Watching season 4 premiere of Warehouse 13 (premiere date: July 23, 2012 on Syfy) a week after the series finale of Eureka is instructive. Both are long-running, popular shows on Syfy produced in-house at NBC Universal on restricted budgets. They both star genial, intuitive everyguys paired with savvy, smart women who solve crises caused by magic masquerading as science.
And yet, juxtaposed like this, we can get an idea why Eureka works, and Warehouse doesn't. In Eureka's finale, your hearts go out to the characters who are on the verge of losing everything; even Fargo's silly sit-in to save G.D. is touching. Watching the season 4 premiere of Warehouse, your hearts go out to the poor actors, who are brutally shoved around by the mechanics of a plot that never evolves from runaround into actual drama.
After a Climax, a Letdown
The context of these events makes the extent of the premiere's failure painfully clear. The powerful two-part season 3 finale involved Helena Wells sacrificing, and redeeming, herself in order to prevent Artie, Pete, and Myka from being nuked along with the entire Warehouse thanks to a bomb planted by the monolithically bitter Walter Sykes. Meanwhile, Claudia is already somewhat unhinged by the death of Steve Jinks when Mrs. Frederic, who's tied to the Warehouse, hideously wastes away.
All of these are potent, emotionally transforming events. Everyone watching the season 3 finale would have expected a season premiere that deals with the wrenching nature of the catastrophe and gives some ideas as to how the characters will be affected. Instead, the season 4 premiere is an exercise in finding a reset button so that none of what happened at the end of season 3 will matter at all.
It's not only a runaround but a runaround badly executed. The episode's creative team, led by writer (and showrunner) Jack Kenny and director Chris Fisher, want to impress us with an epic, world-wide race against time to find the missing piece of the artifact, but we're hardly wowed by Italy as suggested by the corner of one restaurant and a police car, and civilization-ending riots suggested entirely by incidental dialog.
A Very Arch Nemesis
Worse, they are clearly desperate to position the secretive Brotherhood as an ominous and far-reaching threat to the Warehouse team. But the Brotherhood is suggested entirely by a bunch of mooks guarding some huge casks, an elevator with faulty wiring, and Brent Spiner in a black habit yelling "Stop that!!"
Knowing that both the Brotherhood and Spiner are going to show up again makes their introduction all the more head-scratching. A posse of Girl Scouts led by Justin Bieber in drag would create more spine-chilling suspense about how it's all going to play out than the faceless flunkies that Pete makes quick work of, further defusing their potency by cracking jokes as he does so, and Spiner as Brother Adrian, who is handled as ineffectually as possible in every way: dialog (he has maybe five lines, none of them impressive), blocking, camera set-up, costuming, the works. You're torn between wondering why they hired Brent Spiner for a stupid scene like that, and why he took the job.
The other high-profile guest stars get even shorter shrift. Jaime Murray's Wells character was powerfully expanded and turned by her decisions at the end of season 3, but we get exactly no scenes in which Murray can explore that in the slightest, and in the end it's almost a total waste. Anthony Michael Hall reappears as Sykes in a ludicrous scene in which the climactic moment from the season 3 finale, in which Sykes escaped through a portal leaving the Warehouse to be utterly destroyed, is undone by having Pete just go through the portal and bring him back. And, just to demonstrate how far afield from actual drama they are, the writers have Sykes redeem himself, not through a realization of the impact of the pain and devastation he's caused that provides a level of clarity he's been lacking and causes him to reevaluate himself at the last moment, but by throwing an artifact at him that makes him feel sorry.
A Loss of Center
But it isn't just the guest stars that are ill-served by the script and direction. In origin, in a pilot co-written long ago by Jane Espenson, Warehouse 13 had its core in the conflicting/complementary approaches of the two leads, goofy, gut-driven Pete and serious, book-smart Myka. All the ridiculous artifact stuff, which doesn't make any sense even in-universe (how does Beatrix Potter's tea set make the things you're afraid of real inside a video game?), exists as pretext for Pete and Myka to work with/against each other and, over time, rub off on each other. Pete's quirk, that he has "vibes" that lead him in unconventional directions, is symblic of how deftly this interaction needs to be handled: Pete's vibes can (if intelligently used) serve to underline his intuitive nature and provide an abstract connection with the underlying magic of the artifacts, or (if poorly used) get wrenched around as pure plot device.
Along the way the acquired a genial father-figure, Artie, who's damaged by his own past, and so in need of their help. But then, further along the way, they acquired a sardonic kid sister in the form of Claudia, who's also damaged by her past. And so while Pete and Myka have worked the cases, Artie and Claudia have ended up cultivating bitterness synergy, which has finally found its fruition. Both of them have gotten darker and darker recently, and now thanks to this episode Artie is locked in secret anguish and Claudia somehow becomes trapped in her fury about Jinks. Mind you, she's that way at the start of the episode, but she puts it on hold to help with the run-around, then reverts to her unpleasant snarl.
A Littany of Failures
In summary, the problems with the season 4 premiere are legion. It's about the Warehouse, which should only be exactly as important as (say) the 4077th camp in M*A*S*H (it's crucial and character-influencing, but as background, not foreground -- remember, it's Frank that cares more about the camp than the people in it), and the artifacts taking center stage. The regulars' defining character traits are used not as means to develop character interaction but as cartoon plot devices ("I'm getting major vibage here," Pete tells Artie as they approach the center of the horror awaiting them, a disused elevator). The big-name guest stars are handled so badly that they seem to have wandered on set from a neighboring production. The writers want to imbue the chase for the MacGuffin artifact with suspense and character interaction, but the chase lacks both scope and suspense, and therefore meaning. And the attempt to position the Brotherhood as a nemesis is handled both cursorily and ineptly.
This episode is gratuitously titled "A New Hope," which, as a title for an episode that effectively quashed all the budding expectations I'd accumulated for Warehouse 13 over the course of solid and confident season 3, may be the most ironic episode title I've seen in quite a while. But somehow I do nonetheless retain some faith that, after Warehouse has climbed down from the unachievable ambitions of the season 4 premiere, the ordinary episodes of season 4 will better accord with the goodwill earned in prior seasons.