Earlier this year, Syfy was choosing between airing two different shows about people with superpowers going on difficult missions: Alphas, and Three Inches. In the end, Syfy went with Alphas — but Syfy still aired the pilot for the other "superpowered team" show, Three Inches. Last night. With absolutely no fanfare — on a night when absolutely nobody was likely to be watching.
It's sort of fascinating that Three Inches was released into the world on the same day that we all got to see the unaired pilot of another show, 17th Precinct. But unlike Ronald D. Moore's off-kilter show about police investigators in a magical world, Three Inches... was probably not destined for greatness.
It's hard not to wonder, after watching the pilot, whether Syfy was contractually obligated to air the thing before the end of 2011. Of course, they could have just aired it at three in the morning, like Charlie Jade.
The good thing about Three Inches is, it stars everybody. It's a great chance to play "spot that actor." The main character, Walter, is played by someone I've never seen before — although he's trying his damnedest to be Michael Cera. His love interest is Jo from Supernatural. His other love interest is Kendra from Battlestar Galactica: Razor (and Jesse from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. His probably-evil mentor is Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.) His team-mates include Death from Supernatural, and Tosh from Torchwood. And so on.
The bad thing about Three Inches is... it has tonal problems. This show aims for "so quirky it hurts" and pretty much nails the "hurts" part. The Michael Cera-esque hero is the classic television underachiever, living with his mom at age 26. Every day, his mom makes him an elaborate breakfast and rattles off a bunch of "witty" dialogue at him, rapidfire, until he runs away without eating any of it. Samples of the mom's witty sayings:
"He who hesitates is brunch."
"You're too young to lock up in the basement, and too old to realize that dreams are just lies we tell ourselves when we're awake."
"All work and no play makes you my first husband."
"Hearts don't break like bones break. The pieces never mend!"
"All work and no play makes Walter a minimum wage employee."
Speaking of his mom's old car, Walter says, "It runs on anger and wishful thinking. Gets great gas mileage, too." See what I mean? Quirky. It's like Pushing Daisies, except it pushes much harder.
Meanwhile, Walter is in love with Jo from Supernatural, and he schemes to tell her the truth. Blah blah blah, quirky indy rocker unrequited love, blah blah blah. By the time Walter gets struck by lightning and gets limited telekinesis (he can move objects up to three inches, hence the show's title), you're screaming for something interesting to happen. Luckily, James Marsters swoops down and offers Walter a chance to "fight evil and make the world a better place." And then James Marsters and not-Michael Cera make out for half an hour. (If only.)
Here's the scene where James Marsters randomly pops up on not-Michael Cera's computer screen and tells him that courage is like the stars. I love how not-Michael Cera seems totally not phased by having a sudden giant webcam window pop up on his screen, even though he wasn't doing webcam stuff before that. Oh, sure, James Marsters, hijack my webcam. I don't mind. Talk to me about the stars.
Pretty quickly, James Marsters has introduced our Cera substitute to the super-team, which is all-quirky, all the time. The clip up top features Carlos, aka the Human Smell, who can make you smell things, and always talks about himself in the third person, because that's quirky. And yes, he really says "Stink on!" And we see a close-up of his pores releasing bad smells. Buh. Oh, and I love how nobody just shoots Smell during the more-than-adequate amount of time between him announcing his attack and the actual attack.
In another part, Smell says, "The only thing Smell liked better than the touch of a woman who thought he was cool, was a cool beer served to him by a woman."
It's actually remarkably similar to Alphas in a lot of ways — except instead of being autistic, the kid is smelly. Oh, and the lady who can do mind control in Alphas can only control your emotions in this version — because that's a perfect lady power. She can make you sad 'n' stuff. Or really happy. She can turn the world on with her smile, like Mary Tyler Moore. Death is the bug guy, and then there's a limited clairvoyant, and Tosh can imitate any sound she's heard.
So not-Cera goes on a mission with these guys, and it's all totally not what he signed up for, and we realize the surpassing irony of the fact that not-Cera lampshaded this trope in the first act, when he asks James Marsters, "Do you work for a secret government agency that turns out to be as bad as the bad guy in the end?" Which is, of course, more or less what actually happens. It's funny because it's self-aware.
Here's the scene where not-Cera meets the whole quirky team — and as much as we'd like to see all of these fine actors getting regular paychecks, it's probably for the best. We don't want to see Death and Tosh treated this way — even if it might give rise to a slim chance that a few years from now, we could get a Death and Tosh spin-off show where the two of them travel around the country in a minivan, solving mysteries and bantering. Dear Syfy: We'd totally watch The Death and Tosh Adventures.
Oh, and the not-Michael Cera has an African American best friend, who literally does whatever the plot requires of him, except for one time when he gets mad that not-Cera is ignoring him. (He shouts, "Lightning changed you, man!") And whenever not-Cera faces a problem (Getting his teammates drunk! Hiding a fugitive super-girl!) he takes everyone to the restaurant/bar where his friend works, so they can use that one set they built. Given that the last time Syfy had a TV show with an "African American best friend," he had one awful "gotta keep him crying at the wedding or he dies" episode, and then disappeared from the series forever, this probably wouldn't have turned out well.
I could go on and on recounting the awesomeness of this pilot — but I think we've covered the basics. It's cute, and quite possibly would have improved drastically if it had gone to series. The standard disclaimers apply — many shows have terrible pilots and then go on to be perfectly great. Although it's hard to see how Smell could have become a great character. Or the mom. Or most of the others, really. By all accounts, this would have been a half-hour sitcom, meaning that every week you'd have had just 30 minutes of quirkiness, with a quickie mission, punctuated by James Marsters being wise and paternal and untrustworthy. It's really hard to imagine how that could have worked.
So on balance, Syfy probably made the right decision picking up Alphas instead of this show. Chalk this one up as a win for Syfy, all told. [Thanks to Adriene for the heads up that this was airing!]