Very few people who sat in on the screening and panel for the pilot for Fox's new series "Human Target" seemed to be in Room 6BCF for the pilot itself – either the Ray Bradbury panel immediately preceding the screening or the "Watchmen" director's cut screening occurring that evening – but the comic book-inspired pilot played really, really well in the room, and the ensuing panel almost played better. Naturally, having Mark Valley (late of "Fringe"), Chi McBride (late of "Pushing Daisies") and Jackie Earle Haley (late of "Watchmen") in your cast is going to be right up Comic-Con's alley, and the lightly comedic action with a twist of dark character work is just the sort of thing this audience would enjoy. And, hey, having Tricia Helfer (late of "Battlestar Galactica) play the main guest star didn't hurt. The pilot sort of plays like "Burn Notice" crossed with a gritty low-budget indie action film. The crowd laughed in all the right places, cheered the most impressive action sequence and gave the episode a hefty dose of applause at the end.
The best thing about "Human Target" is its action sequences, which are truly impressive on a TV budget. There's one fistfight that took place in a location I'd never thought might make a good location for a fistfight, and it plays terrifically, and just when you think that fight has gone on way too long, there's a perfectly grisly capper to the sequence that sends it out on a great, gruesome laugh. There's a later stunt that's also pretty impressive on a TV budget, though it doesn't work quite as well as the fistfight. The character work, based on the characters created by legendary comics writer Len Wein, is really solid, though the pilot gave only a taste of the interpersonal relationships the post-screening panelists insisted were present. And the laugh lines are well-placed and all generally very funny. The pilot may not have created any rabid fans, but it definitely played warmly enough to generate interest when it debuts in January.
Wein, McBride, Valley, Haley and executive producers Jon Steinberg (who is also the showrunner), Brad Kern and Peter Johnson all turned up for the panel. The cast and Wein drew the most applause, but Steinberg answered most of the questions, as he explained how he turned the comic (which was about a man who literally took the place of the people who were in danger to draw out the people who wanted them dead) into the TV series (which is about a man who assumes a role in close proximity to the people who are in danger). The appeal of the material to him, he said, was that he could do a fun action show, but also set it in a new world with new characters every week, since only Valley, McBride and Haley will be regulars. But he couldn't use the original concept of the comic to do that, he said, because it would be too unbelievable.
"The conceit that he becomes you works really well in print, and as soon as it becomes flesh-and-blood ... it trips something in the back of your mind that you know you're being messed with," Steinberg said.
Wein, for his part, thinks it works well. He's adapted his characters into other media over the years, he said, and he thinks you have to take into consideration what works best in each individual medium before you plunge ahead with an adaptation. He also said that the character of Christopher Chance (the lead in "Human Target") was the first character he ever pitched to his editors, though it took several years for the character (originally called Johnny Double) to get a place in any DC comic books. He finally did when Wein's editor needed a backup story for an issue of Action Comics and didn't want to do a superhero story, opting for more straightforward action instead.
The actors were all pleased to be playing their characters, and the chemistry between the three was palpable, both in the screening and on the panel. Valley, who's played a long string of roguish heroes, says that this twist on that formula is a guy who's got a dark and nefarious past that the series will slowly delve into as it goes along. Ultimately, though, he's doing what he can to fight for what's right. "He's not afraid to put himself on the line and risk his life for somebody else," Valley said.
McBride, who freely admitted that the character of Winston is similar to other characters he's played in the past (like Emerson Cod of "Daisies," which drew a big cheer from the crowd), also said that he liked how Winston's concern for Chance's seeming death wish will lead him to try to save Chance from indirectly killing himself over the course of the series. It's that relationship that gives McBride his interest in the role. "(Chance and Winston) have a kind of a yin-yang existence and all three of us together are kind of a dysfunctional family," McBride said. He added that the three will bicker amongst themselves, but to "anyone outside of the circle, we're all a united front."
Haley, who's following up his Oscar nomination for "Little Children" and his fan-pleasing work as Rorschach in "Watchmen" with his role as Guerrero in this, said that he was drawn to the quality of the pilot script and the idea of playing a character over several years and seeing how both he and his relationships with his co-workers change. Plus, Haley said, he liked that when people need help protecting themselves, they turn to Chance, but "when Christopher Chance needs some information, he goes to Guerrero."
Valley said that working with Helfer was fun, though the fact that she decided to do all of her own stunts meant that he had to do all of those stunts as well for consistency's sake. Everyone on the panel said they hoped they could bring Helfer's character back and explore the furtherance of her relationship with the firm she hired to save her life.
All in all, "Human Target" is aiming to hit that '80s action sweet spot that Stephen J. Cannell used to hit week after week, but in a way that will seem invigorating to modern audiences. "In general, the idea is that we never wanna do bad action, we never wanna do boring action," Steinberg said. "I think every week is gonna be a big setpiece that's big and smart and fun."