Your favorite summer TV binging couple is back for more! Last year, my boyfriend Frank and I tackled the first season of SyFy/Amazon’s The Expanse together – – two different perspectives on the same show, one from one person who’s seen it, the other watching it for the first time. Who just happen to be dating.
This year, we’re taking a look at the TNT adaptation of Top Cow’s Witchblade comic, which aired on the network from 2001 – 2002. And just like last year, this is a show Frank has watched, and I haven’t. Hilarity is bound to ensue (again). The series follows NYPD detective Sara Pezzini and her adventures with the titular Witchblade, which gives her powers to fight supernatural evil and those who want the Witchblade for themselves.
Before the series kicked off in earnest in 2001, TNT aired a pilot TV movie the previous year, which is where we’ll start our look at the series. It should go without saying at this point given age, but spoilers within.
Kate’s Five Thoughts
1. City as a Character
From the very first frame of this show until the final scene, New York City appears to be a character in this show. Each act features sweeping establishing shots of the city, and while some look a little bit generic (Midtown Museum of Art, anyone?), they get the look and feel of New York right. Sara has a reasonably realistic looking apartment (though it must be rent-controlled for its size) in an outer borough, so the show is not presenting a lifestyle completely out of touch with urban reality. (Looking at you, Friends and Sex and the City.) This city as character and realism grounds the supernatural aspects of the show to a degree, providing a level of tension for Sara between the mortal world and the supernatural – – though not not to the level that one sees in, for example, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
(Although I will say most subway stations – – even in midtown Manhattan – – aren’t that clean or white. Except maybe some of the stations on the Second Avenue Subway or the new WTC Cortlandt Street station, but they just opened.)
On the note of the World Trade Center, those cityscapes with the Twin Towers in them put quite the lump in the throat, knowing that nearly a year after this aired, they would be gone. It will be interesting to see how this show handles 9/11 in its second season (the first full season concluded two weeks before the terror attacks) when the city itself is such an integral part of the show.
2. The Dream of The 90s is Alive On Witchblade
As mentioned in my review of Captain Marvel, I’m not ready to lean into some of my college and early adult years (the late 90s/early 2000s) as nostalgia. It is refreshing to see that, save for some slight cultural hallmarks like CDs and bulky cell phones (raise your hand if you’re a GenXer who had the five disc CD player in their car), the show could transfer easily to 2019 and not come across as quaint or too tied to its time. Inevitably any reboot would be compared with Supernatural (which debuted 5 years later), so perhaps it is best left where it is. Perhaps we would not have had a Supernatural without a Witchblade.
My better half put it pretty well, if you ask me:
I rewatched TNT’s Witchblade premiere tv-movie last night with @librarian_kate and was pleased at well it held up to both my nostalgic memory and to current TV expectations.
It had that same sort of feeling of watching old X-Files episodes where you excuse the dated trappings
— Frank Skornia (@FSkornia) June 6, 2019
Where you do see the 90s hallmarks are in cinematography: slow-motion fight scenes that took their look from The Matrix (which had just been released the year prior) and overuse of flash-cut scenes. Those are certainly hallmarks of their time, particularly the latter – – a reminder that this show is pre-Peak TV, where budgets were a fraction of what they are today (even accounting for inflation) and TNT was still the network known for the NBA on TNT and the occasional Gone with the Wind airing.Continued below
3. Setting the Scene
As this is a TV movie, you get everything you need in one fell swoop: our characters and their motivations, a plot that works from start to finish in the time frame given, expository information and background about the mysterious Witchblade. It’s nothing spectacular or revolutionary in scriptwriting, and ticks many common tropes: protagonist seeking to avenge the death (or deaths) of people close to her, mysterious men that follow her, a supernatural power our heroine does not want to have but gets anyway, mobsters that want her dead, the final act confession from a killer that ties everything together. Information is doled out as needed, but never in large expository dumps; there’s enough held back for the audience to infer and make judgment. It’s self-contained to allow for the work to exist as a TV movie should it not get picked up to series. And the final scene leaves the door creaked open just enough for stories to continue just in case, without having the follow up series rely heavily on exposition.
