The second season of Human Target debuts tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Once upon a time, there was this show.
It wasn't a great show. But it was definitely a good show, and it had moments where it hit all the right notes in all the right ways, a kind of guilty pleasure that, through cast chemistry and sharp writing, managed to knock off the "guilty" part pretty consistently. The show was an action drama, but there weren't any cops, and the direction was solid without being flashy; the set-pieces were thrilling and cleanly edited; and the scripts were often just the right amount of clever. You could call it an throwback to the action-dramas of the '80s, but strip away the veil of nostalgia and it's obvious that this particular show, at its best, was a lot better than most of those action-dramas ever were. This show was like an idealized version of The A-Team—all great quips, guy-bonding, and hot guest-stars and a gratifyingly small amount of cheese.
Sadly, despite this show's marked improvement over the course of its first season, and despite its straightforward tone and simple delights, it wasn't pulling in the ratings. It did well enough to last a full first run of episodes, and it even got picked up for the fall, but changes, clearly had to be made. So the retooling fairies showed up to work their magic, and the creative forces behind this good-but-struggling show had to try and do the impossible: Keep whatever made the series popular enough to attract its small fan-base, while at the same time somehow broadening its appeal and reaching a wider audience. The show was scheduled for a dead time slot, but through luck, and the misfortune of other (possibly better) series, this show, our show, was rescheduled to Wednesday nights. It's not exactly a second chance, but something close to it, and this entertaining-but-not-life-changing show has its shot at the modest recognition and acclaim it so rightly deserved in season one. Thing is, it's not really the show it once was, but it's not completely new, and the changes were driven by commercial reasons and not artistic ones. So if it does manage to pull of the rare feat of making a second first impression, does it still deserve the chance?
Which brings us to Human Target, premiering its second season tonight with "Ilsa Pucci." The regular cast—Mark Valley, Chi McBride, Jackie Earle Haley—is back, and the series picks up by resolving the cliffhanger left at the end of last season, so this isn't a reboot. You don't have to throw out your season one fan fiction as non-canon just yet. But this is different, and getting those differences into place means that "Pucci" never feels quite as comfortable in its own skin as the show once did. Take that resolution; not to spoil anything, but all the main points are thoroughly taken care of by the end of the cold open, and it's the sort of narrative fix that plays as thrilling, but looks awkward once the thrill wears off. Nothing we see here, at least initially, fails to hold up to what was established before, and cliffhanger conclusions can often seem abrupt after months spent waiting for a conclusion. And yet, despite the effectiveness of the set-piece, in hindsight, it has the feeling of pushing the old out of the way to make for the new as quickly and brutally as possible.
Really, though, it's not like anyone had a choice. Re-tooling is never a smooth process, because for anyone who's been watching Target from the beginning, the rhythms have already been well-established; shifting into different gears (he said, mixing metaphors with wild abandon), even when the changes aren't as drastic as they could've been, means trying to get used to a new beat. It doesn't help that, while it did a good job of keeping things fresh, Target is a formula-based series. Christopher Chance (Valley) runs a protection agency along with his two buddies. Every week, somebody desperate for help, with no place left to turn, comes to Chance and asks him to shoot some bad guys. Chance dives in, meets the new hottie guest star who may or may not ever be seen on the series again, and uses his training as a former evil assassin to save the day. Winston (McBride) and Guerrero (Harvey) run interference on the sidelines, and occasionally get involved in the main action. Rinse, repeat.
Sure, there's a mythology element—Chance's former employer, the evil Armand Assante, isn't too happy that he quit the business, and the terrific season one finale gave us some glimpses into Chance's past that were just begging to be revisited—but this isn't a serialized drama. This is a series whose premise allows for a weekly reset button; change happened but rarely significant change. So to have all that set on its ear, to find the basic model of the series put on its ear in one episode, with the introduction of two new female characters and a new business plan, well, that's going to be a trifle bumpy. The three leads are comfortable enough in their roles that that it mostly works, but there are enough wrong notes to raise concerns about Target's new direction.
Still, what made this series so much fun to begin with is largely intact. Because its premise is essentially a distilled version of half-a-dozen other shows, Target relies on solid performances and well done action to justify its existence, and all three are present, although the dialog takes a beating. "Pucci" is often more overtly comedic than the show usually gets, probably to make it more user-friendly, and some of the jokes are too broad and familiar to work; there's one in particular that turns into a runner that just gets more painfully forced each times it comes up. Thankfully, though, the returning cast helps integrate the new faces and ideas without too much fuss. Valley makes a terrific leading man; his stoic nonchalance transforms what could've been a dull invulnerable hero role into something with just the right amount of edge. McBride does the standard "I'm too old for this shit" routine, but his sincerity makes it work. Same could be said for Haley, in the traditional "loose cannon" role. None of these characters are exactly original, but the performances and the occasional off-beat moments are enough to make them convincingly real, to provide at least an illusion of depth to a series that requires us to believe in it in order to work. That's crucial, actually; Target never winks at its audience, and it never spoofs itself or draws too much attention to its occasional indulgence in cliche. Target never tries to excuse poor scripting with an "Oh, hey, we're just funning you" nod. That makes it an oddity in a television landscape littered with the self-aware.
That also made it harder to stomach the show's dearth of interesting female characters. There were women in every episode, but few appeared more than once, and nearly all of them were forgettable. Target wouldn't have been the first series on TV to have no prominent feminine presence, and it wasn't what you'd call a deal-breaker. But given how much fun the core cast was, and given how often the female guest stars devolved into one-off romantic sparring partners for Chance, it didn't seem like that horrible of an idea to maybe bring in a regular of the lady persuasion. "Pucci" attempts to correct this oversight with two new leads. First there's Pucci herself, played by Indira Varma, a wealthy benefactor looking for protection from the people who may have murdered her husband. Then there's Ames (Janey Montgomery), a live-wire thief who gets involved in the case in a way that doesn't really make any sense at all. Neither character seems more than stock at this point. Pucci will almost certainly be a potential love interest for Chance somewhere down the line, and it'll be interesting to see how her role affects the feel of the series. Ames is cute but irritating, and it'll be impossible to tell anything about her till she calms down.
So what does the new Target feel like? It's hard to say just yet, but there's a broadness to the humor that doesn't really work. By the end of the episode, the Chance offices are retooled in a softer, gentler style, and the continued presence of Pucci and Ames is, for right now at least, neither promising nor damning. Of the two, Ames is the most problematic, but the concept could work once the initial kinks are worked out. The retooling has "audience friendly" stamped all over it, and that's not exciting for anybody, but it should settle into something less strident soon. So we'll see. If it's a choice between this and no show at all, "Pucci" is a passable compromise. We'll be covering the next few episodes of the season in the coming weeks, and seeing how things go, we may stick through the whole season. I'm hoping we do, because, when it clicks, this is really one of the most fun ways to spend an evening on TV. It's just—they changed the theme song, y'know? They added a guitar riff to it. I don't really know why anyone would think that an improvement.