I remember when the El Rey network began airing Flatland I was surprised to not have encountered the show before. Back in those years when I was most attentive to science fiction television I only intermittently followed The X-Files. (I had little patience for the mind-numbingly repetitive back-and-forth between credulous Mulder and “skeptical” Scully, or the artless head game that was the mythology.) And I took less interest in the young adult stuff on the WB. (I still haven’t seen much of Buffy, and still don’t intend to; while seeing Smallville was basically a result of its reruns winding up in a convenient time slot on a channel I often left on between waking up and heading off to work in the morning.) But I by and large kept up with the syndicated action hour-type stuff Flatland seemed to be. Even if I didn’t see quite every episode of every one of them (there sure were a lot of them, back then, and some came and went almost before you knew it), I would have expected to at least have heard of this one.
I went online and found that there is virtually nothing there on the show in the way of fan sites, wikis, even data on the relevant Internet Movie Data Base pages (where there is not a single user review, and a mere 28 ratings in all — as compared with, for instance, 7 user reviews and 295 ratings for Adventure, Inc., another little-seen, quickly forgotten, one-season show of the action hour-type from that same year, 2002). To go by the Wikipedia disambiguation page for the word “flatland,” the show does not even seem to have a page on the site. In fact I did not come up with evidence of its having aired in North America before, or anywhere else for that matter, a run that I suppose would have been short given how the boom in this format, and its most typical mode of distribution (syndication), collapsed shortly after the show’s date of production and never recovered.
None of that made me less interested, of course, and I caught a few episodes. What can I say about the show at this point? Flatland clearly walks the road trod by that earlier show which helped launch that very boom in syndicated action hours, Highlander: The Series. Like Highlander (57 user reviews and 13,292 ratings, in case you’re wondering), it is a story of a continuing millennia-old battle between immortal superbeings today in an old and glamorous world-city, largely as seen by the ordinary (or are they?) humans who have found themselves caught up in those events. Befitting the long past behind all this we have a good deal of intercutting between the contemporary world and a historical costume past, colorfully filling us in on the backstory of the loves and hates and other histories and relationships of these figures. We have those beings fighting things out by way of stylish, supernatural-tinged and visual effects-enhanced personal, physical combat. And in line with their “high concept” inspiration (the mid-’80s was a golden age for music video-TV commercial style filmmaking, with Highlander right up there with classics of the form like Flashdance and Rocky IV and Top Gun), nearly everything is as plush and sleek and glossy as if it came out of an upmarket catalog ad, with an occasional grimy or “industrial” backdrop lending some visual texture.
Still, if I had seen it before the formula is a solid one, and this show’s particular variations on it definitely have their appeal. From a metafictional standpoint the casting of Dennis Hopper as an immortal super-being with the fate of the world in his hands is fairly striking given his career of playing megalomaniacs — and if Peter Biskind’s stories about Hopper are to be believed, Hopper’s not just talking that way in his movie roles. (Claiming in the wake of his success with Easy Rider that his “may be the most creative generation in the last nineteenth centuries,” Hopper compared himself with Jesus, while he opens the episodes of Flatland by reciting, as if they were his own, the words of the Buddha as commonly rendered in contemporary English — “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” — just before introducing himself as “Smith.”) Un-metafictionally, Hopper and the rest of the cast do quite well, while Shanghai (the “Paris of the East”) is most certainly a suitable backdrop for this kind of drama, and the airy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style wire-fu makes a very acceptable alternative to Highlander’s head-slicing swordplay.
I grant that it is not what the “peak TV” cheerleaders who wet their pants over The Sopranos and Mad Men and Netflix’s House of Cards remake and expected all the rest of us to do the same celebrate as great television, but I enjoyed what I saw of it, and was dismayed to see El Rey yank it and all the other ’90s action hours they had brought back to the TV schedule (Stargate: SG-1, Starhunter, Xena: Warrior Princess, Relic Hunter) back off the air in favor of their mostly unscripted originals (while this viewer goes elsewhere in the meantime).
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.