Test Pilot #49: Wonder Woman
Debut date: N/A – unaired pilot that quickly leaked online in spring 2011
Series legacy: LOL
Welcome friends, to the second Test Pilot Special Theme Week. We had such great success with the week devoted to Joss Whedon-produced series back at the first of the year that I thought it would be fun to take another stab at it.
Every day this week, a guest and I will take on a famous (or in a few cases, infamous) pilot focused on a famous comic book superhero. These characters have become massive properties in the film industry over the last 20 years (especially the last 10-12), driving many of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. This summer season kicked off with Whedon’s Avengers, perhaps the most anticipated film in the genre and one that succeeded all expectations. New Batman and Spider-Man films are soon to come. Superheroes are big business for film.
But on television? Geesh. Networks have attempted televised adaptations of popular superhero characters for decades, but most of them have failed, commercially, creatively or (in most cases) both. This theme will take a look at some of the high-profile attempts to make superheroes fly on the small screen and consider what worked and what did not.*
*Our discussions will focus solely on live-action superhero series. It is important to note that animated series centered on comic book heroes have thrived for years, and continue to do so. Surely there is more to the varying successes than simply visual effects and budgets, right?
Friday. As my favorite poet Rebecca Black likes to say, time to get down. We’ve reached the end of our superhero week and before we get to the final discussion, I just wanted to thank Andy, Cameron, Adam, Wesley and Andrew for joining for these pieces. I had a great time reading and responding to their work and it seems like readers enjoyed the week as well. If you missed any of this week’s files, make sure to check them out.
We close this exploration of comic book heroes on television with the most infamous recent attempt to make it all work on the small screen: 2011’s Wonder Woman. Someone at Warner Bros. and NBC thought it would be a good idea to give David E. Kelley, mastermind of Ally McBeal and Harry’s Law, among many other things, free reign to crack a character that Joss Whedon struggled to do on the film side for years. SHOCKINGLY, Kelley’s Wonder Woman didn’t quite work out, as NBC passed on taking the pilot to series (and just renewed Harry’s Law to stay in the Kelley business instead). However, someone at NBC or WB thought the world deserved to see this 41-minute masterpiece and Woman quickly leaked online (and it’s still out there). It is…something. What a way to finish up.
Joining me today is Andrew Rabin A law student who actually finds Studio 60 more enjoyable than The Wire, Andrew blogs less often than he says he’s going to at The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. You can follow Andrew on Twitter, although he apologizes in advance if you’re not a Mets fan. Andrew, do your thing:
While superhero movies have been central to American cinema in the 21st century, the vast majority of these films have featured male superheroes. Three (soon to be four) Spider-Man films, two (soon to be three) Nolan Batman films, a couple of Hellboy and Ghost Rider films and single features about the likes of Green Lantern, Daredevil, Green Hornet and Superman, among others have all been about the leading men. The Avengers was preceded by origin films for Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, but Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was limited to a role in Iron Man 2. Only the critically panned Catwoman and Elektra have focused on female superheroes. So in some ways, the bar was low for a female-centric superhero stories, in any live-action medium.
And in some ways, David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman did clear that bar. Adrianne Palicki was inspired casting. She’s beautiful (the kind of woman a nerdy high school guy might commit manslaughter to be with) and exceptionally tall, and while that might sound shallow, they are defining characteristics of Wonder Woman. Palicki is also quite talented, and was at the time coming off of solid performances on two critically beloved shows (Friday Night Lights and Lone Star).
Using a triple personality for Wonder Woman, rather than the traditional double, was a smart way to avoid the “how does nobody realize Diana Prince is Wonder Woman” issue. When there is already a known alter ego for Wonder Woman, suspicion is less likely to exist. Tracie Thoms is good casting for Diana Themyscira’s assistant, and while it is unclear if his role would have continued into the series, Edward Herrmann made a compelling obstacle for Wonder Woman.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth Hurley’s Veronica Cale, the primary villain of the episode, and presumably into the series (more on that in a minute), is neither compelling nor a legitimate matchup for Wonder Woman. Hurley as an actress is nowhere near Palicki’s level, but that could be overcome by stronger material (Minka Kelly was nowhere near the actress Palicki was on FNL, but Kelly’s Lyla was written compellingly enough that, even if she wasn’t as interesting as Palicki’s Tyra, she was still a character you could care about). Or even better, the role could be recast – this is, after all, an unaired pilot.
