Monday, August 2, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's going nowhere, man!


The early 1990s saw a bunch of corporate incest as companies merged at an alarming rate (yay monopolies!). Paramount somehow ended up in bed with boating and television station owners (really!) Chris-Craft Industries and the end result was the United Paramount Network (UPN) announced in 1994. Around the same time, mega-studio Paramount had been bought by mega-media conglomerate Viacom, resulting in me getting a mega-headache. Long story short: UPN debuted in January 1995 with major backing and promised an alternative to the big 3 networks a la Fox. Inauspiciously crammed among titles such as PLATYPUS MAN and MOESHA was the conspiracy tinged thriller NOWHERE MAN in August 1995.

Created by Lawrence Hertzog, NOWHERE MAN was greenlit for a first season of 25 episodes. The show was basically a heavy global conspiracy thriller with obvious influences from THE PRISONER (1967-68), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1959) and THE FUGITIVE (ABC series 1963-67; 1993 film). Hell, the ads run in newspapers promoting the 90-minute debut went so far as to claim it was “a thriller in the tradition of THE FUGITIVE” (no doubt they meant the Harrison Ford box office hit). Hired to set the stage for the entire series in the first two episodes was director Tobe Hooper, who was probably filming them as his THE MANGLER bombed in theaters in March 1995.

NOWHERE MAN’s pilot “Absolute Zero” centers on photo-journalist Thomas Veil (Bruce Greenwood) and opens as he is having an exhibition of his war photographs from South America. The centerpiece is a picture called “Hidden Agenda,” which shows American soldiers executing four masked men by hanging. Uneasy being in the spotlight, Veil and his wife Alyson (Megan Gallagher) skip out to a local restaurant. Thomas excuses himself to go to the bathroom, but when he comes back to the table his wife is no longer there. In fact, a new couple is seated and eating. To make matters worse, the manager informs Veil he has no idea who he is. Thinking he is the victim of a practical joke, Thomas returns home only to find his locks changed. When Alyson answers, he is shocked to find her standing next to her shotgun toting new husband. Seeking refuge from this confusion, Veil heads to his studio to find the locks changed there too. He sneaks in only to find “Hidden Agenda” missing and his wife’s new man in his own self portrait.

Hoping to gets answers as to what is going happening, Veil hides in his wife’s car the next day and confronts her. She breaks down and says, “They told me if I said anything they’d kill you” but when a cop stops them, she says he is crazy and that she has no idea who he is. Thomas is quickly whisked away to the Callaway Psychiatric Hospital where he is under the care of Dr. Bellamy. The doctor believes Tom is suffering from paranoid delusions, but promises to help establish the truth. Once inside, Tom meets fellow patient Eddie (Ted Levine, fresh off Hooper’s THE MANGLER) who believes Tom’s story and tells him to ask the doctor about Dave Powers. The doctor has other plans though as he takes Veil out on a day trip to his studio. Once there, Veil doesn’t recognize the woman working there, but finds it curious that the doctor seems intent on seeing Veil’s hidden negatives as proof he isn’t crazy. Veil pretends they are not where he hid them as he slowly starts to realize this might be why his life was wiped away.

Back in the mental hospital, Veil discovers Eddie in his bed acting like a child. His medical file says he received a pre-frontal lobotomy. The name on the file reads Dave “Eddie” Powers. Realizing he has to escape before he gets the same fate, Veil subdues his guard and puts a needle full of joy juice in the doc’s gut as he forces him to walk him out. Veil returns to his studio with the doctor and procures the film negatives he had hidden in a vent. Using his photography equipment, Veil creates a new identity for himself using the captive doc’s license. Veil begins questioning the doctor, who is just about to give up who is behind all of this when some machine gun toting baddies kill him dead. Veil escapes the burning studio with his life and heads home to Iowa to visit his estranged mother and find someone who remembers him. Unfortunately, mother had a stroke 6 days ago and is bedridden. When a cop and priest show up, Veil pleads with mother to confirm his identity but all she can muster is “my son is dead” (thanks mom!). Looking more deranged than ever, Veil escapes one last time before literally finding himself at a crossroads, suspicious of everyone but determined to uncover this conspiracy that has stolen his life.

As you can probably guess from that write up, NOWHERE MAN was a very complex and sometimes convoluted show. But that was part of the appeal. The viewer was asked to – gasp! – pay attention and think about what is going on. It is this twisting and intelligent script that is exactly what Hooper needed at the time, resulting in what I felt has been his most solid work post-Cannon years. Honestly, it was refreshing to see Hooper step away from the fantastic genre (he earlier did an episode of THE EQUALIZER in 1988) and this show offered him the perfect avenue to showcase a Hitchcockian sensibility. The entire series relies on this set up and Hooper pulls it off perfectly. The first ten minutes drop you right into the action and the entire episode has you constantly questioning if Thomas Veil is crazy or legitimately had his life erased. Technically, Hooper is very strong as well. The camera work is smooth, the lighting evocative and he establishes some nice running motifs like breaking glass (important for the rest of the show). He also sneaks in a creepy nightmare where Veil sees his wife’s face blanked out. The premiere episode also ends with one of Hooper’s trademark slow crane pull away shots that he also ended THE FUNHOUSE (1981) and POLTERGEIST (1982) with.

In addition to the pilot episode, Hooper also did directorial duty on the second episode “Turnabout.” I won’t be reviewing this one in depth, but it is solid as well. The plot features Veil being taken in by a group who thinks he is Dr. Bellamy. He stays at a seminary that is really a brainwashing facility and asks to see the file on Thomas Veil. The director promises it if he can crack the case of Ellen Combs (Mimi Craven, former wife of Wes). Sensing an opportunity to investigate, Veil accepts the task and hears the woman tell how her life was erased, a story very similar to his own. Once again, events in the series are not to be trusted and there are some nice surprises in this episode, which also helped established Veil’s nomadic nature for the rest of the season. The mystery played out over the 25 episodes and it definitely kept audiences guessing (and offered one of the biggest mindfucks on TV ever).

Sadly, cult appeal means very little when it comes to the global corporate conspiracy and, like lead character Thomas Veil, NOWHERE MAN found itself erased as if it never existed after one season. Worst of all, the first season ended with a cliffhanger and tons of unanswered questions! UPN replaced the show with…I kid you not…HOMEBOYS IN OUTER SPACE (1996). Take that thinking man’s show! Thankfully, a DVD release of the entire series surfaced from CBS/Paramount Home Entertainment (ow, my head again!). Still no word on the HOMEBOYS set.

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