Highlander: The Raven
Originally published 1/19/11, updated 11/5/16
Question: What if you set out to make a TV show and every single person involved hated each other with the burning fury of a thousand exploding suns?
Answer: You’d have Highlander: The Raven.
Although Highlander: The Series ran out of gas in its last season, it was still a highly acclaimed series that had a lot of fans. Naturally, that meant that Davis-Panzer Productions saw a chance to make more money out of it. They spent a good chunk of the sixth season of the series testing the waters for a spinoff show, featuring a lineup of new ass-kicking female immortals who would become the next main character. None of the new characters tested well, though, and as a result the producers went back to Amanda, the likeable thief and on and off love interest of Duncan MacLeod. Amanda was beautiful, clever, witty, and had been a fan favorite for six years. The big question was, why did the producers waste so many episodes trying to find an ass-kicking female immortal when they already had Amanda?
The answer, it seems, is this: Elizabeth Gracen was fucking insane.
That’s not to bash Elizabeth Gracen as a person, as she seems to have recovered from her problems in years to follow. But at the time The Raven was in production, she had gone off the deep end – largely through no fault of her own. See, Elizabeth Gracen was Miss Arkansas in 1981, and then Miss America in 1982. Around that time, she had a one-night stand with then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. Fast forward to the late 1990s, and Bill Clinton was on trial for abusing his political influence to gain sexual favors out of an array of women. When it came out that Gracen had been involved with Clinton, Ken Starr issued a subpoena to get her to testify. Gracen had no interest in getting drawn into that political shitstorm and managed to dodge testifying by virtue of the fact that Highlander: The Raven was filmed out of the country.
Gracen was dating a guy who seems to have been both a skilled con artist and a complete jackass. This guy, who she lived with, convinced her that he was the U.S. Ambassador to the Cayman Islands and proceeded to fill her already paranoid head with lies. Among other things, he convinced her that her co-star on The Raven, Paul Johansson, was a government plant looking to pump her for information. So this guy, who Amanda was supposed to have a budding romance with in the series, earned the complete ire of Elizabeth Gracen before he even said a word.
Oh, but it doesn’t end there…
Paul Johansson may or may not have been a complete jackass himself. It’s hard to say exactly, since as the series unraveled everyone started pointing fingers at each other and slandering people’s characters. Among other stories, there are rumors that Johansson flirted with Gracen, not realizing that Gracen was convinced that he was a CIA plant. And by flirted with her, I mean dropped his pants on set. Whether this is a result of substance abuse, a bizarre personality, or just slanderous lies, it’s an accusation that only adds to the behind-the-scenes trouble that plagued The Raven. To make matters worse, Johansson wasn’t a terribly good fit in his role as Nick Wolfe, the mortal cop who teamed up with Amanda at the start of the series. He had limited range, he was given bad lines, and his on-screen chemistry with Elizabeth Gracen was understandably abysmal. One of the show’s guest stars was originally brought in only as a one-off appearance but became a recurring character simply because the folks behind the camera desperately wanted someone who could make the audience care about the show, even for a little bit. In the end, Johansson was badly miscast, and the parade of off-screen troubles only helped to magnify that.
Oh, but it still doesn’t end there…
David Abramowitz and Dennis Berry, two of the creative team that had put together the acclaimed original series, returned to the show to try and make The Raven a success. Unfortunately, a German network emerged as a new backer for the series, and money got in the way as it so often does. Because the network had no stake in the original series, they made demands that the new show be changed as much as possible to exist as something separate and different from Highlander. As a result, Abramowitz and Berry wound up spinning their creative wheels, dealing with network pressures that kept the show as a clichéd cop drama rather than a series about immortals. As the series went on, Abramowitz admitted to mentally checking out, creatively and emotionally drained from the fact that, despite being billed as a creative consultant, he had no creative say in the matter. (Sure, that might be spin, but considering that Abramowitz would eventually return as a writer for the excellent Highlander: The Search of Vengeance, I’m guessing that lack of talent was not an issue.) Dennis Berry later stated that he had never had such a bad time on the project. Johansson criticized Berry and the other directors for trying to force chemistry between him and Gracen where there was none, and a miserable time was had by all.
