June 28, 2011



Remember the Sideways universe in the last season of Lost?  (I feel your pain; bear with me.)  In particular, remember the storyline where Sawyer and Miles were tough LA detectives, living out their version of a 1970s cop show?  Well, for Battlestar Galactica fans, there was almost a network TV series this year where Lee Adama and Gaius Baltar would have been partnered as homicide cops–and not only that, Six was another detective in the precinct, and Joseph Adama from Caprica was on the force too. 

It wasn’t to be, because the pilot for 17TH PRECINCT, produced by Sony Television–and not coincidentally written by Ron Moore, the auteur behind BSG–probably didn’t come close to getting onto NBC’s schedule.  But there they all were:  Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer and Esai Morales, together again.  And in case there was any doubt this was an A-list pilot, they were joined by Stockard Channing and Eamonn Walker (from Oz). 
17th Precinct must have looked great on paper, provided by Moore with one of his dense mythologies.  Set in Excelsior, California (a slightly twisted version of San Francisco), it posits a world where magic is everyday, and science doesn’t exist.  There are still cars, lights, and other mechanized objects, but they’re powered by plants; the equivalent to the internet is the “stream,” a band of light that, when touched, supplies information and even prints out documents.  The police are sorcerers, able to manipulate blood spatter to reconstruct a crime, and bring victims briefly back from the dead to get an account of the crime; they shoot spells instead of weapons.  Prophecies affect the stock market, and judges can sentence criminals to instant aging or dislocated bones.  In the closing minutes of the pilot, we learn that the villains of the series would have been the “Stoics,” who believe in science and have invented guns.  (Had the show developed, this might have been similar to the philosophical underpinnings of the human vs. Cylon conflict in BSG.)
The idea must have been to create a Harry Potter-like universe without Muggles, one that resembles our own but where magic is taken for granted and technology is mysterious and frightening, all in the context of a procedural cop show.  Unfortunately, the pilot just doesn’t work:  the expository dialogue is clumsy and the banter between the characters is worse.  Even though the cast is obviously very fine, none of them have much to play (Morales’ cop seems to have switched genders, for unspecified reasons), and some of them, like Channing, seem downright uncomfortable with the mix of cop and fantasy jargon; watching Bamber and Callis, you’d never imagine these two actors had spent years playing intense, multifaceted scenes opposite one another.  The explanation of the pilot’s crime is overcomplicated and unconvincing.   There’s one sequence that offers a hint of what might have been:  a creepy action sequence set in a house that’s been cast with a spell of absolute silence.  But the rest just fails.

17th Precinct was probably in competition at NBC with Grimm for a “fantasy procedural slot” on the schedule, and although Grimm has its problems too (see my review here), it’s got a more sustained tone and a concept that’s easier to grasp.  Given more development (and probably a patient cable home), 17th Precinct might have become an effective hybrid of fantasy and crime; instead, it’s one of those inevitable pilot season projects that don’t live up to their ambitions.

The Sked’s Verdict:  The Network Was Right

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."