DAVID BIANCULLI

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"Tin Man": Sci-Fi Channel Dares to Dream, While the Broadcast Networks Merely Sleep
December 2, 2007  | By David Bianculli
 
For months now, Sci-Fi Channel has been publicizing Tin Man, its six-hour miniseries, arriving tonight, that offers a rebooted take on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It's worth watching because (after a slow start) it builds nicely and imaginatively. It's also worth applauding because - well, because it's a risk, the type the networks mostly are avoiding these days.

First the review. Then the context.

Tin Man, presented in two-hour chunks tonight, tomorrow and Tuesday night at 9 ET, doesn't exactly come to TV with overly heightened expectations. Its executive producers are Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr., currently the overseers of Sci-Fi's wholly expendable Flash Gordon, and purveyors of one series or miniseries misfire after another for years. Make that more than a decade: Their last unqualified home run was in 1996, with Ted Danson in Gulliver's Travels.

Moreover, for Tin Man, their executive producers and writers of choice are Steven Long Mitchell and Craig W. Van Sickle, who have some genre credits (including Alien Nation) but also such drivel as She Spies. Director Nick Willing, who did Photographing Fairies, at least has some expertise at mixing fantasy and reality, as does cinematographer Tom Burstyn, who did that excellent NBC docudrama about Baum, The Dreamer of Oz, starring John Ritter.

Given the way The Dreamer of Oz recreated the novelist's inspirations, and the 1985 movie Return to Oz mounted a darker, non-musical sequel, and the hit Broadway musical Wicked reinvented the fabled relationship between good and evil witches, it wouldn't seem there's that much new territory to explore.

Tin Man

Tin Man, though, especially in its final four hours, deepens and twists the text and subtext, while staying true to the major cornerstones of Baum's story. Dorothy is now an adult young woman, played by Zooey Deschanel from Almost Famous, and her traveling companions are a former cop (Neal McDonough, whose badge gives him the "tin man" nickname of the title), a brainless torture victim (Alan Cumming), and a timid wolverine (Raoul Trujillo). There's a beautiful but heartless wicked witch, played by Kathleen Robertson, who isn't quite what she seems - and the same could be said for Toto, too.

Richard Dreyfuss is the equivalent of the wizard of Oz, though here the land is called the O.Z., and Dreyfuss is used far too sparingly. Deschanel and Robertson are by far the central figures in Tin Man, its title notwithstanding, and each is bewitching in her own way. Cumming is endearing as always, McDonough is a fine wounded hero, and the flashback-mystery framework and ingenious special effects make Tin Man an enjoyable, though far from light, romp.

Even if Sci-Fi Channel hadn't succeeded, though, at least it tried. CBS, at the end of the year, presents Comanche Moon, a prequel to Lonesome Dove, but that's more the exception than the rule. Commercial broadcast TV has just about given up on long-form drama. In so doing, it's missing out not only on Emmy nominations and prestige, but on major events that can help draw viewers back to the TV set.

The broadcast networks no longer think it makes good financial sense to produce and present miniseries: costs and risks are too high, especially if viewers don't show up. Instead of not making any, though, the broadcast networks should follow the lead of Sci-Fi and other cable networks.

Make good ones.

 

1 Comment

 

Marlark said:

This indeed has been a trip worth taking. The gold (and emerald) that SciFi channel has received in ratings should glow as a shiny brass ring to the the other type of (crumudgeonly) brass at the networks. More long form TV, please.

Where else can you pace the exploration of character in an enjoyably condensed format?

The "24"-like crop of daisy-chain shows ("Jericho," "Lost,", "Heroes," "Alias") is too taxing on our schedules. Who can commit that many hours of television (excluding certain TV critic professionals)?

Here's hoping the 6-Hour Event wasn't a one-time trip over the rainbow.

Comment posted on December 4, 2007 2:55 PM

 
 
 
 
 
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