But that ignores that Cale, as a character, is written to be no real threat to Wonder Woman. While Wonder Woman has seemingly limitless strength and exceptional superpowers, Cale’s strength is her performance-enhanced army of guards. Once Wonder Woman gets past that army, Cale is no issue. And here is where Kelley shows his true colors: because while Cale is set up as the big bad early in the episode, Wonder Woman’s real enemy seems to be her love life.
Kelley steals a page from his Ally McBeal playbook here. Much like the title character in that show’s pilot, Diana is faced with a surprising work encounter with the now-married love of her life. And this is why Kelley chose to make a show about a female who happens to be a superhero rather than a superhero who happens to be a female. While Veronica Cale is arrested at the 35 minute mark, the lasting moments are a look at how sad Diana’s personal life is. And this is not in any creative way. Diana Prince is shown as a crying woman, talking to her cat, and watching The Notebook, who lists that cat as her only friend on her Facebook page.
And if that weren’t bad enough, there is the completely unnecessary scene where Diana complains about her company exploiting her “genetic blessings” by enhancing her figure on a new action figure set to be released. While Kelley is famous for using his characters as a mouthpiece for his social and political ideas, when Diana exclaims in a board meeting “I never said to merchandise my tits!” it seems likely that Kelley is providing a meta response to the many complaints about the released images of the Wonder Woman costume. This was always a silly controversy to me; Palicki’s Wonder Woman costume was no more revealing than the one that Lynda Carter wore in the original series. Here, however, Kelley seems to need to make a statement that he is, in fact, opposed to the television equivalent of merchandising Wonder Woman’s tits, or sexing her up for ratings.
Then there is the downright silly. In a scene which can only be described as “look at all the famous people David E. Kelley knows,” Alan Derschowitz, Nancy Grace, Jeffrey Toobin, and Dr. Phil all appear on television to provide their opinions of Wonder Woman’s actions. The use of those first three guest stars seems to imply that Kelley did envision Diana’s battles being legal in nature. Given Kelley’s personal legal background and his IMDB page filled with shows like L.A. Law, Ally, The Practice and Boston Legal, this should not be much of a surprise, except that there does not seem to be a clear legal issue in play. A lot of lip service is paid to whether Diana is working with the police or not, except when the issue is that Themyscira Enterprises is funding criminal activity, or whether a warrant is necessary in order to arrest the victims of a crime. Of course this is all undercut entirely by Dr. Phil being the final talking head. In fact, this is the first sign that Diana’s personal life is the real story.
There are some other silly things I don’t really want to judge because they are purely an outgrowth of this being a not-for-air pilot. There is a dubbed Wonder Woman line that seems to be said by Phyllis from The Office rather than Palicki, and a scene where cops are allegedly driving to Cale’s lab that shows a relatively empty road with the superimposed text “ADD POLICE CARS.” It’s unclear if Wonder Woman’s jet is supposed to be her famous invisible plane, but if it is, the CGI is awful. And either way, Diana seems to be a terrible pilot.
And yet, there is something about this pilot that makes me think that with development – and it would have had a chance to develop, it was set up at NBC after all – it could have been the superhero series that broke through. Because while it seems to be a terrible show, Wonder Woman does not seem to be a terrible superhero show. When Palicki is playing Wonder Woman, she is selling it completely. Only when the episode switches to being about Diana, as written by the man who “killed feminism,” does it suffer. Wonder Woman never could have been a hit – again, NBC –but I do think the pilot shows enough flashes that perhaps it could have been good.
Thanks Andrew. Now it’s my turn:
As with any medium, there is a lot of television content out there that is neither good nor bad, but instead simply “meh.” Most schedules are filled with programming that you could stomach, though you wouldn’t really remember actually doing so. Few television projects, especially at the pilot stage, are spectacular, just as few are absolutely dreadful and even fewer are the perfectly odd combination of grand ambition and true failure.
I’ve watched the David E. Kelley Wonder Woman pilot three times and I think I can confidently say that it falls into this magical last category. There are so many things about this opening episode, particularly on a script level, that are unbelievably awful. I mean just terrible. Nevertheless, Wonder Woman is completely watchable, and at certain points, even perfectly solid. Kelley’s script is so inherently stupid, but there are bits and pieces that actually make sense for a contemporary adaptation for an admittedly tough-to-crack character.
In short, Wonder Woman must be experienced. You probably won’t really “enjoy” yourself per se; yet, you might find yourself surprisingly charmed by what Kelley, and particularly Adrianne Palicki, is trying to do with Diana. Well, until she starts screaming at Cary Elwes about the size of her “tits.” Then you’ll certainly want to wash your eyes and ears out with soap, all of it.