I was relieved to see some subversion of expectations with these tropes, particularly around the idea of being blessed with unexpected and extraordinary gifts and talents. While Sara is confused and reluctant to embrace the Witchblade, she expresses a curiosity to learn more, and when working with the Witchblade early on, expresses a natural connection to it and comfort with it, perhaps without even realizing it. The storytelling trope of “I have this extraordinary gift and don’t want it” is a worn one, even when done effectively. I wonder if this is the Buffy effect; Buffy the Vampire Slayer was hitting its stride in popularity when Witchblade aired; so everyone was looking for the next Strong Female Character. Sara Pezzini could be a grown up Buffy with a full time job and credit cards.
4. Pezzini Boys
Ah, Sara’s men. You have Danny, her partner who doesn’t make it past the first half of the movie (RIP) but looks to be sticking around as her guardian angel, and Jake, a pretty boy surfer turned cop who I took to calling “Bucky With the Good Hair.” (Shouldn’t surprise anyone that Jake is played by Baywatch alum David Chokachi.)
I’m hoping to see Danny remain on the show as the movie did an excellent job of getting across the strong rapport they share, right in the first act. The connection isn’t there yet with Sara and Jake; she views him as useful at times, but overall an annoyance. I fear the show will eventually go the romantic route with these two – – the whole idea of “opposites attract.” It’s low hanging fruit, and I hope this is not the case.
5. “Every day above ground is a special day”
A friend of mine who is a cop recently said something similar to me when trying to explain cop culture: the idea that with life and death coming at a moment’s notice, you tend to live your life in that moment, on the razor’s edge. Nothing is guaranteed, not even the promise of living to see another day. And yet, Sara has been told by the mysterious Kenneth, fountain of knowledge on the Witchblade, that possessing it is her destiny. It will be fascinating to see how the show will explore this conflicting duality: the concepts of predestination and free will for a woman living on that razor’s edge between life and death, unsure of what is to come in the next day or even hour.
- I’m not Italian, but Jake’s pronunciation of calzone really hurt my ears.
- There’s a lot of medieval imagery here, with knights and Sara dressed as Joan of Arc (who herself had the Witchblade). I wonder how the show will explore this.
- Could it be possible that the mysterious Kenneth is a time traveler? A conversation he has with a younger version of his associate Nottingham seems to imply this.
- Smart of the cinematographers not to zoom in too closely on that subway station sign during Sara and mobster Tommy Gallo’s showdown. It would be a stain on the show that took careful pains to provide us a reasonably accurate picture of New York City and then screw up MTA signage. (It’s also possible that they just didn’t have the rights to show that branded content anyway.) Continued below
- The final scene in Kenneth’s hall focuses on a painting of Sara with the Witchblade, and the image comes direct from the comic – – though modified to be more conservative than the actual comic book version. (Gotta love 90s comics in all their epic fanservice cheesecake glory!)
Frank’s Five Thoughts
1. Urban Fantasy
New York City makes its presence known right from the first establishing shot. We are then quickly drawn from distant beauty shots of the city to racing down the streets on a motorcycle with flashes of architecture and sculpture – drawing close into the city’s embrace intimately. This spiritual presence of a city is an essential part of what defines an urban fantasy. Our protagonist is bound to this city by her oath as a protector – in this case as a detective for the NYPD. In order to elevate this from urban fiction to urban fantasy, though, we need a little magic. In Witchblade, the magic is subtle, besides the namesake gauntlet of course – nothing subtle about that. It exists in the halfway places and in the spaces on the edges of awareness. And these are the places where we spend a lot of the movie’s time – in alleyways, abandoned theaters, empty corridors and platforms, and darkened nightclubs that dazzle the senses.
