Mercy Reef or Bust
The Failed Aquaman Pilot from 2006
I never really watched Smallville. Although that show ran for years over on the WB it always had such bad reviews that I never bothered giving it a chance. The few times I caught a minute or two of the show over at a friend's house seemed to back up that choice -- it was a teenage dram wrapped up with a bit of SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. luster, but it did a very bad job at actually being compelling. And yet the show went on, and on, and on for ten years. Maybe one day I'll try a "best five episodes" run of the show, but that day is not today.
No, instead we're looking at a propose semi-spinoff of Smallville, Aquaman. I say semi-spinoff because even though the king of the sea showed up (in teenage form) over on Smallville, this proposed show (from the same production team, mind you) followed a different version of the character (played by a different actor). it was intended to be a launching off point for a kind of "Smallville in the Sea", but it never got past the pilot round. That's because it sucked.
Take any of the problems you'd expect from a mid-aught WB/CW production -- low budget, cheap effects, bad acting -- and try to create a superhero show with those limitation. And not just a superhero show, mind you, but one with extensive special effects shots set against the ocean, and you start to understand the issues this show faced. It was, simply put, a cheap looking show that, in its single episode, never managed to rise above that cheapness. Not that I think adapting a different superhero, one not ocean bore, would have been much better -- remember that Birds of Prey was also made around this time and, despite it being set in a city, was still reviled by fans.
In Aquaman we're introduced to Arthur "A.C." Curry (Justin Hartley), a general layabout kind of guy who spends his days running a dive bar on the boardwalk of Mercy Reef with his best friend, Eva (Amber McDonald), and at night goes after people hurting sea creatures (like local amusement parks, illegal fishermen, and then like). His world is thrown topsy-turvy, though, when a young woman, Nadia (Adrianne Palicki), comes into his life. She lures him out into the water and then, right when his guard is down, transforms into a horrifying sea creature and tries to kill him. She's a siren and she was sent by the people of Atlantis to kill Arthur for... reasons...
While this is going on we also have a nearby military base dealing with its own issues. Apparently a number of people over the years have disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle (which isn't that far from Mercy Reef), and then decades later, the people reappear at the exact same age. Sometimes these people are violent, other times not, and the military has no clue why. That's why a secret government agency comes to Mercy Reef and involves itself in affairs. Not that Arthur knows anything about this as, by the time the episode ends, this plot thread has only just begun.
Firstly, this pilot is simply overstuffed with content. We have Arthur, bar owner and Arthur, sea-creature social justice warrior. Then we have a Naval base nearby along with the local Coast Guard (run by Arthur's adoptive dad, Tom, played by Lou Diamond Phillips) and then secret government agents as well. Oh, and there's that siren, the forces of Atlantis, and an apparent conspiracy to kill Arthur. All of this is crammed into 45 minutes as if the producers though a dude who fought evil on the open seas wasn't enough of a hook. I'd say they might have been right as, on his face, Aquaman is a seemingly dumb character. And yet, years later, DC did make the character work in live action with the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. Aquaman, so the character isn't completely unfilmable.
Any two of the plot lines alone probably could have been enough to sustain the series, let alone a single episode. If the show could have just settled on introducing us to Mercy Reef, Artie's bar, and the forces from Atlantis coming after him, that probably would have been enough. Over time it could have eventually sprinkled in the Navy and government plot lines -- a Navy pilot, Lt. Rachel Torres, is introduced in this pilot along with everyone else, but the show could have simply made her a bar patron Arthur had some chemistry with in the pilot and then developed her plot lines over time -- instead of dumping everything on us at once. The pilot simply couldn't settle down and tell any one story cohesively and, instead, had to setup the entire storyline for the whole series in one go. It doesn't work.
But then the show is also hobbled by its awful special effects. Part of what made the 2018 Aquaman watchable was how pretty it was. That movie wasn't always smart, or good, but it was pretty all the time. Here, though, the show has to try and do creature effects, action effects, and a whole lot of CGI establishing shots, on the budget other shows usually reserve just for their craft services table. Everything looks cheap and awful making it hard to invest in any of the action on screen, start to finish.
It's a pity, too, because the cast is game enough. Hartley is a charismatic lead here, investing enough in the role of A.C. to at least make this loafing lothario likable. We don't actually get to see him do much heroic in this episode -- we hear more about his exploits than see him do anything -- but the interactions he has with the characters around him, from his dad to his friend Eva, work really well. Naturally, Lou Diamond Phillips is good as well, but then I've seen the actor in all kinds of terrible movies and he's at least always watchable. McDonald, too, fares well, making her bar owner into a friendly and enjoyable presence. These three should be the central trio of the show, working together to protect the ocean.
Sadly, instead, we get two other characters that just get in the way of this central group (and that doesn't even address to absolutely forgettable military and government plot lines, which we'll just ignore for the rest of this piece). Nadia, the siren, is a barely there villain. Palicki is a great actress -- she put in great work in the third and fourth seasons of Agents of SHIELD and then moved over to The Orville where she continues to be a fun and funny force. This was obviously one of her early acting roles, and while she still has her charisma, the show wastes her in the villain role. Her siren is underwritten, a monster-of-the-week that's never even given a solid back-story and depth. She shows up, tries to kill Artie a couple of times, and then is killed off by the end of the episode. As the only real villain we get in the show, she's barely a factor at all.
Worse, though, is a new helper character for Arthur introduced halfway in: McCaffrey, played by Ving Rhames. I like Rhames normally, but between an underwritten character and not enough screen time, the actor just isn't able to make his character into anything special. He serves as an info dump character of exposition, and the whole time Rhames just seems bored. Maybe if the character had more to do, or a different actor were invested in the role, or both, it could have worked. What would have been better, though, would have been for Tom to have the information Arthur needed and for yet another character introduced in the pilot to be ditched.
This pilot is, start to finish, a mess. There are too many characters, too many stories, and just too much going on for the slight 43 minutes devoted to it all. I can easily see why Aquaman was canceled before it even aired; if I'd seen this pilot back in the day I would have immediately been turned off. It's probably for the best that we had to wait another 12 years for a proper Aquaman adaptation to come around.