Now You See This...
Tonight on Sci-Fi, you won't be able to see The Invisible Man. Well, you'll be able to see him till the first commercial break. But after that, his brother and a team of scientists will put an artificial quicksilver gland in his brain, and then every time he gets excited or scared...well, you see the picture. Or, rather, you don't.
Premiering tonight at 8 as the kickoff to Sci-Fi's "no-repeat summer," The Invisible Man coalesces loosely from H.G. Wells' novel of the same name about an experiment to make a human who couldn't be seen. The television show's Darien Fawkes (Vincent Ventresca) becomes the test subject for a similar experiment after a criminal conviction, then finds himself drafted by a secret government agency. Like Wells' hero, his sanity is threatened: the quicksilver that makes him turn invisible also works on his brain like an addictive drug, causing violent withdrawal symptoms.
The Plot Made Transparent
Petty thief Fawkes' sarcastic sense of humor helps keep him going, first when crime lands him in jail, then when he's paired with Hobbes (Paul Ben-Victor) - a bitter agent who claims to have bailed the U.S. out in Beirut but still hasn't gotten the promotion he thinks he deserves. "Ah, crap," is Fawkes' trademark phrase when things go wrong. And they frequently do, from the moment he's caught performing CPR on an old man he tries to rob and inadvertently scares into heart failure. The fact that Fawkes saves the old man's life does not save his butt when the old man comes to during mouth-to-mouth and accuses the thief of molesting him.
"Rescued" from prison by his brother Kevin for a top-secret medical experiment in need of a test subject, Fawkes soon becomes the prototype Invisible Man. A gland implanted in his brain gives him the ability to cover himself and nearby objects in quicksilver, a substance that reduces surface temperature and bends light rays to disguise an object's presence. But because quicksilver is addictive to the brain, Fawkes is able to remain sane only via a counteragent developed by his brother's nefarious colleague Arnaud (Joel Bissonnette).
Though Fawkes quickly guesses that Arnaud has his own plans to exploit quicksilver, Kevin won't believe him until terrorists attack the lab. By then, it's too late. He manages to stop Arnaud from selling the technology to terrorists, yet with his brother's revolutionary research destroyed, Fawkes has no choice but to keep the artificial gland in his head. He's an invisible Incredible Hulk.
So the invisible man has few options when recruited by the Department of Fish and Game - a front for "The Agency," an underfunded intelligence agency doing work the CIA can't touch. The Agency's top official (Eddie Jones) has the top-secret formula for the counteragent Fawkes needs to stay sane. Plus, they have him tailed by a Keeper (Shannon Kenny), a beautiful scientist who tracks Fawkes via surveillance devices. The Agency's slogan, "Let's keep things under the chuppah," reflects its general paranoia about sharing information; there's nowhere else for Fawkes to turn.
Things get even worse for our hero in "The Catevari," the first episode after the pilot. Fawkes learns that he's just one of many government-funded human experiments...and that several others have gone wrong. He's forced to track a man whose touch is poisonous to others, who is stalking former colleagues at the Agency as well as government officials. Though he's not sure of his loyalties to The Agency, in later episodes Fawkes must choose between his new colleagues and his old partners in crime. He also must come to terms with the realization that his hard-nosed agency supervisor has more respect for Fawkes than other agents who would prefer to use him as an assassin.
Most troubling, though, is the knowledge that without regular doses of a counteragent, the quicksilver could drive Fawkes to madness and murder. In the pilot, he tries to attack his former lover, and later he has recurrent nightmares about killing his partner Hobbes. Since the Agency will only give him the counteragent if he completes his missions in a timely manner, Fawkes must trust his Keeper - something he has a very hard time doing.
Indiana Jones hated snakes, Fawkes hates spiders, so of course the little buggers make several guest appearances - some planned to raise his adrenaline levels and cause him to turn invisible, such a the roomful of tarantulas his brother provides, some incidental, such as the jailhouse arachnid that gets him put in isolation. He does like women, but his discovery that the quicksilver madness could make him a rapist gives him pause. When another government test subject warns him against getting too close to his Keeper, Fawkes takes the message to heart.
What's Visible Now
Ventresca does an admirable job playing the lead character, balancing Fawkes' professed lazy cynicism with his skill as a thief and his grudging sense of adventure. Looking like a cross between Matt Dillon and Lyle Lovett, the actor best known as "fun Bobby" from Friends uses some typical anti-hero mannerisms - eye-rolling, exaggerated slouch - to counter his buff physique and youthful energy. Unfortunately, he's given some unsalvageable puns and cliches in film noir parody voice-overs where he sometimes gives away a little too much that should be shown rather than told.
It also doesn't help that most of the guest actors in the pilot give strained, over-the-top performances. The regular cast, particularly Ben-Victor and Jones as the cockamamie agents, are quite good, but we don't see them till halfway through the first episode, which is bogged down by an overly chipper Kevin and a completely unbelievable Arnaud. We're supposed to get inklings that the latter isn't the scientist he pretends to be, but Bissonnette's phony accent and cheesy grin make it impossible to take him seriously for one second, so Kevin looks like an idiot rather than the genius inventor he's supposed to be. There's little chemistry between Ventresca and Rebecca Chambers as his lost love Casey, so the arrival of the mysterious Keeper is welcome - but that doesn't happen until the episode after the pilot.
Saved from wisecracking comic relief sidekick status through the actor's shifty-eyed performance, Ben-Victor's Hobbes is at times reminiscent of all three of The X-Files' Lone Gunmen rolled into one and given a field commission. The popular actor, who appeared on The X-Files in "Tooms," is also recognizable as deeply disturbed Ray Kolberg from Body Parts as well as dozens of movies. Eddie Jones, a well-known character actor perfectly cast as The Agency's top official, brings a welcome combination of world-weary patriotism and sharp-eyed cunning to his role.
The special effects that make Fawkes invisible are impressive, but the fight sequences feature cheap video-style sequences like in Xena, which don't help matters any. "The Catevari" uses more subtle camera work and most of the bloodshed takes place offscreen, which adds to the impact visually and emotionally. Whereas in the pilot we see Fawkes' brother gunned down and bleeding to death in a sequence that drags, in "The Catevari" we see more subtle violence in tight, tense shots that underscore the real horror of the situation.
Viewers who slog through the first hour and a half will be rewarded later, but one wishes a bit more care had been put into the initial two-hour telefilm. The director of the pilot, Breck Eisner, is best known for TV commercials and for an acclaimed short, Recon, which sports over 30 special effects in 11 minutes. The director of "The Catevari" has directed two horror features for television, and while his episode lacks some of the quirky humor of the pilot, it's more consistent in tone and mood.
The creator and executive producer of The Invisible Man, Matt Greenberg, wrote the screenplays for Halloween: H2O and The Prophecy II. Despite this background in horror, his new show works best when the character interplay is at the fore rather than the science fiction aspects - rather like a cross between The X-Files and Sci-Fi's recently cancelled Good vs. Evil.
Given the prevalence of web voyeurism and shows like Survivor, we all have some idea of how it feels to be an invisible man, and of what we'd do if we had the ability to get around without being seen. Since it's going to be hard for the series to make that concept interesting, the absurdist element and the witty conspiracy plots will have to carry the show along with Fawkes' funny, fatalistic character.