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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Syfy Imagines MUCH Greater

Over the past decade, network television has pulled from two main sources to round out their fall season schedule.  Reality TV has become a hit with a large percentage of the audience and every year each network gives us more and more of this low budget, easy to produce programming concept.  The second avenue TV execs commonly look to utilize is the recycling of popular shows like Law & Order, CSI and NCIS, by way of the spinoff.  Even the spinoffs have spinoffs as in the case of NCIS which spawned NCIS: Los Angeles and was itself a spinoff of JAG.   All fun shows but not new ideas.

One of my favorite times of the year for television programming is the off-season for the big networks; usually in the summer.  One channel that captures a good portion of my attention during this period is Syfy.  It’s because Syfy delivers innovative, original programming on such a consistent basis.  With a strong stable of core shows like Eureka, Warehouse 13, Ghost Hunters and Battlestar Galactica, Syfy has created quite a buzz around the television industry.  Adding to that nucleus are the recently produced and acquired shows Caprica, Haven, WWE NXT and WWE SmackDown, all of which made or will make their debuts sometime in 2010. 

With many of the recent programming moves over the last year or so, it is clear that Syfy is trying to appeal to a broader audience and position itself as a more diversified cable channel by offering more than just science fiction with some of their new television franchises/brands.  Especially in the case of Syfy’s WWE programming which has a huge audience and could give the station more visibility and more eyeballs on its other programming.  By offering some of the most diverse content on television, Syfy has carved out a loyal fan base.

 The previously scrutinized decision in 2009, where the cable television network received heavy criticism for changing its name from “Sci Fi” to the current “Syfy” signaled a shift in the direction the station intended to head.  Overall, I think Syfy’s rebranding efforts have been a positive move on its part; it will strengthen the Syfy imprint in the cable television universe.  While it is intelligent to increase brand visibility and grow market share it is pleasant to see that Syfy has remained true to its origins and continue to be the home for excellence in the science fiction genre.  In fact, the core demo for the channel is still a younger, hipper audience of both genders who understand pop culture and have an appreciation for the technological world we live in today. 

I have always admired how odd and quirky many of the shows and characters are. Specifically there are two programs that encompass some of the best of Syfy; Eureka and Warehouse 13.  Both Eureka and Warehouse 13 offer a one-two punch of the same type of genre so stylistically if you are a fan of one, chances are, you will be a fan of both.  The shows have even had a few crossover episodes to bring that point home even more. They are lighthearted, science fiction, supernatural dramas, with a splash of comedy. 

Eureka is a show full of scientific geniuses who all have their oddities but the show does a great job in keeping them interesting, friendly and accessible to the audience.  Sometimes science fiction can get a bit too technical and leave the audience scratching its head, struggling through the vernacular in the dialogue.  Lucky for the non-scientifically inclined viewers, there is Jack Carter who represents an everyday man as the Sheriff of Eureka.  Jack reminds me of Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs, as both are put in uncomfortable situations every episode with experts in a field they know very little about.  Yet by the end of the show, they have walked with the audience step by step to solve their problems.  Both Carter and Rowe have held their own with the specialists in the field and finished the task at hand; whether that is saving the town from exploding to smithereens, or working as a cricket farmer to process bug poo to be sold as fertilizer. 

The special effects also add to the show’s charm.  For a cable station budget, Eureka does a nice job of incorporating CGI and other special effects; but you are never going to confuse it with a DreamWorks production, which is ok.  Whether it is the lighting bolts that shoot out of flying saucers, gigantic robots roaming the town, or talking houses that do little else than have a voice and some flickering light attached to a living room, Eureka brings enough of the science fiction elements in to play to satisfy the audience.  Combine that with the natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest in British Columbia, Canada, where the series is shot and the viewer gets quite a few secondary visual facets that play well with the cast of characters and make Eureka a peculiar show.  The series has its season long story arc, but each show is also self-contained enough that you can join the program in mid-season and still enjoy what you are watching.  

Warehouse 13 is another Syfy original that proves you can blend science with comedy and have a pretty entertaining hour.  Taking a page out of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Mummy movies, the episodes of Warehouse 13 center around the retrieval of an artifact (usually invented or created by someone famous in history past) that has now fallen into the wrong hands and is causing havoc somewhere around the globe.  Each show the writers get to pull from historical figures with the likes of Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini, Ben Franklin, and Edgar Allen Poe and add to their mythology.  The premise of the show and the broad constructs that the show is based around, allows for endless possibilities for stand alone scripts and shows.  The ability to pull from any period in man’s recorded history is quite a full treasure chest of ideas to have at your disposal.  The introduction of the semi-regular character, H.G. Wells, hit the bullseye in season two.  The real H.G. Wells is often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction”, but in Warehouse 13, “he” is a “she” and it works perfectly under the ironic and imaginative parameters of the show. 

In 2010 when everyone seems to have some sort of smartphone or other hand held multimedia device, Warehouse 13 gets old school with some of its gadgets and brings to life several “historical” goodies.   The Farnsworth, invented in 1929, is an audio/video device that the agents use to communicate with one another.   Think of Skype on an iPhone, only in black and white.   Since Warehouse 13 at times resembles a sitcom, it is too fun of a place to kill people, at least in every episode.  Instead the agents use a Tesla Gun (electrical pulse gun) as their weapon of choice, which will only incapacitate their foe.  It is ingenious nuances like these that make Warehouse 13 so fun.   

In today’s world with the viewer having so many options on television it is extremely difficult for a station to jump out of the pack and assert its brand and product into the minds of the public.  Syfy has done just that.  With its fresh, original content, acquiring television properties with international brand awareness, like WWE programming, and continuing in its original tradition as the motherland of all things science fiction, Syfy will continue to receive accolades and viewer support.