Neverland

Neverland debuts tonight on Syfy at 9 p.m. Eastern.

So, you’d like to make your own original Syfy miniseries? That’s great, that’s really great, we’re always happy to get new blood here. Only, first, you’re sure you don’t want to do a GIANT FISH VERSUS GIANT FISH VERSUS FORMER TEEN IDOL movie? We save a lot of money on the effects work with those, because it’s all done by my nephew on his Commodore64. But I see you shaking your head, clearly Lorenzo Lamas isn’t sufficient muse for a talent as renegade as yours, that’s fine, we’ve got a couple weeks till we need Super Stingray Vs. Mega Whale in the can, I’m sure we’ll find someone who remembers how to take a lens cap off. But we’re talking about you, right, and we’re got high expectations, because clearly, you’re not willing to settle for some cheap off-the-shelf d-movie crap. You have ambitions, and at Syfy, we respect ambition. Remember Battlestar Galactica? Oh yeah, that was hella ambitious. And that show was just the kind of project we love, because it took a pre-existing property and “re-imagined” it for a more artistically critical and perceptive audience. Only the ratings sucked, so right now, what we’re looking for is a something that captures that old, “Hey, I sort of remember that title from when I was a kid!” feeling without all the political trickery or off-putting edginess. Basically, we want a simulacrum of darkness, without any of the uncomfortable emotions that real darkness might imply.

That sound good to you? Excellent! First thing, we need to find you a property to exploit. Something out of the public domain would be best, for obvious reasons—we want a story that’s lasted for decades on its own merits, which means that it clearly needs to be updated and tweaked and retold to suit modern audiences. (Besides, public domain equals no rights to buy, and no authors to come sue us if we fail to live up to their original vision.) I mean, obviously, we’re not trying to replace the original material or anything, because that would be ridiculous, but surely every time someone reads The Wizard of Oz or Alice In Wonderland, they’re really thinking deep down, “I like this, but I wish it had some kind of bullshit science fiction explanation, because all this childlike mystery and fairy tale eeriness really needs to be stripped of its wonder, otherwise how on Earth can I take any of it seriously?” We’re paying homage is what we’re trying to do, we’re acting on inspirational impulses generated by the work itself, and if that comes across as hackwork by a mediocre writer who, because he can’t rouse enough interest in his own stories, has taken to sucking the life force out of established classics as a desperate attempt to attract an audience, well, that’s just the risk we have to take to do what we do. We wouldn’t call ourselves “Syfy” if we cared what people thought of us.

How about Aladdin? I mean, right off the top of my head, I’m thinking, the genie is an alien from a planet thousands of light years away who was banished to Earth for his transgressions, the lamp is a prison, and he has the power to change reality because, well, we’ll just throw in that Arthur C. Clarke quote about science being indistinguishable from magic at the start. But that isn’t quite complicated enough, so we’ll have to have the Grand Vizier be an alien from a different race, and he’s trying to enslave the Earth, and the genie wants to stop him to redeem himself, and all that stands between us and chaos is some cute kid who wants to bang a princess. We update the whole thing to the future, say, 2050, make the city look like that city in Blade Runner, because everyone knows that’s what the future looks like, and the flying carpet has magnetic repulsors underneath, and the monkey is mechanical. Let’s make sure that Aladdin has some relationship to the Vizier, like, the Vizier took him in and trained him, and then Aladdin realized what was going on—maybe he saw a hologram, man, we fucking love holograms—and that’s what got him started on tracking down the genie in the first place. Stretch this out to three hours, make sure the princess love interest looks bad-ass on the surface, even though she wears a midriff-bearing costume and too much eye shadow and has a tendency to fall down a lot, and I think we’ve got something. I think we’ve got something that will fill up two nights worth of programming.

What’s that? You say that the Aladdin story’s been done? Pshaw, m’boy, p—shaw. That’s how this works. It’s not enough to take a familiar property—and we gotta tell you, every time we refer to some beloved children’s classic as “property,” like a piece of land where you can shoot all the natives, burn down the forests, and set up an amusement park full of concrete and stale hot-dogs, we get a little more turned on—and reshape it, we need to take an idea that’s been so over-used and ill-treated that a new version is almost a foregone conclusion in the minds of the viewing public. We don’t want people saying, “Hey, this isn’t great, but it is original and weird, and I’m not really familiar with the source material.” We want our audiences to be numb before they get through the opening credits. The property—ahhhh—we choose should be so well-known, so over-exposed and well-trod by other, almost certainly more insightful and talented artists than you, that any new iteration should be irrelevant before it is even conceived. Remember the feeling you had when you heard Tim Burton was directing a big-screen version of Alice In Wonderland? We want people to feel that way all the time.

