Friday, August 11, 2006

Nowhere Man

Nowhere Man

With UPN and the WB soon to be extinct (the two are merging to form the new network CW), I thought it might be a good idea to write about a series from the early days of UPN. Many of you might remember that when UPN first began, its focus was on hour long action series with the goal of attracting a young male audience. In its first few months such series as Star Trek: Voyager, Legend, and Marker aired on the young network. Most of those series were forgettable, with two exceptions. One was Star Trek: Voyager. The other was a series called Nowhere Man. Although only running one season, it would go onto become a bit of a cult series. The complete series was released on DVD December 26, 2005, giving me a chance to see it again nearly ten years after it originally aired.

For those of you who never saw Nowhere Man (which I am taking for granted is most of you), Nowhere Man starred Bruce Greenwood as Thomas Veil. Veil was a documentary photographer who abruptly finds his entire life "erased." His friends and family (even his wife) don't recognise him. The keys to his home and his studio will no longer open any doors in those places. His ATM and credit cards no longer work. In fact, any record of his existence is gone. Veil does not know precisely why this happened, but he suspects that it might have to do with a photograph he took in South America. It seems some secret organisation, a conspiracy with people in high places, want the negatives to that photograph. And they will do anything to get it from him. As a result, Veil must flee for his life, travelling from place to place in an effort to uncover the truth about the conspiracy and why his life was erased. Effectively, it was a cross between The Fugitive and The Prisoner.

Nowhere Man was created by Lawerence Hertzog, a TV writer with credits including Stingray and Hart to Hart. He would later work on the USA Network's La Femme Nikita. The series came about after UPN executive Michael Sullivan appraoched Hertzog about creating a series for the new network. With literally on a few months before the nework debuted, Hertzog was under pressure to deliver a quality series to the network on time. Hertzog apparently worked well under pressure, as Nowhere Man was easily the best show on UPN besides Star Trek: Voyager. Indeed, the series was well received by critics, even getting a sterling review from no less than The New York Times.

In its short run (only 25 episodes were ever made) Nowhere Man produced some of the most remarkable episodes in Nineties series television. In "Something About Her" the Organisation (as the conspiracy was called in many episodes of the show) created virtual memories of a romance that never happened in Veil's mind in an attempt to get information out of him. In "The Spider Webb" Veil finds out that his life after it had been erased is serving as the basis for a cheap, public access TV series. "You Really Got a Hold of Me" featured another man (played by Dean Stockwell) whose life had been erased and had been on the run for 25 years. "Forever Young" featured a nursing home which was conducting experiments in the restoration of youth to the elderly. "Stay Tuned (one of two episodes that could be seen as homages to The Prisoner)" centred on a small town where nearly every single resident is entralled with a local politician and his TV show. "Through a Lens Darkly" saw Veil return to Missouri and an old house where he is tormented by memories of his childhood sweetheart.

While much of the quality of Nowhere Man was due to its writing, the series was also helped by the qualtiy of its guest stars. Many of them were well established actors. In the pilot Michael Tucker (of L. A. Law) played a psychiatrist. In "You Really Got a Hold on Me" Dean Stockwell played the man who had been on the run from the Organisation for 25 years. In "Father" Dean Jones played Veil's father. Dwight Schultz, of A-Team and Star Trek: the Next Generation fame, guest starred in the episode "Hidden Agenda." The final episode, "Gemini Man," featured Hal Linden (of Barney Miller fame) as a United States senator. The series also featured actors who would later become stars. Carrie Moss (later to become famous for The Matrix trilogy) guest starred in "Something About Her." Maria Bello was featured in the episode "An Enemy Within." Nowhere Man also benefited from some of the most talented directors in the business. Film director Tobe Hooper directed the pilot and the second episode, while veteran TV directors James Whitmore Jr., Stephen Stafford, and Ian Toynton all directed episodes.

None of this is to say that Nowhere Man was a perfect TV show. While it produced some truly great episodes and the majority of its run was good at best, it did produce some truly awful episodes as well. "A Rough Whimper of Insanity" attempted to capitalise on both the Internet and Virtual Realtiy (both fads at the time) and failed in doing either. "It's Not Such a Wonderful Life" featured a Chrismtas reunion with Veil's wife with the expected results. "Heart of Darkness" is a fairly pedestrian episode dealing with a paramilitary organisation. Fortunately, such episodes were generally few and far between.

As mentioned previously, Nowhere Man received fairly good reviews. It also did well in the ratings given that it was on a brand new and very small network (at least when compared to such major players as NBC and CBS). Sadly, good ratings would not be enough for the show to survive. During is first season on the air UPN saw changes which would result in a decision to focus on urban comedies instead of action series as it originally intended. There were many in the upper eschelons at UPN who simply did not like Nowhere Man to begin with. With the series out of favour with many network heads and not exactly reflecting the new direction UPN chose to take (it was hardly an urban comedy), Nowhere Man was cancelled at the end of its first and only season. The bitter irony is that Nowhere Man and many of the other action series which aired on the network in its first year received higher ratings than the urban comedies it would later air. In fact, I have to wonder if much of the failure of UPN (the ultimate result of which was its merger with the WB) was due to its decision to change directions in its first season.

Fortunately, Nowhere Man would not be forgotten and has remained a cult series ever since it first aired. This would, of course, result in the relatively recent release of its entire run on DVD. The DVD set is remarkable for a TV show, especially one that run only one season. The set features several extras. Many of the episodes have audio commentaries, and sometimes video commentaries as well. There are several featurettes on various aspects of the making of the series. There is even a short featurette on purported CIA mind control techniques on the last disc of the set entitled "Fact or Fiction (I personally found this a bit far fetched, if interesting--conspiracy theorists may feel free to disagree with me)." Among the best part of the extras are the scripts for every single episode of Nowhere Man, which one can download to his or her computer.

Although it had its share of bad episodes, Nowhere Man was a remarkable series for its time. In fact, in some ways it was a bit of ahead of its time. First, since Nowhere Man first aired there have been several successful, cerebral action series. The USA Network had La Femme Nikita (which Lawrence Hertzog himself would work on). ABC has had Alias and Lost. F/X has The Shield. Nowhere Man would fit in perfectly with all these series. In fact, I rather suspect that had it aired just a few years later, it may have found a home on one of the various cable channels. Second, when Nowhere Man first aired, identity theft was relatively rare. In the ten years since the show originally aired, identity theft has increased dramatically, making the series even more pertinent than it once was. Its questons regarding the nature of identity and the tension between the individual and the group remain as relevant as ever. While it is regrettable that Nowhere Man only lasted one season, it remains one of the most fascinating series of the Nineties and probably will not soon be forgotten.


Unknown said...

This show sounds like something I might actually really like! Thanks for the information. Now I just have to track down a copy of it.

Also, thanks for popping by the movie site! :)

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to pass along the sad news that Larry Hertzog, creator of the UPN series Nowhere Man, passed away yesterday.

More details will follow on the forums for his podcast series which can be accessed here: (registration required)

If you get a chance pour a cocktail, listen to an episode of the show and say a toast for Larry.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I am very sad to hear that Mr. Hertzog has passed. I was obviously a huge fan of Nowhere Man, and I enjoyed much of his other work as well. Needless to say, he will be eulogised here!