And believe it or not, it still doesn’t end there…
What about the music? Highlander has always been, if nothing else, a series with some darned good music. We had Queen’s great soundtrack from the original. The series had a lot of good songs in it, as well as a great score that heightened its emotion. Even Highlander III, which eschewed the use of Queen, still hit a high note with Loreena McKennitt’s rendition of “Bonnie Portmore:”
(Yes, that’s just an excuse for me to put in something that doesn’t suck.)
As for The Raven, it had…well, it had a composer who didn’t do his job. Looking around online, I can’t tell which composer did which episodes, but I could find plenty of reports that indicated that the lead composer of the series, the guy responsible for producing the music, wouldn’t produce music. As one of the series’ editors put it, “It was like pulling teeth to get him to do what had to be done.” And by “do what had to be done,” he meant, “pull himself away from the corner bar and actually earn his paycheck instead of drinking it away.”
From all reports, walking onto the set of The Raven was like kicking a wasp’s nest. No one liked each other, no one enjoyed the project, and even the most talented individuals had off-screen pressures limiting their performance. So with all that going against the show, it had to be pretty catastrophically awful, right? Like Highlander II levels of suck?
Don’t get me wrong – Highlander: The Raven is not a good series. The first half of the show in particular is just awful. But it’s the same type of awful as Highlander III – not the franchise-killing “aliens from Zeist” type of bad, but rather the, “these guys just aren’t very talented” kind of bad. The series ran more like a bad cop drama than a show about a 1,000-year old femme fatale. It had plot holes, every tired cliché in the book, and zero character depth or development. But at least it didn’t have aliens from Zeist. (By that way, now bad is the Highlander franchise that fans can perpetually defend any crappy new film or show by stating, “At least they didn’t mention Zeist?”)
The series went wrong in several areas. Let me try to count the ways.
For starters, it totally misused Amanda. Fans had seen Amanda develop as a character for six years during the original series. We knew who she was – a charming, self-centered, clever thief with a heart of gold that she carefully hid with mountains of stolen diamonds. She could fight, but rarely did, preferring to avoid battle if at all possible. But then in The Raven, she became much more honor-bound, facing off against immortals, fighting fair, and almost always failing at the heists she attempted. Part of this can be explained away in the first episode, where her selfish actions cause the death of a police officer. However, we also have flashbacks presenting that same noble-esque version of Amanda, such as an instance when she openly challenged a slave owner to a duel. Besting a guy like that through a fight is something suited to Duncan MacLeod, not Amanda. Even if Amanda was against slavery at that point, she likely would have dealt with the matter with stealth and style, not with swordplay. But the series lacked a sense of wit and charm that Amanda so desperately needed. Although Elizabeth Gracen portrayed her with the same effortlessness she had in the old series, this version of Amanda lacked anything clever or graceful to do.
There’s another problem with Amanda, too. Despite the fact that she seems like an independent, ass-kicking woman, she’s really not a very good character from a feminist perspective. Looking at her actions throughout the original series, she lacks any sort of independent nature of her own, despite the fact that she’s supposed to be a lone wolf of sorts. Everything she does in the series is tied to a man – specifically, Duncan MacLeod. Moreover, the series finale demonstrated that any character development she ever had at all came from Duncan, showing her as a cold-hearted, greedy assassin who slept her way into wealth without Duncan’s shining influence. She never bests a man in a swordfight, except one which happens off-screen and another where she kill-steals from Duncan. Except for a couple of episodes that focus on her relationship with Rebecca, she really doesn’t show herself as independent or capable at all – we just sort of buy that she is because, well, it’s Elizabeth Gracen and she’s acting like she’s all kick-ass. Ideally, The Raven should have been a chance to break out of this cycle of Amanda always needing Duncan for everything from fights to character development. The series should have shown us what she does on her own and built her up as a strong character in her own right. But what did they do? They immediately tied her to another man.