For example: Neverland, a two-part miniseries airing tonight and Monday. It’s about Peter Pan, and god, there it is right there, that shrugging, gray apathy that clouds the brain and dulls the senses. And you haven’t even heard the plot yet. So, it turns out that Neverland is, wait for it, another planet entirely, and it’s a special, magic—wait, I’m sorry, special, blatantly impossible to explain via science but we’re going to pretend anyway planet, with fairies (tree spirits!), Indians (actual Native Americans, well, when we say “actual,” we mean, “hyper-idealized Dance With Wolves knock-offs who all seem to be wearing outfits stolen from a well-funded Thanksgiving Day school pageant”), and man-eating crocodiles with multiple legs. To get to this magical—gah, did it again, sorry—clearly entirely scientifically sound place, you need an orb. Anybody who shoots or drops or to break the orb is instantly transported from wherever they are to Neverland, and I will admit, the effects do look pretty cool here. This miniseries is, on the whole, as bland as you’d expect, but it has moments of visual splendor that don’t entirely blow, and we should probably talk to someone about that to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Anyway, you’ll be really impressed when you hear what we did with the characters. Oh, there’s still Peter Pan and James Hook, but in our version, Peter runs with a gang of thieving urchins in Victorian-era London, and he plays a fife to give the other kids orders from the rooftops, clearly symbolizing his eventual ability to fly. And who is the leader of his band of Dickensian waifs? “Jimmy,” a former London socialite who has been cast out of society and now manages a fencing school (yes, this will be important later), when he isn’t playing Fagan to the afore mentioned brats. Peter loves Jimmy. I mean, he really, really loves Jimmy, to the point where it gets a little uncomfortable at times, considering the stark age difference between the boy and the man, and the way Peter gets clearly, undeniably jealous when Jimmy starts hooking (ha!) up with a Pirate Queen (Anna Friel, who is very cute and sort of fun in the role, not that it helps much). We think the show was probably going for a sort of estranged father/son vibe, but the fact is, the kid who plays Peter, Charlie Rowe, is kind of basically terrible, and hits every emotional note with either a broad, whining squeal or dull, vapid surprise. His lack of subtlety helps transform “I have Daddy Issues” into a much creepier twist on the homo-eroticism of the Clark/Lex relationship in Smallville, and, despite us being soulless and mercenary and apathetic, even we were kind of unsettled by this.

But then, Rhys Ifans doesn’t help much as Hook. Somebody must have told him that the best way to play a vibrant, campy symbol of childhood nightmares, is to be as dreary and grim as possible, and Ifans commits to this interpretation in a big way. It’s kind of beautiful, honestly, because it fits so perfectly in with what we go for in these minis; Ifans at his best can be a live-wire, full of life and energy and wit, but in Neverland, he’s just another asshole struggling with severe depression, and he sucks the life out of his every moment on screen. Not that there’s much life to suck, mind you! There is, of course, all kinds of baffling backstory and torturous exposition to justify all this nonsense, because that is a key part of the model. This isn’t merely a re-imagining, it’s a prequel re-imagining, and the best way to make a prequel is to come up with a lot of over-complicated answers to questions that nobody was asking in the first place. Do you want to know why Peter can fly? Or why no one gets older in Neverland? Or why there are Indians running around? Or what fairies are? Of course you don’t. That’s part of the fun. But in Neverland, anything that can be made dull, will be made dull. Hell, we even brought in Bob Hoskins to play Smee; Hoskins was one of the few bright spots in Spielberg’s turgid Hook (which, despite being hideously sentimental and featuring Robin Williams in tights, is still better than this dreck), so we figured we should give him a chance to be really tepid and drugged like everyone else. And Keira Knightley does the voice of Tinkerbell, for some reason.

Is Neverland the worst thing ever? Of course not. That’s the other key element in the Syfy brand: we can do terrible (GIANT FISH), but when it comes to miniseries, we’re aiming for achingly, agonizingly mediocre. We want it to be just not-awful enough that people will watch the whole thing, because it’s easy to have it running in the background. It’s bad storytelling clothed in good storytelling, and there’s something horrible about that, about using other’s work to prop up your own vague, clumsy attempts at world-building. But don’t let it get you down, because that’s what we do here: take happy thoughts and bring them back down to earth. We’d love to have you on board, we think you’re just the kind of person we can work with, so if you’ll just sign right—hmm? You want to know why we do this? Oh, you know. We’re a mid-level cable network struggling to sell ad revenue in a world of DVRs and downloading, we have to grasp at any possibility of pulling in viewers, no matter how pathetically desperate or mercenary it may seem. At least, that’s what it looks like on the surface. Deep down, it’s possible that we’re actually creatures from a dimension far beyond your comprehension—I am Sy, She is Fy—and we’ve been on this planet for millions of years, guiding life through the centuries, locked in an eternal struggle with a secret, unnameable foe. We raised up the dinosaurs, our enemy destroyed them, just as he brought about the Black Plague, the Holocaust, tidal waves, famine, Tuesdays. Humanity is on the precipice of destruction, the Enemy is preparing to make his final move, and so we joined together to create a method of slowly, steadily preparing your minds to grasp the possibility of our existence, to help you embrace the idea that the straightforward is simply a cover for overwrought, improbably elaborate systems. If you agree to help us, if you make this series, Lamphead could be the final piece of the puzzle, minds around the world might finally be open to ridiculous possibilities, and the war to end all wars could begin.

Or it could just be we’re a bunch of hacks who don’t know good from Garfield. Either way, here’s a thousand bucks, let’s undercut some magic.

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