Highlander: Season One
By Dwip October 1, 2014, 8:44 am Comments (0) RSS Feed for this post

As I tried to convey in my little discussion of the movie, while the cheesy parts of Highlander are cheesy as hell, the compelling parts of Highlander are equally compelling, and it should come as a surprise to nobody that the powers that be decided to retcon the hell out of the movie and do a TV show instead.

As I will hopefully convey to you over the course of what is likely to be a lot of words, this whole TV experiment used 5 of its 6 seasons to rather great effect, exploring all of the complex interactions, feelings, emotions, and what have you when you have a mortal world with a shadowy population of people who live forever until you chop their heads off in a cool sword fight.

Only, well, this is Season 1. And Season 1 is…well, uneven, to put it mildly. It’s helped by a generally stronger sense of direction than the movie – while the first season flounders about quite a bit, it’s evident from the first episodes that they’ve got some sort of plan at work and an idea on how to get there, unlike the movie.

It’s also helped by a much stronger cast – Duncan, Tessa, and Richie for the most part work much better as a cast than Conner, Rachel, and Brenda did, even from the first. Adrian Paul makes a far, far more convincing action hero than Christopher Lambert ever did, and while he defaults to smug arrogance a bit much in the first bit, if you dressed that well and drove that cool of a car you’d be pretty damn smug too. Too, Adrian Paul and Alexandra Vandernoot have exceptional chemistry, automatically making Mac and Tessa’s relationship better than the creepy stalker vibe from the movie.

I’ve got more to say, but we’re going to try an experiment here and comment individually on each episode. That may be too many words. I’m not sure, but DVD Verdict did it and so too shall I.

THERE ARE SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT


The Gathering

As pilots to TV shows based on movies go, this one doesn’t stray particularly far from its source material. There are immortals. Sometimes other immortals show up. They fight. Conner MacLeod shows up, with even more bad dialogue and worse comedic lines. We have an evil immortal that tries to be the Kurgan with remarkably less success and a less over the top fight scene. We have random police suspicion. Oh, and we have Duncan MacLeod, a Scottish highlander with a katana who runs an antiques store, in a backstory that has never been used before in this universe even once.

Well, they do at least lampshade it.

As an episode this is ultimately compelling but kind of hard going, as the pilot attempts to introduce almost all of the central themes of the entire show in one episode and glosses over most of them. Immortals! Who get in fights with other immortals after their spidey senses tingle! Who love mortals but don’t bother to tell them anything! Feel our relationship angst!

This show starts a bit rough, is what I’m saying here. And yet it all ends up working for the same reason the movie worked – no matter what you do, the central premise here is extremely powerful stuff.

The fashion, well…

Family Tree

Introduced as a kid who tried to break into Mac’s shop in the pilot, Richie Ryan is all of a sudden living there and buddies with Mac and Tessa (wait what). And has no idea who his parents are, and so takes to the tough streets to track down his father, who may be a con man.

This whole episode is much more interesting as an origin story for Duncan MacLeod than the actual main Richie arc, never mind that Richie drives the story here and the Mac story is essentially a retread of Conner’s from the movie, and never mind the endless WHERE DO I COOOM FROOOM???s.

The thing about Richie here is that, A, Stan Kirsch wasn’t a particularly wonderful actor yet; and B, Richie Ryan is the least convincing street punk I have ever seen in my life. Thank God we’re not going to stay with the whole street punk thing forever, because man, any given character from the Wire would eat Richie’s lunch. Hell,
Jesse Pinkman could out-street Richie.

This one hurts, folks. This one hurts.

The Road Not Taken

1990s shows all have to have the requisite anti-drug episode, and I suppose this one gets to be Highlander’s. As an example of the type, it’s not altogether bad, but suffers from the heavy handed morals of very special episodes as well as the absolutely unconvincing Richie-as-street-kid thing. Angie, introduced here and soon to fade away, is far more convincing, and at this stage of the show I’d be convinced to drop Richie for her as a sidekick. It will get better.

It’s like these outfits mock themselves.

That said, the medieval China flashbacks are cool and hint at a depth to a Mac who has thus far only been shown as a rather illiterate Scottish highlander. We’ve more to learn, but this is the episode that starts opening the door a little bit – immortals can have complex friend/enemy relationships with each other going back centuries, and Adrian Paul is rapidly coming into his own as Duncan MacLeod – a little smug, a little dangerous, clearly having fun with being who he is.

Innocent Man

Continuing in the vein of Season 1’s extremely hit or miss episodes, this one features a mentally ill Vietnam vet who witnesses the aftermath of an immortal duel and gets the blame pinned on him.

