Television that Home Video Forgot: Death Valley (2011)

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Death Valley

Showcase Inventory

Created by Eric Weinberg and Curtis Gwinn, concept by Spider One
Produced by Liquid Theory
Aired on MTV for 1 season (12 episodes) from August 29 – November 21, 2011

Cast

Bryan Callen as Capt. Frank Dashell
Charlie Sanders as Officer Joe Stubeck
Bryce Johnson as Officer Billy Pierce
Caity Lotz as Officer Kirsten Landry
Tania Raymonde as Carla Rinaldi
Texas Battle as Officer John “John-John” Johnson

Show Premise

Set one year after vampires, zombies and werewolves begin to appear in the San Fernando Valley area of California, leading to the creation of a new division of law enforcement to combat and regulate the new occupants, this series follows the daily patrol of the UTF (Undead Task Force) as they enforce the law against these larger than life supernatural citizens. The show is made up of a mix of genres, combining the mundane attitude of The Office with the slapstick police antics of Reno 911 and the backdrop and monster mythology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There are three sets of partners that we follow throughout the season: straight-laced family man Officer Joe Stubeck (Charlie Sanders) who is partnered with immature and tasteless Officer Billy Pierce (Bryce Johnson), narcissist Officer John ‘John-John’ Johnson (Texas Battle) who works with the cold and uptight Officer Carla Rinaldi (Tania Raymonde), and lastly, the over-sharing and straight-talking Captain Frank Dashell (Bryan Callen) who is often partnered with undermined rookie Officer Kirsten Landry (Caity Lotz).

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Series Run

The series came from the mind of Michael David Cummings, better known as Spider One, the front man of metal rock band Powerman 5000. After a string of failed pitch meetings, Spider One decided to film a trailer for the series himself, and that low budget trailer was brought to production company Liquid Theory, who then sold the idea to MTV, who quickly placed a series order.  The timing was right for a horror comedy to go into production, since television was booming with popular horror themed shows like True Blood, The Walking Dead, and Teen Wolf. It seemed only natural that a comedic send up of those ideas would take shape into a series.

The show was not well received by critics of the time, due to its broad comedy and heavy gore. It was clear that this series was made for a very specific audience, which makes it a prime candidate for cult TV status. The production values are a strange mix of CGI and practical effects that sometimes look fairly good, and at other times fall into uncanny valley territory. It may have been the intent of the production team to create a low stakes environment so the patrolmen could appear to stand a chance against these supernatural criminals, but if so, that outcome seldom comes through in the final product.

The series is scripted with very strong characters and story elements that really allow it to hold up, despite its weak production values. The dynamics of the UTF partners are well established fairly early on, and go interesting places as the season develops. For instance, the dynamic between Officers Joe Stubeck and Billy Pierce is consistent, playing their odd-couple like traits against one another. Officer Pierce, an immature child of a man who freely displays his juvenile thoughts about sex, violence, and monsters, is constantly brushing against Officer Stubeck’s family values persona. The ongoing relationship between Officer John-John and Officer Rinaldi is particularly interesting, as it has unusual relationship complexities. They begin as stiff partners, but Officer John-John develops an attraction to Officer Rinaldi that, within the span of the season, becomes clear will go no further than a crush. The story of how their partnership evolves from attraction to a bit of competitive friendship, and where it goes from there, is one of the finer developed arcs of the series.

Perhaps the weakest pairing of the three is Officer Landry and Captain Dashell, as their interactions are mostly that of mentor and subordinate, which restricts their interactions. Throughout the season, the cast works remarkably well together and they display varying degrees of comedy. Although the key dynamics between partners are set, the episodes in which they mix up the partnerships are the highlights of the series. Benefiting from this, episodes like “Two Girls, One Cop”, “Zombie Fights”, and “Assault on Precinct UTF” are the strongest in the season.

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The series has serialized elements and it benefits the viewer to watch the episodes in order, as there are mythology beats slowly doled out in each episode. Why these supernatural creatures appear only in the San Fernando Valley and why they have suddenly began appearing just a year prior to the pilot remains a mystery, although the creators hinted that if the series had continued, they would have had an answer to that question. Even without these answers, the premise alone has its episodic appeal, as the daily routine of UTF consists of dealing with vampires, zombies, and werewolves as everyday domestic disturbances. The vampires are often shown as an organized crime syndicate, with prostitution rings and blood used as currency. The zombie attacks on the streets are treated like animal control problems, as well as paralleling homelessness, which could be a very appropriate allegory, as the poverty stricken are arguably treated by society as the living dead already. The werewolf dilemma is dealt with as an STD mixed with alcohol abuse and bouts of domestic disturbance issues.  Although the series presents these themes as possible areas to explore, the creators do not really attempt to do more than to tell the stories of these officers of the UTF. It’s just as well, as the series may have been marred by delving too heavily into these hot-button issues.

If the series had continued, there are certainly areas it could have explored that would have taken the show to some very interesting places. From how the series ended, with the introduction of a new supernatural force entering our dimension, it was pretty clear that the writers had bigger things planned for season two. Although the series was not particularly notable at the time, there are some standout elements that made this series worth watching.

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Preservation Claim

In the spirit of Sound on Sight’s 31 Days of Horror, I decided to select some horror related forgotten television. Although not entirely a horror TV series, Death Valley surely has the gore factor of one and certainly the mythology of one.

The thesis behind this column is to shine a light on truly forgotten television series that are unavailable on home video, and also to give some consideration to maligned home video releases that were either poorly received when they were on the air, or which are currently being neglected by the average TV on DVD consumer.  When Death Valley originally arrived on the TV landscape, it was received mostly negatively, and though it didn’t have the best production values or mass audience appeal, it was still a fairly well thought out and established satire of the popular horror series of the time. Although the comedy is broad, the series works very well because of its cast, who make the season a fun romp, especially when binge-watched.

The legacy of the series is in the follow up works of one of the series developers, Curtis Gwinn, who would go on to produce material for satire comedy series NTSF:SD:SUV::, and write episodes of The Walking Dead and The Leftovers. Notable members of the cast include Caity Lotz, who displays some of her early fighting skills on this series, which surely helped in her current role as vigilante Black Canary on CW’s Arrow, former Lost alum Tania Raymonde, who has appeared on guest roles on shows like Switched at Birth and Big Bang Theory, and Brian Callen, who has appeared reoccurring on The Goldbergs as Mr. Meller.

Availability

This series was made available as a Made on Demand DVR via the MTV website with no special features added, other than an uncensored version of the series. Another avenue to watch the series is at the MTV home page for Death Valley.

Youtube: The pilot episode and some extended trailers of the series are available on Youtube, but little else currently is.

Amazon: The MOD DVD is also available for purchase and episodes are available to stream in HD on Amazon instant video.

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