Nick Wolfe is a mortal cop whose partner dies because of Amanda. He gets paired up with her in solving some crimes, and hilarity ensues. And by hilarity, I mean a lot of bad acting and boring diatribes from a guy who makes Adrian Paul look like Laurence Olivier. Wolfe has absolutely no character of his own – he’s one-dimensional to the extreme and made up entirely of bad cop clichés. Worse, he serves not only as Amanda’s love interest, but also her moral anchor, supposedly keeping her on the straight and narrow. If you ever saw a chase scene from Law & Order, a movie where a guy has to disarm a bomb, or a scene where someone has to go undercover in a casino, watch that instead. Nick Wolfe does all those things, and he does it in the most boring way possible. The only fun that can be derived from most of his scenes is naming off all the movies his character is ripping off from as he speaks.
The unoriginal writing didn’t end at Nick Wolfe, either. For a show that had the name Highlander, it had almost nothing at all to do with immortals. The first half of the series was almost entirely rejected plots from NYPD Blue. Amanda’s flashbacks were rare and tangential when they did appear. Even guest stars from the old series like Philip Akin (Charlie DeSalvo from the second through fourth seasons, a totally different character in one episode here) couldn’t make anyone give a damn about this series. Worst of all, when immortals did appear, they just sucked. We got none of the history we had with bad immortals from the previous series. We didn’t even get someone who could delightfully chew the scenery like Mario Van Peebles did as Kane in Highlander III. We got characters that were just as bland and incompetent as Nick was. One episode’s big villain is an immortal who has figured out a mathematical algorithm that takes all the immortals in the world and tells him who he needs to kill and in what order to become the last one. Yeah…there’s a guy whose big schtick is that he plays the fantasy football version of immortality. Forget the fact that no one can calculate how a swordfight to the death is going to turn out due to all the variables involved – it’s already been plainly established that no one knows how many immortals there are. Even the Watchers, who have a massive database on all known immortals, have a lot of holes in their system. I’d love for the guy to make it most of the way through his list, then get ambushed by Methos, who most immortals don’t know exists.
Oh yeah…that guy? He fights Amanda and loses. But we don’t know how, because the battle happens off-screen. Oh, but there are still quickenings in this show, mind you – they just tend not to all go to Amanda. Nick winds up getting two decapitations himself – one where he’s chasing an immortal through a glass factory. In said instance, he shoots a pane of glass, the glass then falls in one straight sheet, and it decapitates the immortal who is apparently standing under it with his neck angled just right. In a later episode, Nick defeats one of Amanda’s old enemies by beheading him with a sword. Yeah. This stupid fucking know-nothing douchebag with a badge and a gun picks up a freaking sword that he has received no training in using and decapitates a guy with centuries of experience. Both those fights get shown on-screen. To be fair, Amanda does get a few on-screen wins as well, but just as many of her fights, if not more, occur off-screen. Yeah, I’m actually going to play the sexism card here – even when these guys are trying to make a show about an ass-kicking woman, they have a white knight testosterone junkie ride in to save the day, while the few times the woman actually accomplishes something on her own are kept off-camera.
By now you might be saying, “Wow, why are you bitching about this so much when you were just saying that it’s not all that bad?” Well, that’s because about halfway through the series, the show does get markedly better. It’s still not great, mind you, but it does start to resemble Highlander instead of a rejected pilot for a cop show. I personally set it around episode 13, “The French Connection.” The episodes starts off with the death of a Watcher. Yeah, a Watcher. You know, those guys from that other, much better Highlander series? That finally showed that the series had some connection with the actual premise of the franchise. “The French Connection” also features Jim Byrnes as a guest star, playing Joe Dawson. And man, he still rocks. Even with a bad script and limited screen time, he makes the show interesting. Also returning to the cast for this one was Valentine Pelka, who played Kronos of the Four Horsemen in the original series. He plays a different immortal here, but he has the same charisma and is the first decent villain in the series. Amanda’s flashback to when she first met him actually shows some consistency with the character that had been previously established and ties into the current events. It’s like suddenly people remembered how to make a Highlander show!