Most of this episode is pretty bad. As much as I love to stereotype Pacific Northwest rednecks, the ones here were decidedly unconvincing depictions of my people, who I have yet to see half-assing it as the Klan:

Too, the whole “mentally disturbed Vietnam vet in a small town” trope was done much better by the first Rambo movie. The acting’s not particularly wonderful, Tessa goes out of character and tries to kill herself and Mac by being a dumbass in the car, and really the only saving grace here is the kind of cool Civil War flashbacks that do a good job in not much time selling why Duncan MacLeod would be friends with a guy who doesn’t show up at all in the present.

Innocent Man is also notable for continuing Season 1’s somewhat half-assed attempts at providing mortals-almost-intrude-on-immortal-business tension by augmenting the detective from earlier episodes with a reporter. I kind of liked the reporter, and it’s a shame that whole arc is going to die.

Free Fall

In which Joan Jett may or may not be a psychopathic immortal who toys with her victims before killing them, or maybe she’s brand new at this game and needs some help. You never know, do you?

This one’s actually pretty good. While Joan Jett may not have been made to be an actress, and her sword skills were so bad they had to fake the sword fight, the rest of the episode has tension and mystery and is overall pretty good for early Highlander.

This is also the first in a long line of Highlander episodes to feature rock musicians as immortals. Because if you’re going to rock the Queen soundtrack, you may as well embrace your roots, right?

Joan Jett wasn’t bad for this one, but we’ll see far better later.

Bad Day In Building “A”

The term is “bottle show.” The show needs to save some money, so they stick some actors in a single space. They’re usually pretty obvious and terrible. This one is…so so. A bad gag about parking tickets sends the gang down to the courthouse to re-enact Die Hard with a guy who isn’t an IRA terrorist but acts like one. All the cliches are here, with the semi-interesting twist that there’s an immortal in the building who can’t be executed like the other hostages. It’s not the best Highlander has to offer, but at least it largely lacks cringe worthy Richie scenes.

“Yes sweetie, go on in and play in the janitor’s closet full of dangerous chemicals all day. Daddy’s got to go collect his Father of the Year award.”

Mountain Men

The absolute best thing about this episode is that they replaced the opening credits with something that’s slightly less Vanilla Ice and more actually Highlander cool. As an episode, it’s a pretty straightforward thing where mountain men kidnap Tessa and Mac has to get her back in the dangerous wilderness. If you liked the Rambo in the wilderness scenes from First Blood you’ll like this, and Season 1 is getting better all the time.

Two things, however, drag this down. First, Wes Studi as the rural cop is…kind of a bad choice. You’re Magua, man! You can totally track these guys like a badass! Only not. The other thing is that the mountain men are absolutely and stereotypically awful. The whole premise is just laughably bad.

Although, on second thought, I do sort of know people who dress like that, and I think I own that hat. My superhick accent needs some work though.

Deadly Medicine

Again with the laughable premises. Sure, an ER doc just so happens to have a giant medical lab in his basement where he murders people for SCIENCE! with the unwitting aid of the world’s dumbest nurse. And then he tries to experiment on Mac and everything goes south.

This is an enormously snarkable episode filled with all the worst sorts of cliches, and yet the acting is solid enough to make it pretty watchable by early Highlander standards. The reporter from Innocent Man and Bad Day In Building “A” returns, and she’s just the right level of spunky but annoying reporter. Too bad she won’t be around for a whole lot longer.

“I’m sorry Barbara, but…you won’t be telling anybody anything.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll be dead!”

*cue dramatic music*

The Sea Witch

In which Richie stumbles across his ex and a drug deal, and Mac winds up faced off against a Russian mobster.

This is about the point when I can actually call an episode legitimately good. Not amazing, but the single mom needs a new life while being menaced by gangsters plot isn’t bad, the 1930s Russia flashback is pretty cool, and as Bill Panzer notes in his commentary, the whole thing where as much as Tessa would love to be a mother that’s just never going to happen for her is actually kind of sad and well dealt with by Season 1 standards.

On the downside, and god how do I even say this…

Revenge Is Sweet

At last we have an episode that’s good not just by Season 1 standards, but by any standards. An evil, manipulative immortal! A femme fatale! Intrigue! Mystery! Great sword fights! Betrayal! The Richie B plot is a little weak but unlike most Richie comedy attempts is actually pretty funny. The stagecoach robbery flashback is short but likewise comedic.

