Starring Christopher Egan, Natalie Dormer, Kevin McNally
Directed by Alex Graves
ABC TV Pilot
Poe is in. Edgar, that is. He’s a hot property. John Cusack is playing him in a major feature film, Jeffrey Combs is blowing away audiences as Poe in his one-man show, and now ABC has bought this pilot featuring a young Poe as a private detective of sorts in Boston in the 1840’s.
I had the luck to get my hands on a screener of the pilot episode, and my feelings are decidedly mixed.
A few things should be said upfront. First, I’m a Poe nerd. Big time Poe fan. Love me some nerdy tortured drunken poetic horror man. Second, this is a pilot. This isn’t the product of a finished show with a full complement of writers and such. Third, as such we have no idea if the cast is final, if the same writers will work on the series, etc.
As I said, my feelings are very mixed. Parts of “Poe”, I loved. First time I saw “Supernatural” level of love. The episode opens with a man lounging in a big brass bathtub while a beautiful woman with a strange, tree-like growth of veins on her back strips (suggestively, this is ABC after all) and joins him…and them proceeds to murder him. This scene is dripping with dark imagery. The woman begins by playing the “Moonlight Sonata” on a piano, which continues to play by itself when she walks away. Candlelight, shadows, it all evokes Poe’s work well.
After we finish the credit sequence, we have some very Steampunk-influenced bar patrons (lots of monocles and brass gadgets) and we meet Poe.
And here we have our biggest problem.
Christopher Egan (Resident Evil: Extinction, “Kings”) is a handsome, charming, fast-talking, quick-witted young man. He’s clean-shaven, very dashing, and despite having a dark past, seems very alert and free from demons.
In short, the guy couldn’t be -less- Poe. Part of this is casting; Poe was not a looker…definitely not a clean-shaven hunk with light brown hair in a very 21st-century style. He was an odd duck. Egan is anything but that; he’s an underwear model on his day off.
The other part is the writing. This is not Edgar Allan Poe, it’s Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. Quick with speech, wit, and observation, “Poe”‘s lead is neither awkward nor haunted. He’s pining over a lost love and has a terrible, tragic run-in with the supernatural in his past, but beyond a couple of brooding stares into the distance, we see no sign that this is the damaged man we know from history.
The writing also does not hold up to Poe’s standards. This is a run-of-the-mill police procedural. Poe is hired as a consultant (our apologies, Sir Conan Doyle) by surly police detective Kilpatrick, played by the wonderful Kevin McNally of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Kilpatrick grouses about not believing in Poe’s supernatural nonsense, yet keeps hiring him. And arresting him when Poe gets out of line. One keeps waiting for Poe to slip and call him Lestrade.
Poe is accompanied by the plucky yet gorgeous reporter Celeste Chevalier (Natalie Dormer), who clearly has a thing for Poe despite being a staunch skeptic when it comes to the supernatural. (Our apologies, Chris Carter.) Together, they romp through Boston trying to stop a series of murders committed by women Poe believes to be possessed via some sort of ritual. Scull…I mean…Celeste insists science is the culprit, and off we go.
If that sounds like many shows or films you’ve seen before, that’s because it is. The plot couldn’t be more pedestrian, despite the supernatural elements. It lifts heavily in tone and content from many far superior mystery/adventure franchises at its own peril.
I did say my feelings were mixed, didn’t I? Sounds like it was miserable, doesn’t it?
Not so fast. First of all, the show is gorgeous. Absolutely, amazingly gorgeous. The attention to detail and design are stunning. It just oozes Gothic spookiness from every nook and cranny. It sounds like a petty detail, but it’s not. “Poe”‘s Boston is a character in the show, and it’s a strong one. Probably the strongest. One keeps waiting for a tentacle to writhe out into a shadowy alley next to a sign that says ‘Arkham’.
The other thing they nail very well is the horror. While it avoids “Supernatural”‘s violent and gory tendencies, remember that this is Poe…not one to engage in such excesses. We still have possessed women crawling up walls and all sorts of other nastiness. The mood is spot-on. The show is never scary, but the horror is played straight and never coy: Bad things are going on, and they show up regularly.
There’s also a lot of goodies for Poe fans. Everything from a possessed woman named Ligeia and another named Rowena to a victim who truly enjoys his amontillado, little bits of Poe’s world are dropped throughout the show to give those familiar with his work a little chuckle.
That’s the frustration here. What they get right, they get very right. But what they get wrong, primarily the casting and character of Poe, they completely botch as badly as possible. While seemingly in touch with the feeling of Poe’s work and many little details involving it, they can’t even sort out the man’s hair color. One gets the idea that the primary character exists solely to attract women…but the hook of this show is the connection to reality, the man named Edgar Allan Poe who captures our imaginations and chills our souls. Egan’s Poe couldn’t chill a penguin sitting on the highest peak in Antarctica.
There’s a seed of a good show here. Unfortunately, the primary change that needs to happen is at the very center: Poe himself. If they have time to make that change before they start shooting for the season, they could have a winner. If not, expect Poe to be lying cold and dead in the Rue Morgue come fall.
2 out of 5