At the same time that it rejuvenated the series, Jim Byrnes’ appearance highlighted a problem that The Raven had: it had no human connection. In the old series, the mortals grounded the show through their interactions with the immortal world. We had Tessa, an antiques dealer and artist. We had pre-immortal Richie, a common street punk, as well as Charlie DeSalvo, who was like an older version of Richie who made something of himself despite his troubled background. We had Joe Dawson, the owner of a book shop and then a blues bar. These were characters who seemed real. By comparison, The Raven only had Nick and his partners. Nick was some insane supercop who never did anything wrong and had the same unyielding moral code as Duncan MacLeod. Who can relate to that? The other mortals in the series never got enough screen time to develop as decent characters. So you had a show about immortals, with no real ties to the mortal world, but you also had one of the show’s backers insisting that you downplay the immortality part of the series. By “The French Connection,” we at least have a show that can focus on immortality, even if our only sympathetic mortal leaves after a one-off guest appearance. It’s like the series found its footing, while the writers finally remembered what kind of character Amanda was. A few episodes later even emphasize the consequences of Amanda’s selfishness through the years, giving her real character development and a reason to change besides, “The man tells me to be good.”
The series even ended fairly strongly, with the last few episodes providing hints that Nick was a pre-immortal and then confirming it with the series finale. There Nick is poisoned and Amanda shoots him, giving a violent death to trigger his immortality and save him. Although the revelation is dealt with well, I have a slight issue with the way in which Nick becomes immortal. It’s the first time in the franchise that I know of that someone actually spells out the rule that immortals only become immortal if they die a violent death, and it makes no sense. I guess that someone wanted to explain why immortals are always young and in fighting condition rather than old guys who died in their bed of a stroke at the age of 90. But was anyone really bothered by that detail? Really? Besides, the whole “must die a violent death” rule is not internally consistent. Nick wouldn’t have become immortal had he died of poison? Then how the fuck are you immortal, Amanda, when you died a plague? How can you introduce a plot detail like that with no one realizing that it invalidates the origin of your own main character? Worst of all, this is the one thing from The Raven that got carried over into the rest of the franchise, resulting in one of the most wall-bangingly stupid parts of the next movie, Highlander: Endgame.
Edit: So, Elizabeth Gracen herself pointed out that my memory was completely bollocks on Amanda’s origin. She died during the plague, but she died because somebody brained her with a club – definitely a violent death. So the entire struck-out text above represents an area where I was totally wrong. Rather than remove the text entirely, I’m just going to leave it here as a reminder that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. </Edit>
Setting aside the nitpicks and focusing on what’s good about the ending, Nick gets ticked off that the price for eternal life is survival via chopping people’s heads off and leaves Amanda behind. The series ends on an appropriately bittersweet narration from Nick, where he muses, “What room is there for love, when there can be only one?”
And thus we have the one single season of Highlander: The Raven, a trainwreck of a production that somehow managed to churn out a few enjoyable episodes despite that fact. At the time it was canceled, part of me wished that the series could get a second season, hoping that it would find its legs and pick up like its predecessor did. That part of me didn’t know about the behind the scenes problems that plagued the series. I guess it’s best for the series to have ended on what for it was a strong note rather than implode utterly under the feuds and mismanagement that had hurt it so much. With problems coming in the form of everything from a greedy network to Bill Clinton, The Raven was doomed from the start, and any good moments that can be pried out of the wreckage are just a happy bonus.