The problem with science-fiction shows is that they only tend to attract audiences who are already looking for science fiction, or a generally male audience. The challenge is to attract female viewers and younger viewers, the ones who flock to Harry Potter books and movies, or who recently made Twilight such a smashing success.
NBC Universal recently met this challenge by rebranding its Sci-Fi Channel, changing the name to SyFy (tagline: "Imagine Greater"), and combining its new marketing campaign with the premiere of a new original series, "Warehouse 13." This silly and extremely entertaining series stars Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly as Secret Service agents Pete Lattimer and Myka Bering. They work for a secretive government organization (of course) that monitors the country for supernatural or paranormal activity. When such activity is detected, Lattimer and Bering locate the cause of the disturbance, secure it, and store it in Warehouse 13.
The Warehouse itself is a gargantuan Area 51-type facility hidden away in South Dakota. Staffed by a quirky and mysterious caretaker named Artie, played by scene-stealer Saul Rubinek, the Warehouse is the repository for countless artifacts seized by the Secret Service to be safely stored until their unique properties are better understood. "If a radio landed in the hands of Thomas Jefferson, do you know what Jefferson would do? He would just lock it up, until he figured out it wasn't going to kill him," Artie tells the agents on their first day. "That's exactly what we do here. We take the unexplained and we safely tuck it away, in this super-sized Pandora's Box." Artie explains that these objects have "tangential energy," or an ability to cause people to do things. Usually this energy results in chaos and danger, which is why these objects must be neutralized and hidden away.
"Warehouse 13" is a pastiche of several other popular television shows. Television Without Pity calls it "The Rambaldi X-Files of the Fringe Eureka's Lost Ark." But what makes "Warehouse 13" special, just a little unlike anything else you've seen (unless you're a fan of frequent repeats of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on FX), is its Steampunk sensibility.
Sci-fi in origin, with strong elements of the speculative and the fantastic, Steampunk features fictional technological innovations from the 19th century, when steam powered our world. Hence Artie equips agents Bering and Lattimer with a gun designed by Nikola Tesla, which stuns people and zaps their short-term memory. He also provides the agents with a video conference phone called a "Farnsworth" after its inventor Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of the television. Agents navigate the endless Warehouse corridors in a cart that runs on the electrical energy it derives from their body heat -- built by Thomas Edison to prove to Henry Ford that oil was unnecessary for powering his new cars. Even the Warehouse itself was constructed in 1898, and the aisles are filled with boxes, trunks, and leather satchels like the ones you'd find in Professor Kirke's attic.
"Warehouse 13"delivers a winning combination of Steampunk and the supernatural. The 19th century was a heyday for artifacts believed to be charged with supernatural powers. The famed Egyptologist, Orientalist, and philologist E. A. Wallis Budge (d. 1934) recalled the endless parade of visitors to the British museum, seeking to consult with its "Keeper of Oriental Antiquities" Samuel Birch about the hidden powers of the scarabs, amulets, and talismans acquired on holiday to Egypt and the Middle East. Those same visitors later returned to donate these items to Budge, after he was appointed Keeper in 1894. In his compendium of Amulets and Talismans, Budge noted that for much of human history, magic has had an important place in human culture, and objects have carried magical powers. The power of an artifact is activated by the person who carries it. It is "no longer merely passive matter, but an operating force." (1961 American edition, p. 23)
This sounds a lot like a source of "tangential energy," and the point is driven home by the agents' mysterious boss Mrs. Frederic, played with understated menace by CCH Pounder. "Every artifact in this Warehouse is an extension of a person," she advises. In the first four episodes, the agents wrestle with a number of mysterious objects, including a so-called "Aztec bloodstone," Harry Houdini's wallet, a comb that belonged to Lucrezia Borgia, a song that unlocks the secret of peace in the human heart, and a chair that belonged to James Braid, a pioneer in the field of hypnotherapy.
The effects of the artifacts on the people who encounter them provide the show's drama and mystery. A nun believes she can fly and dives from a church steeple, a reflection of a story of abuse and the desire to escape the abuser. A young woman desperately struggles to save her brother after a laboratory accident, in a poignant story of abandonment and loss. The Warehouse is a highly-charged environment of love, loss, dreams, daring, and magic both dark and light. The story possibilities seem endless.
The plots are thin and collapse if you think about them, but the dialogue sparkles and the laughs keep coming, thanks to the creative team. Some of them, such as creator and writer Jane Espenson and supervising producer Drew Z. Greenberg are veterans of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a show distinguished by its smart and funny dialogue. Will it bring in the Harry Potter and Twilight crowd? It's too early to say. But if Syfy lets the show develop, there's no doubt the "Buffy" crowd will find it, and make it a cult success.