Unlike the plodding Incredible Hulk pilot or the tonally inconsistent Flash pilot – although both of those episodes had to deal with much longer running times, to be fair – Wonder Woman is never boring.
The decision to give the character three identities sounded laughable when I first read about it, and it’s still sort of insane thinking about it now, but you know what? It works much better in practice. For whatever reason, Kelley’s script is interested in the logistics of how Wonder Woman could save the day so easily in the 21st century, which results in this loopy, but TV believable answer that she monetizes her image to fund all the tech and R & D she needs. This results in a public awareness of two identities (Wonder Woman and Diana T., the businesswoman), and therefore the need for a third so that the character can have some privacy. It’s convoluted, but really does play better in action.
Other elements work surprisingly fine as well: The action sequences and fight choreography don’t look fantastic, but they are sufficiently (certainly better than Smallville). Another one of Kelley’s fascinations, the grey area created by Wonder Woman’s assistance of the police, is silly, but again, the kind of real question that would be raised by someone like WW existing in the 21st century.*
*Like Andrew, I noticed that this pilot is more or less a handful of different David E. Kelley projects grafted into one, somehow with an uber-famous comic book heroine at the center. This pilot is simultaneously a workplace drama, a police procedural and at times, threatens to become a legal procedural, all on top of the typical superhero conventions.
And most importantly, Adrianne Palicki holds the camera’s attention every second that she is on screen. Palicki really is the perfect actress to play a role like this (which is probably why she’s been given a slew of similar, but lesser roles in film projects as well). Neither her toughness nor her vulnerability comes off as fake, and she certainly has enough wit to crack-wise when necessary. There are times in this pilot where Palicki is asked to say or do really stupid or unfortunate, but she makes it work every single time. Although this project didn’t actually work out, I cannot imagine anyone else playing Diana, or Wonder Woman for that matter. She singlehandedly makes this pilot watchable.
Still though, Wonder Woman is a disaster. As Andrew pointed out, Elizabeth Hurley’s performance and character are both terrible. Wonder Woman’s stable of villains isn’t particularly deep or compelling, but I’m not sure a paper-thin plot about an apparently evil (because we never see much of it in practice) business woman making super-soldiers is the best place to start. Pilots are supposed to pique the audience’s interest, but from a narrative perspective, I’m not sure where this story was headed; there’s nothing in that super-solider thread that’s engaging.
Moreover, there is the big elephant in the room: gender.
I wanted to analyze this pilot for a few reasons. One, because it was so heavily discussed last development season and became yet another defining representative of NBC’s current state. But more interesting to me are the questions of gender that were mostly avoided in the first four entries this week, because the mainstream superhero story is a boys club. The gender inequality can be measured quantitatively through the absence of films or TV series built around leading ladies and is just as visible through basic qualitative research of character complexity, narrative importance, etc. The live-action superhero story isn’t the only genre with major problems in gender representation, but as one of the leading and most popular genres in contemporary popular culture its shortcomings are certainly noteworthy.
These shortcomings are relevant to any new superhero project, but perhaps more so with something like an adaptation of Wonder Woman. Although the Amazonian heroine is likely the most famous female comic book superhero (especially if we take a hardline with the word “hero,” which then eliminates Catwoman from the discussion), she’s been a problematic character for ages. Clearly her appearance and costume make WW a target for sexual objectification, something that is perhaps only further emphasized by a perceived lack of quality stories or characters in the universe. As a result, the general public’s recollections of the character are almost always going to include her skimpy look and then probably the golden lasso. I don’t say this to judge him because his comments fell right in-line with how everyone else reacted to Palicki’s casting, but the fact that Andrew focused almost immediately on how the actress filled Diana/WW’s physical stature is telling.*
*Though, to be fair, this happens with the casting of male actors for certain characters as well. Ask Michael Keaton.
Wonder Woman’s problematic representation has caused all sorts of issues for any live-action adaptation. The Lynda Carter-led series from the 1970s barely clawed its way to the airwaves through a series of TV movies, only to be canceled by ABC over fears about the story’s period. CBS picked it up for a few more seasons, but that series is hardly remembered for anything more than the kind of camp fun that defined TV of that era (or, again, Carter in the outfit). Everyone’s favorite quasi-feminist Joss Whedon tried to get a film version of WW off the ground for years, and failed.
But since Whedon, a serious feminist icon, failed to bring a live-action Wonder Woman together, it makes sense that Warner Bros. lowered their ambitions just a bit with another feminist icon from television, David E. Kelley. You know, the man who inspired this glorious Time cover.