And then there’s our evil immortal. He’s…fabulous:

No, really, he is. Thus far we’ve only had a couple of guest stars who made the sword fight look good, but this guy pulls it off, and does so while arrogantly sliming his way across the screen in his super fab scarf, purple shirt, and trench coat. This guy was deliciously evil. He’s great.

See No Evil

Wherein a mortal serial killer imitates an immortal serial killer Mac knew back in the 20s.

On the one hand, Highlander’s forays into mental illness have not altogether worked, and every POV scene from the killer’s angle just felt off, not helped by some crazy camera effects.

On the other hand, everything else pretty much worked – The premise is cool, and they finally hit a good balance between the cops, the reporter, both of whom know something’s up with Mac, and Mac himself. Richie’s starting to grow into himself as a character, and Tessa’s both starting to get a good hard look at Mac’s world versus the real world, and stepping up and taking a tougher, less damsel in distress role. Highlander is finally coming into its own.

Also, lest you think I’m going to spend all of these dissing on Highlander’s crazy early 90s fashion, I think our power couple here look pretty stylish:

Yeah, I think I’m going to keep doing these screencaps.

Eyewitness

This one is a little strange, a result of the writers playing with scenarios again. Tessa witnesses what she thinks is a murder, and then things go sideways.

I confess that this one falls a bit flat for me, primarily because early Highlander police weren’t handled very well. We’re on our third detective sergeant character, only one of them was a commissioner…lieutenant…something…I don’t know. We’ve already done the immortal police chief thing, and the evil immortal’s entire plan seems harebrained and contrived. What exactly was sniping Tessa supposed to do exactly?

While I support the idea of Tessa-centric episodes, I don’t think this one worked quite as well as the one before it. On the other hand, Richie looking approvingly at his parking job.

Band of Brothers

In which we have a take on immortal concepts of peace, justice, and morality.

This is one of the best episodes of early Highlander. It marks the transition between the half season in Vancouver and the half season in Paris, always an indicator of a strong episode, but in this one we start to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Most of the episodes thus far have been pretty low grade affairs – mortal foes, fairly weak immortals. Darius and Grayson are the real deal, a thousand years older than Duncan MacLeod. Old enough to have seen some real shit go down.

While Grayson is the antagonist here, and a menacing one who actually looks like he’s really going to win there for a moment, the real conflict is between Darius and Mac, or rather their philosophies. Is pacifism enough in the face of evil? Is it truly a higher calling? Or do we need soldiers like Duncan MacLeod to let the pacifists like Darius do their good works?

This episode also sets up some things that we won’t see again for a while, namely the idea that immortal quickenings can change the personality of other immortals. Too, it raises the question: can evil men redeem themselves and become good ones? We’ll get to those, but not today.

“Hey MacLeod, want to duel on these foul-smelling but awesome-looking piles of sulfur?”

“Yeah, sounds great! It’ll look wicked cool in the wide shot!”

For Evil’s Sake

In which creepy mimes kill everyone. No, really, creepy mimes kill everyone. Sometimes in a mannequin warehouse.

This one went to some strange places, and I confess that the A plot has never really grabbed me all that much. The fun bits are the smaller pieces – Kuyler being his evil self, 1982 Duncan MacLeod meeting Tessa, the first appearance of the barge, these are all pretty good. The actual mystery of the killer dragged a bit and left me cold.

As an aside, it’s astounding how dramatically better the flashbacks suddenly get the moment we get to France. Observe:

For Tomorrow We Die

DVD Verdict has this one right – Roland Gift was made for this show and this role. Xavier St. Cloud is at once suave and utterly ruthless, and his trick of using poison gas to rob people is extremely memorable. He’s easily one of the very top Highlander, and this is a great episode – tense, creepy, threatening, with a cool World War I flashback to top it off with. This is very likely the best episode in Season 1, one of the best of the series, and the only thing I could possibly gripe about is that mustard gas doesn’t actually work like that. But who cares?

I want this hat.

The Beast Below

In which Highlander tries to go all Hunchback of Notre Dame and comes up particularly short.

Highlander tends to be weakest the closest to the source material we get, and this one is a pretty obvious and paint by numbers affair. There are some good parts, such as Richie’s increasing success with women (such as it is) and the very cool sword fight atop the Paris Opera, but on the whole there’s just not an awful lot here.

Well, except the shoutout to early 90s music videos, that is.

Saving Grace

Unlike the last episode where the filed serial numbers showed clearly, this is one of the best episodes in the first season, wherein Duncan runs into an friend and an old flame, who (surprise!) is in trouble from her controlling ex-boyfriend.

