There’s ‘must-see’ television, and then there’s ‘could do worse’ television. The Librarians, the full series spin-off of the TV film miniseries The Librarian, occupies the latter with as much wit and fun as it can muster, with colourful characters leading a surprisingly well-told story through laughably absurd scenarios bolstered by delightfully maniacal villains.
Let’s set the scene: Flynn (Noah Wyle) is the Librarian, a Robin-Williams-caught-in-a-wind-tunnel type, who invites Colonel Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) to become his new Guardian. Once introduced to the extraordinary new world of the Library and its borderline sociopathic keeper, Baird soon learns – to her not small surprise – that magic exists, and the world is a much different and far deeper place than she ever imagined. The first couple of episodes assemble Flynn’s team of fledgling Librarians to keep the world balanced in his stead, while he galavants off on his solo adventures. Little do the new Librarians know – Jacob Stone, Cassandra Cillian and Ezekiel Jones – that they’re going to have their work cut out for them, and the same is most likely the case for Baird.
Each episode title has a MacGuffin suffix: for example, ‘The Librarians and the Crown of King Arthur’, which calls to mind the continuing exploits of Indiana Jones. The show shares a lot with the wily archaeologist: a sense of excitement in the face of the unknown, a proclivity for loopy set pieces, and quick-fire rounds of devastating one-liners that lovingly teeter on the edge of self-reference. Unfortunately, that terrific dynamic – and is what will keep you coming back – is sorely lacking in the first couple of episodes, only to emerge later through the series. Crucially, there’s a distinct lack of chemistry, humour or even good acting in the first couple of episodes, things that later instalments revel in; notably Bob Newhart’s Judson, a previous Librarian (now ghost), who constantly looks like he’s just sauntered away from the rest of the care home day trip, and now doesn’t know where he is. Even Noah Wyle’s Flynn grates slightly, with his keraaazy spiked-up hair and David Tennant-era Doctor Who fashion sense; it’s almost a relief when he leaves for the majority of the series, allowing Christian Kane, Lindy Booth and John Kim to shine as the series’ true protagonists. They all excel at engineering a huge amount of empathy for their characters, and as the show progresses, the lessons they learn are rich, adult and meaningful, such as when Jacob overcomes his existential lethargy and decides to finally visit Paris, or when Cassandra accepts her eventual fate as a brain tumour ticks away inside her. Only Ezekiel is shortchanged in terms of character development (and also slightly from Kim’s tendency to deliver a one-note performance here and there). But then we have Jenkins to delight in: John Larroquette’s know-it-all caretaker is a delicately balanced portrayal of sharp intelligence masking deep wells of emotion. His guiding hand keeps the trio on their guard, but also on the right path toward keeping magic out of the wrong hands – the hands of the notorious Dulaque, the perfect British villain played with visible relish by Matt Frewer.
Apart from its core heroes, the other strength of The Librarians is its writing. The aforementioned sub-par first two episodes aside, it really comes into its own as a monster-of-the-week mystery serial, which takes myths and legends we all know well (the minotaur and the thread, the typical haunted-house tale) and turns them on their head. It always has the ability to upend our expectations, earning itself real credit as an engaging drama while sticking firmly inside the family-friendly mould. It’s an always agreeable and frequently fiendish work which loves to quietly subvert itself, all while appearing as a soft, fluffy and even camp adventure.
But elsewhere, that softness round the edges can also be its undoing; shockingly bad CGI undermines the climactic moment of an episode now and then, while some of the practical effects try to mask their poor quality as low budget by design. But for every cringeworthy failure, there are 10 things that redeem it: disarmingly tender, thought-provoking moments are littered throughout, perhaps the best of which being a painfully sincere conversation between Jacob and Cassandra, where Jacob reveals his complex inability to trust her, despite her apparently genuine regret at having temporarily sided with the bad guys. Other heroes? The showrunners: in allowing this show to stand on its own, with little to no help from the main star from The Librarian, Flynn, this minor cult hit has the magic to go far (ahem). So although The Librarians might not quite be up-to-the-minute, ‘must-see’ TV, it’s something you can easily fall in love with over time.
The Librarians: Season One is available February 8.