I promised better last time, and better I have delivered.
It’s rather surprising to realize just how much the XIII brand has grown in the English language community, seemingly under the radar. Beginning as a hit comic in Belgium in the 80s, the exploits of the amnesiac spy were relatively unknown to much of the US (despite a few of the comics being translated) until the mid-2000s when the comics were adapted into a video game.
Then in the late 2000s, the series made the jump to a filmed adaptation care of a two part miniseries subtitled The Conspiracy, and made with the intent of jump-starting a television series.
Which brings us to now.
For starters, some good news for those of you who are scratching your heads trying to remember the miniseries – you don’t really need it to enjoy this show. The series wisely decided to make its jumping off point one that still fits the events of the prior miniseries, but also presents the information you need in the pilot episode.
The first season follows the titular special agent (played by Stuart Townsend, taking over from Stephen Dorff.) In the first episode, we see him dumped in a foreign prison with no memory of his identity, only to be released by unknown benefactors who promise to give him his old identity in exchange for a job.
Suffice it to say, this does NOT go as planned. The first season follows XIII and his allies (the two most prominent are played by Aisha Tyler and Stephen McHattie) as he tries to solve the mysteries of his past, the items he’s been asked to retrieve, and the dangerous device they could be related to.
I won’t deny that it’s reminiscent of the Bourne franchise by parts of this, especially within the first season. Its source material is old enough, however, that one can dispel some of the sense that this is simply riding coattails. Taken on its own, it’s a fairly entertaining spy serial. It definitely revels in some of the cliches – the MacGuffins of both seasons are pretty well worn espionage plot devices, and the identity games are doubled down in the second season with the introduction of another agent who is XIII’s exact double- but it keeps everything moving at a brisk enough pace that you can take the old tropes in stride.
The cast also does a good job of keeping the show’s material lively, even when it feels familiar. Townsend has to play a cypher for much of the first season, but he remembers the important part of such a role by still making him interesting even without information. Meanwhile, Tyler and McHattie – both great character actors in their own right – are welcome costars. The other standout is Greg Bryk, a recurring antagonist within the US government who’s vowed to bring down XIII. His is an interesting arc given how the reasons for his wanting to take down XIII change over the two seasons, becoming more personal as the plot progresses. Saying any more would reveal too much.
Probably the biggest hurdle for the overall show taking both seasons together may be the shift in tone between the two seasons. This is thanks in part due to a shift in showrunners -it was unknown for a time if there would even be a second season – from Gil Grant to Roger Avary. The second season still holds up at least, but the shift can be jarring with each season’s serial nature.
The DVD release is bare bones, but not bad. If you’re the kind of person that buys a series for its extras, you may be disappointed- beyond the show itself, the main extras are interviews with the cast and creators. But if you’re interested in the series itself, it’s presented here in good quality. About the only issue I could say I had with the release itself was, by my own admission, a fairly minor one and hardly anything to cost it points (the disc plays the episodes all in a straight shot, so episode select, rather than just playing the one episode, instead skips you to the point in the timeline that episode is at and plays to the end from there).
All in all, as someone who hasn’t had as much experience with the spy genre in television, I found this a pretty satisfying watch. It’s definitely playing on some very well-tread ground, and the tone shift was irksome, but on the whole, the series carries itself well enough regardless. The open ending of the second season, and the fact a third season is apparently in the works, has me intrigued to see where it can go from here.
I’m not sure I’d say this is much-watch television for everyone. If you have any interest, it’s a fun ride, especially at a time like this where a lot of current television is taking a few weeks off. It’s two interesting espionage narratives and twenty-six episodes that will keep you watching to see just how far the plans unfold.
To that end, I’ve heard the comics have been getting more of a release here. This just made my read list.
Till next time.
-Great cast for the material, particular in the supporting roles
-Enjoyable execution overcomes the more well-worn aspects of the material
-DVD release is prettymuch just there for the show itself and not a lot else
-While well executed, like I said, it’s a smorgasbord of familiar spy story cliches.