There’s a lot of really strong themes in this one – how do immortal lovers behave? Immortal lovers who went on to be friends? How do immortals and their mortal lovers deal with the mortality of one half of the pair? How do abusive immortal relationships work? What goes on when an immortal suddenly needs a new life? What about pacifist immortals?

How do all of these questions work together? Saving Grace gives us a pretty good stab at answering at least a little of it. Most of these themes are central to the Highlander experience, part of what it makes it such compelling television and not just a cheesy collection of 90s sword duels set to rock music. The efforts Highlander makes to grapple with the nuances of immortality, mortality, and the universal human experience are what draw me to this show.

Well, that and the flashbacks.

The Lady and the Tiger

Two episodes of Duncan’s immortal ex-girlfriends in a row might possibly have been a bit much, but Elizabeth Gracen as Amanda is sexy, confident, and a mischevious con artist who happens to have fantastic chemistry with MacLeod and who makes a nice counterpoint to Grace from the last episode. Back to back, it’s amusing to go from Tessa and Grace palling around one moment to Tessa and Amanda verbally catfighting the next. Add in a circus and a heist, and this is a hell of an episode.

Too, along with the other Paris episodes, this is where we see Highlander really come into its own, starting to see the episodes that will form the building blocks of the whole rest of the show. We’re starting to get to the stuff that’s so good it has to come back in some form or another.

Also, because Adrian Paul really knows how lay it on:

Eye of the Beholder

One of the perils of being an immortal, of course, is that sometimes your friends for dozens of years are suddenly your enemies. And so it is here. Like Amanda, Gabriel Piton is something of a scoundrel. Unlike Amanda, Gabriel Piton crosses Duncan MacLeod’s don’t hurt the mortals line.

As an episode, the A plot is kind of predictable and meh. As with many, the goodies are in the B plot – Mac’s continued role as a father figure to Richie, Richie’s continued evolution as a character and his growing up a bit, another relationship between immortals that goes back centuries, and flashbacks that show a much more free-wheeling, cavalier Mac than the staid and serious family fan of the present day. There are depths to Duncan MacLeod that we have yet to fully explore.

Avenging Angel

Highlander tries to do a morality play about sinners and sin and it doesn’t quite work. The idea of a deranged religious guy being immortal is a pretty good one, but Cahill isn’t particularly convincing in a role that’s mostly just him screaming a lot:

The prostitution angle is heavy-handed considering how it’s handled in the entire rest of the show’s run, and as a bonus turns Tessa into a bit of a selfish bitch – “How could she just leave without saying goodbye?” Well, Tessa, I don’t know. Maybe because you were kind of horrible to your friend about the whole whore thing? Could be?

Thankfully, the whole thing mercifully ends after a short and unsatisfying ending in which the writers cheat Cahill a couple of ranks in dual wielding so that Mac can’t just chop his baby immortal head off three seconds in.

Nowhere to Run

Highlander tries to be Home Alone. Of all the things you would never expect them to rip off, this is it.

For an episode about such weighty topics as rape and differing standards of justice, this thing was abysmal. This is the second bottle episode of Season 1, and it’s absolutely trash. The acting isn’t bad, but here we have Mac and the gang defend a chateau against a guy with grenade launchers, automatic weapons, and a team of 80s action movie commandos with tricks out of the Home Alone playbook – electric shocks on the door knobs, trip wires, boiling oil, and a giant bear trap in the middle of a room.

No, seriously, there’s a god damned bear trap.

There is nothing of value here. By the time the atmospheric showdown in the woods happened, I just didn’t care. None of it made sense. None of it was worth anything. This is some of the very worst of Highlander.

The Hunters

And so we reach the end of Season 1. Things go a little crazy here. The story is that suddenly the actor playing Darius died of a brain tumor, and they were forced to rewrite everything in a day so as to keep the show going. And so we get a lot of flashback retreads and a bit over way over the top Adrian Paul acting.

We also get a new immortal, High Fitzcairn, and…it’s Roger Daltrey of the Who!

Highlander’s rock star guest stars have not always been inspired choices, it must be said. Many of them are frankly awful. Daltrey, on the other hand, has the acting chops to immediately sell a hundreds of years old friendship with Mac, he’s witty, he’s charming, he’s genuinely funny. As we’ll see going forward, this is one of the best decisions Highlander ever made.

Too, I think the introduction of a whole new power in the Watchers/Hunters was a good one, though this opinion is pretty controversial among the fans. Immortal of the week doesn’t work forever, we needed some mortal involvement beyond the increasingly lame police and reporter characters, and in the Watchers and Hunters we got some. They’re creepy, they’re mysterious, they’re intriguing, and they’re going to give us some of the show’s best characters…next season.


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