'Wynonna Earp': TV Review

Courtesy of SyFy
Syfy's 'Wynonna Earp'
Low-budget Canadian charm compensates for some bumps.
4/1/2016

Wyatt Earp's great, great granddaughter fights demons in a 'Buffy'-esque Syfy drama.

Not everyone in the world is in need of an off-brand, very Canadian version of the slightly unformed early run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but chances are good that within 10 or 15 minutes of watching Syfy's new series Wynonna Earp, you'll know if you're part of that specialized demographic.

With the important caveat that Wynonna Earp, premiering Friday on Syfy, isn't as sharp, funny, thematically rich and consistently well-cast as Buffy was even in its bumpy opening season, there are enough elements in common to justify a tenuous comparison and enough small pleasures to encourage continued viewing. Wynonna Earp stars Melanie Scrofano as the title character, the great, great granddaughter of the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, returning home to the generic Western town of Purgatory after years avoiding her legacy. In addition to the family name and the handy firearm named Peacemaker, a Colt .45 pistol with a 12-inch barrel, membership in the Earp clan includes inheriting a particular set of specialized skills and also a dark curse. When an Earp heir turns 27 ... ummm ... actually, I'm not sure I could explain the logistics based on the two episodes sent to critics, but I know that there are demons, the malingering spirits of the not-so-nice people Wyatt Earp killed in the line of duty. Called "revenants," those demons are plotting something big and bad and only Wynonna can stop them.

Actually, that's not exactly true. Wynonna's plucky sister Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) stayed in Purgatory and developed some skills of her own. Also loitering in town are Agent Xavier Dolls (Shamier Anderson), part of a government agency with interest in the supernatural, as well as Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon). Yes, that Doc Holliday, formerly Wyatt Earp's buddy, but he's now boasting unclear motivations.

Based only in the loosest way possible on the Image and IDW comic series, Syfy's Wynonna Earp was developed for television by Emily Andras (Lost Girl) with a pilot directed by Paolo Barzman (Lost Girl). Looking over the résumés of the show's other writers and stars, you'll notice a lot of Lost GirlKilljoysDark Matter and Being Human credits, a reminder of how good the Canadian genre pipeline has been to Syfy. Familiarity with the shows on that list, as well as offerings like The Listener and Saving Hope, will also probably indicate whether you watch Wynonna Earp without recognizing a single face, or if the Calgary-filmed locations are full of old friends. Familiarity with those shows will also regulate if you watch Wynonna Earp and are taken aback by the primitive special effects, or if you know that working around limitations is part of the charm. Remember that the effects in the first season of Buffy were mighty Stone Age as well.

Buffy will keep coming up in this review and others because in taking Wynonna from a comic incarnation in which she's an absurdly curvy blonde prone to revealing leather attire to Scrofano's sarcastic, sexy-yet-relatable tomboy, Andras has clearly kept the Joss Whedon playbook open for reference at all times.

The similarities start with an opening in which, straying from a tour bus in the dark of night, Wynonna seems doomed to be the victim of glowy-eyed creatures, but this damsel in distress actually knows how to fight and turns the tables. Sound familiar? The dialogue mixes tart put-downs, winky-y pop-culture nods, "I just looked this up on Wikipedia" historical details and portentous talk about destiny, and while there isn't the sense of trying to create a whole new YA lexicon, the Whedon-aping at least keeps things light and periodically amusing. Doc Holliday has been reimagined with a brooding ambiguity that screams "Angel!" and Wynonna's sister has been skipped ahead to mid-run Willow with both her research acumen and her sexual curiosity. Wynonna Earp initially lacks a Giles figure and that's a problem both because the genre practically demands a sensible mentor figure, but mostly because you can't beat a British screen veteran when it comes to delivering clunky backstory with accented aplomb, and nobody here is capable in that regard.

The lack of a good Giles is probably why so little of Wynonna Earp's mythology makes immediate sense after two hours. What Wynonna can or can't do as a fighter or marksman is either being left vague or it's intentionally confusing because the directors are enjoying playful B-movie nods with the action scenes and not worrying about character continuity. The gypsy caravan of demons is also abiding by a set of rules that feel like they're being made up on the fly, and while we assume that they have plans for global domination of some sort, it's like if the Hellmouth was already open, but all of Buffy's adversaries were just loitering around a trailer park kibitzing about eventually taking her down.

Carrying the show over many of its initial bumps is Scrofano, who has a lengthy Canadian résumé but may only be recognizable to me from recent viewership of A&E's Damien. Probably better than the dialogue she's been given, Scrofano is funny, flirty and full of attitude, and if she's not always convincing when it comes to the fighting and shooting side of the character, that's either intentionally reflecting Wynonna's newly accepted position or caused by those inconsistencies in defining what Wynonna powers are. One of the key points of differentiation between early Buffy and Wynonna Earp is that demon-fighting is real family business, not a proxy family, and the Earp sisters are nicely contrasted, with Provost-Chalkley delivering smiles and enthusiasm to play off Scrofano's sneers and resigned determination. Rozon's Holliday is all Old West mannerisms and mystery and Anderson is all g-man authority, but that's all they've been given so far.

I can't tell in the early going if there's a Wynonna-Dolls-Holliday love triangle being foreshadowed, but that's not what interests me or will keep me watching Wynonna Earp for at least a while. In the first couple episodes, I liked the sisterly empowerment message, some of the fundamentally silly history-by-way-of-the-occult story engine and I even enjoyed the low-budget Canadian moxie exhibited in the barely production designed main town, "let's keep this as simple as possible" special effects and earnestly wooden guest actors. Maybe, like its vampire-slaying idol before it, Wynonna Earp will raise its aspirations or execution as it goes.

Cast: Melanie Scrofano, Tim Rozon, Shamier Anderson, Dominique Provost-Chalkley
Based on the comic created by: Beau Smith
Showrunner: Emily Andras

Airs: Fridays,10 p.m. ET/PT (Syfy)

 

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