I’m not entirely qualified to talk about feminism and I’m certainly not qualified to speak for women, but I’m a fairly intelligent person with a brain, so I feel comfortable in saying this: Allowing David E. Kelley, the man responsible for Ally McBeal, to take on one of the characters who needs the most gender-related care is both hilarious and insulting. If I recall correctly, Kelley had an overall deal with WB and maybe he was just randomly inspired to write about Wonder Woman. And I guess he is a big name, which helps during development season. Still though, other than the writers of World Wrestling Entertainment, I’m not sure who I’d want to have this gig less.
Of course, Kelley only makes matter worse with his Wonder Woman script by overtly, in a ham-fisted, soap box-y way, engaging with GENDER RELATIONS and the OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN (I put them in quotes as to be as subtle as Kelley is here) while telling his story about a girl who is just so lonely. Andrew already pointed this out, but it bears repeating: In a trio of scenes that more or less play back-to-back-to-back, this happens:
Scene 1: Diana/Wonder Woman is called an action figure by a talking head. She complains about this to her assistant, who rightfully points out that there are Wonder Woman action figures, products created at the total behest of Diana herself. Whoops.
Scene 2: After her CEO describes the details for the new figure, Diana randomly flips her lid about the enlarged breasts on said figure. Her extended rant includes the aforementioned “tits” reference (and second reference), as well as an awkward plea that people treat her like a human being even though she admits her beauty and 100 percent chose this life for herself.
Scene 3: Diana’s CEO explains to her how important the figures are to her company’s bottom line (and thus her crime solving), notes that she signed off on the body type before and steps just short of asking her if it’s that time of the month. To which Diana apologetically responds with a statement that is more or less “SORRY I’M JUST A WOMAN WITH FEELINGS I CAN’T QUITE CONTROL (aka yes, it is that time of the month).”
What Kelley does here is provide the most surface of acknowledgments to Wonder Woman’s tricky place in popular culture, and then immediately brushes all the gender criticisms aside by saying that this Wonder Woman is using that perception to her advantage (on a financial level, which is really uncomfortable) and therefore, the “issues” are no longer real. They just exist as straw men so that Diana can argue with herself and ultimately “choose” to let it go.
This half-assed, postmodernist approach to a really complicated and troubling topic is typical Kelley. Writing the scene with Diana making her plea presents the illusion of tackling the tough, hot-button themes related to the character without any of the actual depth. All Kelley ever wants are scenes that the network or studio can put into an electric 30-second promo. And I guarantee, had Wonder Woman made it to series, that is exactly what would have happened.
This pilot’s handling of gender is only further problematized by Diana’s desire to find (or more precisely by the end of the pilot, rekindle) love, as Andrew nicely explored above. All mainstream superhero stories feature a love interest or a romantic plot, so that in itself isn’t wrong or offensive, but the way in which Kelley’s script asks us to care about just how lonely and miserable Diana is, especially when combined with all the body image-related nonsense, results in a very messy package. On this front, Kelley doesn’t even waste time trying to build up Wonder Woman as particularly empowered or strong in that clichéd, third-wave feminism kind of way. Nope, she’s just an action figure fantasy concocted by a lovesick, lonely, little girl.
It’s probably for the best that Wonder Woman didn’t make onto NBC’s schedule. If it had, I would have watched every single episode and probably enjoyed them all, in some twisted way. Nonetheless, the way that Kelley’s script treats its lead character and her gender in this pilot is really reckless and irresponsible, and certainly something that probably wouldn’t have improved based on the writer’s track record. I’d be curious to find out if Warner Bros. or DC secretly killed the project after seeing this pilot, because dammit, they should have.
Conclusions on legacy: Yeah, I think “LOL” about sums it up
Each of the five pilots we discussed this week showed us how superheroes stories can work on television, but more often, they displayed the potential problems and challenges. But for me, it seems to come down to the uneven dispersal of talent or treatment of the genre within the televisual form. Because superhero stories are so big on film, that’s where the conglomerates, studios, executives and creative are funneling all the most attention to. There’s someone out there who could do an awesome TV series about a major superhero, but it’s not going to make it to the air until things cool on the film side.
In that respect, we could say that Hollywood is to blame. But so are we. The networks gave us Smallville, they gave us Human Target. Heck, they gave us No Ordinary Family, The Cape and more. I’m not saying we are required to watch superhero series no matter what, especially because many of them haven’t been that good, but it sure seems like our eyes and interest in superheroes is pointed away from live-action television adaptations, which only further reinforces the current situation. As always, there’s not one or easy answer to why something works or doesn’t. After a week of this, I’m not sure I’m that much closer. How about you guys? What can be better? NEEDS to be better?