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This Show Does Not Exist

The trouble began, as should not be surprising, with a hard-drinking, chain-smoking Englishman.

Writer Warren Ellis has earned a rabid fan following for his dark, stylish comic books. Most of them also happen to feature hard-drinking, chain-smoking Englishmen (or women), along with a great deal of sneering attitude, mind-boggling concepts, and snarky turns of phrase. Ellis' work is good, but it's rarely subtle. Sometimes it's just plain obnoxious. (After a rash of school shootings in the U.S., he wrote a potent but tasteless comic suggesting that American schoolchildren's lives were so horrible that they wanted to be shot. It was pencilled, inked, lettered, and set for publication before someone thought to kill it.)

And yet, in recent years Ellis' work has revealed a great big bleeding heart beneath all that too-cool-for-school attitude. Take Global Frequency, just one of the dizzyingly high concepts he's turned out for DC Comics. It revolved around a worldwide network of 1,000 experts in every field imaginable. At any moment, any of them could be called away from their everyday lives by the enigmatic Miranda Zero and her punky dispatcher Aleph to pit their knowledge and talents against a world-threatening disaster. That was the beauty of the premise: Your neighbor, your best friend, your spouse -- they could all be on the Global Frequency. Ordinary people could save the world.

It's not remarkable that Hollywood got its paws on such a meaty idea. The remarkable part is how they didn't even remotely screw it up. Survivor producer Mark Burnett, apparently feeling the need to give a little something back to the world in exchange for all that naked Richard Hatch, tapped comics fan and screenwriter John Rogers as showrunner. Then Rogers enlisted Ellis himself as a producer, to consult on the script and hang around the set smoking cigarettes. They shot a pilot that got Ellis' vocal approval. They lined up a fairly dazzling staff of potential writers, some poached from Joss Whedon's freshly cancelled Angel, plus Babylon 5's J. Michael Straczynski as an executive producer. Buzz was good. The network liked it. A midseason slot seemed certain.

And then, apparently, the WB remembered that it was, in fact, the WB. These things happen. Perhaps it was the lack of a single-word title (Twins, Related, Smallville, Supernatural), or the absence of people named Gilmore. Maybe it was the executive shakeup in the network's ranks. The show fell off the schedule, and that was the end of it.

Except that it wasn't. Somehow, a grainy but watchable copy of the pilot found its way onto the Internet (as all things seem to, sooner or later). People -- tens of thousands of people -- downloaded and watched it. By all accounts, they loved it. Raved about it. Wanted more. John Rogers, on his blog, condemned the illegality of the pilot's escape onto the Net, but was thrilled by the response, and hoped it might help get the show back off the ground.

The WB, reportedly furious, dug up the show, killed it again, and then buried it twice as deep. With a lot of concrete on top. (So says Ellis on his blog; Rogers, at last report, still has his fingers crossed.) Apparently, the former Frog Network's ratings are good enough that they can afford to turn away interested viewers.

Now, I'm a Law-Abiding Citizen. I would never illegally download a TV show, even one that I could never possibly see through conventional means. But if I had -- and this is purely hypothetical, mind you -- I'd be able to tell you that in this case, the WB is demonstrating some seriously questionable judgment. Global Frequency's pilot is a bit hokey, not quite original, and requires frequent and copious suspension of disbelief. But it works like gangbusters, combining slick visuals and thumping techno music with a rare sense of humanity.

In a brisk 44 minutes, played out almost in real time, we follow scruffy ex-cop Sean Flynn (Josh Hopkins) and high-strung physicist Dr. Katrina Finch (Jenni Baird) as they track a human bomb through the streets of San Francisco. Alexander Putchekin is a Soviet-era psychic super-weapon who fell in love with the country he was supposed to destroy. Now, thanks to a failing chip inside his brain, he's letting loose uncontrollable, ever-escalating bursts of lethal electromagnetic energy. In less than an hour, he'll wipe out the city.

Characterization and exposition are established on the run. The mostly witty dialogue gives us just enough about skeptical newcomer Flynn and twitchy veteran Finch's personalities to help us fill in the gaps ourselves. Straight from the comics, we also get the cheerfully fatalistic Aleph (Aimee Garcia, who lived in my dorm back in college) and Michelle Forbes as Miranda Zero -- or, as Ellis and Rogers began referring to her during the filming of the pilot, "Miranda F--ing Zero."

In everything from Star Trek to Homicide, Forbes has reliably proven to be the most interesting actor on screen at any given moment. She's no exception here. Miranda's out to make amends and save her soul after a lifetime of unspecified dirty deeds; suffice to say, she Knows Where the Bodies are Buried. Forbes sells even the clunkiest lines about the sanctity of life with steely-eyed conviction, and badasses her way through the infiltration of a secret government prison with such panache that you don't really mind the whole thing being ripped off from The Matrix. You get the sense that Miranda earned her surname by being just that cool.

Two things elevate Global Frequency above the ranks of pleasantly diverting action shows. The first is the depth to which it humanizes its supposed villain. The show spares as much time as it can to make Putchekin a genuine, tragic human being -- sick with horror at what he's become, and desperate to hurt as few people as possible. Ultimately, Flynn is forced to put a bullet in his head to destroy the chip and save the city. The way Putchekin grabs Flynn's hand at the last minute and adjusts his aim, sighing, "You would have missed," is downright haunting.

The second is the potency of its concept. As Aleph calls on experts around the world to apply their knowhow to the problem, it's hard not to feel at least a little thrilled. When our heroes need to navigate a tight space and a large gap to reach a crucial electrical switch, Flynn shows up at the door of an ex-girlfriend (who happens to be captain of the UC gymnastics squad) and begs her to help him save the day. And she does, in her pajamas, in arguably the most enjoyable example to date of the "unlikely triumph via skill on the parallel bars" cliche.

Global Frequency, in typical Ellis style, argues that we can't trust our governments to save us. Too often, they're the problem, not the solution. We have to save ourselves, the show says -- and given a chance, we will. In the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we've all witnessed the appalling failure of state, local, and federal agencies to help people in desperate need. All of which makes Global Frequency's we're-all-in-this-together message pack an even greater punch. (That's my cue to urge even the most cynical TeeVee readers to donate to the Red Cross if you haven't already.)

If it wanted to bolster its Stridex-intensive lineup with a smart, accessible series full of ratings potential, the WB could do a lot worse than Global Frequency. (After all, Gilmore Girls must be getting awfully lonely in the dwindling ranks of the WB's quality shows.) Heck, rather than getting mad at some light-fingered studio tech for unleashing its secret shame upon an eager viewing public, the WB should embrace this new technology. The Sci-Fi Channel's enjoyed a certain degree of success in streaming entire episodes of Battlestar Galactica over its Web site. Why shouldn't the WB (or any network) post the pilots it didn't pick up for fall online and let the viewers vote on the shows they want to see for midseason? Would it be so terrible to get free word-of-mouth and valuable viewer-demographic information?

Oh, wait. I just found out that The WB will, in fact, stream the pilot to Supernatural via Yahoo, free, for anyone who wants to see it. Well played, WB. Maybe it's time to extend that concept to include the hit shows you don't even know you have yet. In the meantime, if we're lucky, perhaps Global Frequency will eventually see the light of day on another network -- or, perhaps, as a pioneer in direct-to-DVD television.

But until then, remember: The Global Frequency is a myth. There's no such thing. And you definitely shouldn't use any underground networks to see that for yourself.


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