBS; 8-11 pm); Blue Collar TV/Blue Collar TV (WB); George Lopez/Freddie (ABC); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX; 8-10 pm); Black Knight (UPN; 8-10 pm)

9 pm: Dateline (NBC; 9-10 pm); One Tree Hill (WB); Lost (ABC)

10 pm: Commander in Chief (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

10 pm: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America (9 pm ET).

If Monday night's Hell's Kitchen wasn't enough Gordon Ramsay for you, here's your chance to catch him again. On tonight's episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares ("D-Place"), Gordon takes on the failing D-Place restaurant, where the food is disastrous, the staff is at one another's throats, and the owners have sunk nearly $300,000 of their own money into the rapidly sinking restaurant. Will Gordon be able to knock some sense into their heads and save the restaurant?


Anonymous said…
Very interesting. Barbara Hall always essentially writes autobiography. She doesn't seem to have the ability to really go beyond that. Judging Amy, although dreamed up by Amy Bremmerman, was developed by Hall to reflect her own experiences as a single mother - with a novelist brother thrown in to reflect her own literary ambitions. Joan of Arcadia came out of Hall's spiritual journey, with a mother who had a rape in her background to echo Hall's own terrible experience of rape. Hall is from Virginia, is a writer...I'm not surprised that she just can't take the leap to really exercise imagination rather than work in the echo chamber of her own issues.
Anonymous said…
on the recent pilot graveyards tip, does anyone know if the House Divided pilot was any good. the series idea sounded strong...
Anonymous said…
Hello. Not that it makes any difference but Amy Garcia and Majandra Delfino (Ultra's friends) did make a brief appearance in the pilot. They were the ladies that Penny hugged goodbye before she crossed the street and was almost mugged.

What really bugs about the pilot is that you can see the potential for greatness, but it's just nowhere near. And I'd watch Lena Headey as a superhero of any sort! Well, there's always Wonder Woman...
Anonymous said…
I had followed the links to your review in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the Luna Bros. wonderful work developed for TV. Now that I have read your thoughrough review of the pilot I am glad that I haven't wasted any more time searching in vain for a download from some site.

It's sad when a developer moves so far away from what starts out as a good idea without the ability to recognize what made the idea great to begin with.

I don't envy your job knowing how much bad TV you must sit through just to find the occasional gem.

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