2. Female Power
Witchblade does not try to be very coy in its symbolism or message regarding female power. And it really does not need to. TNT first began the production process for this TV movie in 1998. At that point Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was well on its way to a third season, Xena: Warrior Princess was closing in on its final seasons, and The X-Files had been on the air for about five years. Before this got to air, Fox gave us the first season of Dark Angel and The Sci-Fi Channel (aka Syfy) had done Farscape. SF&F TV viewers in the late 90s and early 00’s had plenty of opportunity to appreciate powerful women on their screens. Right from the start, Witchblade works to give us a tough and strong Sara ‘Pez’ Pezzini that we can get behind. She wears a leather jacket, jeans, and motorcycle boots (very much like a certain private investigator from another comics publisher and TV show who shares many of the traits we see from Pez). She rides a motorcycle and hustles guys at pool.I feel it does not need to try too hard though. Yancy Butler puts in an excellent performance that puts up a strong facade over a core that is cracked by tragedy and is uncertain of what is going on.
But even beyond having a strong protagonist, we see in the Witchblade artifact a power that only a woman can unlock and wield. It cannot be any woman, either, but rather one from a lineage that disappears back in the mists of history. We learn from Kenneth Irons, who seems to be the one orchestrating everything from atop his lofty tower as well as our kindly provider of exposition, that he was spurned by the Witchblade when he dared try his hand at it. The movie leans hard with its imagery throughout history and cultures of women wielding the Witchblade at crucial points in history. By the end, we start getting some details of Irons’ plans to control the Witchblade’s wielder, but I think the very elements that drew the Witchblade to Sara are going to make it hard for him.
3. Personal Story
Outside of the plot with the Witchblade, the skulking of Ian Nottingham, and the machinations of Kenneth Irons, the story of the movie wisely focuses on the very personal story of Sara Pezzini. We get a rather simple revenge plot with her having a singular focus on the murder of a childhood friend and the man responsible. Importantly this frees the viewer to focus on all the other stuff happening in the movie that I described above. This simple revenge plot does not distract from the worldbuilding that is necessary to draw us into the world of the Witchblade, and importantly has enough energy to drive the plot forward. It also helps to give us some insight into our main character. We get to see Sara’s tenacity when the obstacles are arrayed against her and we get to see the strong bonds she builds to the people close with her. This leads to us also finding out how she grieves when those people are taken away from her.Continued below
4. The Effects
As much as I love this show, I do have to admit that it is very much a product of the era that it came from. The editing, effects, and cinematography would be familiar to anyone that grew up watching television in the late 90s and early 00s. Prestige television was still trying to grow up, and everyone was still using the same tools. All the same, there are effects used here that I feel really standout. There was one scene of Sara sitting pensively on her fire escape at night that seems a little unsettled and jarring until you realized that while all of her actions and even her speech are playing at normal speed, but in the background you can see traffic moving at an accelerated pace. Then there is the way the movie tries to get the viewer into Sara’s head and experience the visions that the Witchblade is trying to force into her head. These bits involved a lot of incredibly fast cuts, with just enough time for the brain to recognize an image before cutting to the next. You see Chris Carter using the same sort of effect when he made Millennium and similarly used at times in the Highlander TV show.
5. The Build-Up
When you look at the dates for this series and the movie, it is interesting to see that there was nearly a year between the first airing of this Witchblade movie and the real start of episode 1. Yet there seemed to be an almost arrogant confidence that the story will continue as the ending leaves a lot of unknowns hanging. The main story dealing with the hitman, Gallo, ended with a neat push from Ian Nottingham, but we seemed to have barely scratched the surface with Kenneth Irons whatever he is up to. If it were today, deep into the era of Peak-TV, the strategy would be clear – use the TV movie to do your exposition and origin story and then you can hit the first episode of the series running. In a way, that is what Witchblade will do, but I do not think it was an intentional strategy on their parts. All we can do is settle in and keep watching.
- Oh you do not know the megabytes of fanfiction that would be written about Eric Etebari’s Ian Nottingham. The dark brooding, somewhat submissive but still strong with internal fire, man seemed like catnip to the youthful internet in the naughts.
- I absolutely love the armored figure that would stand and judge Sara throughout the film. We’re never really given an answer of what the figure is – maybe the personification of the Witchblade?
- This was the series that started my long-running fandom for Will Yun Lee. It’s hard to explain how excited I was when I learned he was going to be in Die Another Day, and then I was crushed when he was barely in it (to be turned into whitebread Englishman).
We’ll see you next week for a look at the very first TV series episode, “Parallax,” and let us know what you think in the comments!