[17 April 2006]
You’re a human crime lab with organic surveillance equipment!
—Blair Sandburg (Garett Maggart)
Sometimes all you need is a premise. A bomb on a bus will explode if the bus goes less than 55 miles an hour; a shark is terrorizing a seaside community; a killer chooses his victims according to the seven deadly sins. Add complications as desired. Serves many.
The Sentinel, which premiered in 1996 as one of the UPN network’s first original series, is at heart a high concept show. As the opening epigraph helpfully explains, “In all tribal cultures, every village had a Sentinel. Now a Sentinel is chosen because of a genetic advantage, a sensory awareness that can be developed beyond normal humans.” Ignore the vagueness of “all tribal cultures,” because the speaker is Blair Sandburg (Garett Maggart), an anthropology grad student expert in all things Sentinel. He’s simplifying his theory for the benefit of Lt. Detective Jim Ellison (the pre-Desperate Housewives Richard Burgi), a former Special Forces captain and sole survivor of a botched mission that left him stranded in the South American jungle for almost two years.
During that time he honed his senses with the help of tribesmen who knew the ancient secrets of the Sentinel. On his rescue from the jungle, Ellison’s senses returned to “normal” and he became a cop in the fictional town of Cascade, Washington. In the first episode, his Sentinel powers have begun to return, confusing him and drawing Sandburg’s attention.
It’s the set-up for a familiar superhero coming-of-age story, with Ellison learning to control his powers and Sandburg playing nebbish mentor. Early on, Ellison makes the decision not to reveal his “edge” to the criminal element; The Sentinel is his secret identity, as we are reminded in virtually every episode, by a “How’d you do that?” scene. One episode, “Killers,” takes this idea to its extreme by having Ellison testify in court. His Sentinel vision allows him to see hundreds of yards away, in the dark, and identify the sniper who killed a fellow officer. When the cross-examination makes hash of his identification, you have to wonder why the D.A. never thought to ask how Ellison knew what he knew, but you also have to wonder how many times you need the miraculous nature of the Sentinel’s powers marveled at by audience surrogates.
More problematic than Ellison’s inability to come to terms with his Sentinel identity (this is a dramatic plot point, after all), is the series’ inability to find its own identity. As it can’t decide whether it’s a superheroic sci-fi drama or a police procedural featuring a walking, talking C.S.I. lab, it lingers somewhere in between, unsure how to navigate that space. (The season one set offers no commentary—no extras at all—so any discussion of the creative process is necessarily speculative.)
Many episodes play like a police drama with a “Sentinel moment” clumsily inserted, giving the supporting cast another opportunity to exclaim, “How’d you do that?” The second episode, “Siege,” has Ellison and his captain (Bruce A. Young) taking on a militia that’s overrun police headquarters. The setup is essentially Die Hard, but Ellison’s hypersensitive touch allows him to recognize that a door has recently been welded show. He proceeds to blow it open; it’s not obvious he would have reacted differently if the door had simply been locked. Here, as in many instances, the Sentinel talents serve expediency more than dramatic tension. Later, Ellison surprises a lurking militiaman. His incredulous boss asks, “How the hell’d you know he was back there?” Ellison replies, “Couldn’t you smell him? Too much skin bracer!” The audience smiles knowingly.
Another episode, “The Killers,” is a standard-issue “corruption within the police force” story. In the episode’s final act, Ellison is clutching the roof of a speeding truck. His Sentinel hearing picks up the sound of a gun being cocked; he rolls aside just in time to avoid being shot. (He’s also wearing a Kevlar vest.) Finally, he makes a near-miraculous shot, disarming the villain. “How you make that shot from way back there?” asks the detective whose life Ellison just saved. “Like I said,” he replies, “Good eyes.”
Ellison’s blitheness about his foes underscores another problem with the series: outsized heroes are defined by outsized villains, which Cascade lacks. Ellison takes on a variety of bad guys—militia members, gun runners, rival street gangs, a European acrobat troupe moonlighting as cat burglars. Their very assortment is a reminder of a different time, when cell phones were the size of large paperbacks and the threats to the American way of life were multi-faceted, not yet subsumed by the monolith specter of Global Terror. It’s unfortunate the show didn’t survive to our post-9/11 moment, because The Sentinel would probably work better with Jim Ellison as a super-powered Jack Bauer of 24. Al Qaeda—or at least the American conception of it, as something akin to S.P.E.C.T.R.E—would make a more fitting enemy for a man with superhuman senses.
The most satisfying episodes focus on Jim’s powers and their consequences. The most ambitious episode of Season One, “Night Train,” has him escorting a vital government witness. A dose of cold medicine wreaks havoc on his Sentinel senses, causing him to hallucinate wildly. When the assassins come for his witness, he has to overcome his usually advantageous powers. This is a fairly typical Joseph Campbell, hero’s journey-style turn, but it also shows attention to the series’ defining concept. Similarly, the late-season episode, “Attraction,” has Ellison inexplicably drawn to a women he just met. This turns out to be a result of pheromones, to which his heightened senses make him particularly vulnerable. It’s a clever pseudo-science plot turn that hints at the possibilities inherent in the Sentinel concept.
Most of this season, though, is fairly forgettable. Like Ellison, the writing staff has been given powers beyond those of most mortal men—in this case a chance to write for the UPN network. And like Ellison, they’re still trying to figure out how to use those powers for good.