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TELEVISION REVIEW

When boredom ruled the Earth

August 09, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

There is something so comforting about seeing the letters "BBC" emerge from a stack of review DVDs, especially in August. British television, or at least what makes it to the States, is always so literate, so well-acted compared with much of the homegrown, and its makers always handle adventure and sci-fi so well, such as "Robin Hood" and "Doctor Who."

So imagine my surprise when, halfway through the newly imported British sci-fi hit "Primeval" (BBC America, Saturdays, 6 and 9 p.m.), I realized I was bored. Stunningly, inarguably, reach-for-whatever-magazine-is-handy bored.

How could this be? Created by Adrian Hodges and Tim Haines, who gave us the marvelous "Walking With (Dinosaurs, Beasts, Monsters)" series, "Primeval" is populated with the requisite group of attractive British citizens and their fabulous accents. (Douglas Henshall, who has the lead role, is Scottish, for heaven's sake.) A veritable showcase of authoritative computer-generated imagery, "Primeval" follows the adventures of a personality-diverse scientific team as it tracks down various prehistoric creatures that have stumbled into modern-day Britain through rents in the time-space continuum.

Rampaging dinosaurs, gigantic centipedes, yardlong parasites, adorable young scientists, not to mention a reptilian member of the Home Office -- what more could a viewer possibly want?

A less adrenal-gland-manipulative soundtrack would help, for a start. Huge music in a television show always makes me nervous because it's invariably there to create the emotional narrative the plot failed to provide. This isn't a problem you would imagine "Primeval" would have. Its premise is simple: After the mysterious appearance of a monster in a local woods, evolutionary zoologist Nick Cutter (Henshall), his young assistant Stephen (James Murray), oddball student Connor (Andrew-Lee Potts) and lizard expert Abby (Hannah Spearritt) join forces and discover a sparkling portal through time.

Add to the mix the fact that Cutter's wife, Helen (Juliet Aubrey), disappeared in Those Same Woods several years ago, and that Home Office liaison Claudia (Lucy Brown) is already on the case, and there is no reason the stories shouldn't trot breathlessly along, providing a new and fabulous beastie each week, with the fate of Helen as a nice emotional through-line and the government the overarching nemesis.

But almost from the get-go there's far more galumphing than trotting going on, and not all of it done by prehistoric feet. Things pick up in the third episode and there are dodos in the fourth, but it's not enough, no, not nearly enough.

And although there are moments of cheeky British humor, they are few and far between, making "Primeval" strangely somber. Of course, it's no joke that prehistoric water creatures are devouring college students, but honestly, you'd think any self-respecting evolutionary zoologist would consider that a small price for the chance to swim in the ocean primeval. Or hang out with an adorable flying dinosaur.

Instead, everyone vacillates between earnest and grim, too preoccupied by their personal lives -- Claudia wants to date Cutter, Cutter wants to find Helen, Abby wants to date Stephen, Connor wants to date Abby, and so on -- to find the exhilaration in watching the impossible emerge in a suburban woods. I know your wife has been missing for years, but ye gods, man, that's a bloody dinosaur.

Thinking perhaps I had missed some crucial element, I asked my 10-year-old son to watch it again with me, dinosaurs and hideous bugs being right up his alley. He enjoyed it but thought it would benefit from more firepower, meaning that Cutter and his team really should carry a few guns while stalking giant man-eating things.

I certainly couldn't argue with this, and actually a lack of firepower is a good way to describe what ails the show. Dinosaurs can stomp and giant spiders sting, Abby can be cute as a baby-sized Doc Martens and Stephen can look like Zac Efron's older brother, but if everyone on the screen is acting like it's all just an unfortunate situation to be dealt with, well, then, so will we.

--

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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