Watching The Sentinel: Part One

I decided to watch an often-forgotten 90’s police procedural because at one time, it had a massive, offbeat legion of slash fans. Here are my thoughts on the first five episodes.

The 1990s were filled with cop shows that tried to stand out with some sort of unusual hook. The micro-genre began with Cop Rock, a show where the police had musical numbers, and just about peaked, ratings-wise, with Walker, Texas Ranger, about a Chuck Norris who has king fu and Native American traditions to aid in his fight against Satanism. Other interesting examples include Martial Law, a more comedic show co-starring Hong Kong action legend Sammo Hung, and Forever Knight, where the cop is also a vampire. The 90s were a golden age of cop shows, and networks were fielding new gimmicks left and right in an attempt to stand out among classics like NYPD Blue, In The Heat of the Night, Law and Order, and real life Cops themselves.

The main characters of The Sentinel. From left: the boss, Simon Banks (Bruce A. Young), Jim Ellison (Richard Burgi), and Blair Sandburg (Garrett Maggart).

The Sentinel is a unique addition to the mix. Shot in Canada like many of the others, The Sentinel ran from 1996 to 1999. The series centers around Jim Ellison, a detective in the fictional city of Cascade, Washington, and Blair Sandburg, his crime-solving partner. The series had middling success, eventually getting cancelled early into its fourth season, ending up with 65 total episodes. What makes it unique is the concept–a man with super-senses and the other man helping him to use those sense to fight crime–and the slash fandom that grew around the show in fandom’s transitional age.

The rest of the images in this post are fanzine covers.

Cop shows revolving around the dynamic relationships between two male partners, AKA “buddy cop shows,” have drawn fandom for decades, especially those in slash fandom, and The Sentinel was no different–except that it took to the internet like ducks to water. While many fandoms struggled or failed to adjust to the digital age, Sentinel fandom managed to adeptly straddle the line, producing zines at the same time that it organized en masse on the internet. Contemporary accounts recall that the Sentinel fandom of the late 90s was remarkably vibrant and well organized, with a giant fanbase that was incredibly welcoming and active. A quote on the show’s Fanlore page from 2000 estimates at the time, the fandom for The Sentinel was equal in size to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The fandom was one of the first to discuss using content tagging on fanworks.

While the vibrant Sentinel fandom has mostly faded, its influence persists. Sentinel AUs (Alternate Universes), borrowing the concept of the show for other fandoms, are still widely used, and seem to have even gained popularity with those that have never seen the original show. And if you go digging into fandom history, you will see the Sentinel fandom mentioned repeatedly, a giant shadow over our early internet history.

As someone interested in fandom history, its intersection with the internet, and particularly slash fandom, The Sentinel is an intriguing gap in my fandom knowledge, a show that loomed large and now lingers in whispers and a fanfic trope. So, like any nerd with free time, I decided it was time that I buy the complete series and see what it was all about.

The pilot, called “Pilot,” does its best to explain The Sentinel’s somewhat circuitous concept. Jim Ellison, the titular Sentinel, is in some sort of Armed Forces helicopter when it crashes in the deep rainforest of South America. The only survivor of his unit and presumed dead, Ellison spends 18 months in the jungle before the Americans notice he’s alive, and he gets rescued. The show opens with this rescue, trying to tell a complicated, traumatic backstory in about three dispassionate minutes; when Ellison first appears onscreen, he’s wearing a Rambo headband and has picked up some native buddies, who appear to all be white men wearing Dora the Explorer wigs and face paint. He reacts to being rescued like I would to hearing that my oil change has been finished ten minutes early.

Nevertheless, we press on. Two years later, we are in the fictional town of Cascade, Washington, where Ellison seems to be The Best Police Detective. He’s having trouble with his senses–they’re heightened, but out of control, illustrated when he sees his own reflection in a motorcycle helmet and gives a manly shriek. Having failed to catch a mad bomber, Ellison goes to the hospital, where the other main character arrives, impersonating a doctor and giving Ellison a mysterious business card. Ellison follows the card to discover that our other main character is none other than Blair Sandburg. Blair Sandburg is a doctoral student of anthropology, who studies ancient tribes. He believes Ellison is a Sentinel, a kind of human seen in tribal cultures who lives on the outskirts of the village, protecting everyone else with their special senses.

The series so far is at best confused as to what exactly this means. It clearly seems to want to give Ellison’s supersenses some sort of divine or mystical quality–the theme music by James Newton Howard contains a lot of pan flutes and shots of the South American jungle, and Sandburg tries to evoke the ancient mysticism of the tribe in his explanations of what his happening. Ellison’s super-senses go from bothering him not at all to giving him a list of bizarre side effects, including declaring spaghetti “too spicy” and getting distracted by Frisbees, and Sandburg doesn’t really seem all that helpful, which at least comes off as in character–he’s a doctoral student just desperate to study his thesis topic in the wild. Through the magic of TV policespeak, Sandburg becomes Ellison’s partner, and off they go, ready to buddy cop their hearts out.

The show, frankly, works better when it isn’t trying to explain itself and it’s just trying to have fun, and the episodes after the pilot fare much better for it. The second episode, “Siege,” is a Die Hard episode, with a criminal and his goons taking over the police station in order to free their imprisoned comrades. Blair is trapped inside, accidentally killing bad guys with vending machines, while Ellison systematically destroys the building from the outside in with his super powers. “Killers” involves Ellison deciding violating civil rights is fine as long as the victim is definitely probably a hitman, and then there’s a really dark scene involving a corpse in an abandoned carnival. “The Debt” gives the show an excuse to have Ellison and Sandburg become roommates; we learn that Sandburg has been living in an actual warehouse, and the one next door promptly explodes. Sandburg and his barbary ape Larry move into Ellison’s minimalist apartment, and despite a promise that it’s a temporary arrangement, they’re still living together by the fifth episode, “Cypher.”

Watching the pilot, I was struck by the idea that Ellison and Sandburg could be just as easily explained as two people with different presentations of Attention Deficit Disorder, rather than a quasi-mystical super soldier and the man studying him. The pilot, frankly, does a poor job of making their situation seem important enough for these characters to have a lasting relationship. Why would Sandburg, a 1990s grad student with long hair, two earrings, and a bunch of coeds to date, join forces with the cops? Why would Ellison, a boring tightwad, spend time with someone who wants to study him like an insect, over superpowers that are mostly useful and only slightly annoying?

The next four episodes following the pilot, however, really do a good job of building a relationship from nothing, and I’m starting to see the appeal. We that Sandburg and Ellison share a talent for observations and a drive to do the next right thing–something that makes both of them good cops, even if one technically isn’t. Ellison gets funnier–he’s an idiot with the many women who are attracted to him, and we learn that he’s capable of smiling. When they move in together, Ellison and Sandburg’s relationship feels strangely natural; they have a very comfortable rapport with each other. It’s not sexual tension–I mean, it’s not meant to be–but it’s way more believable than it ought to be.

There were two moments that stood out to me as indicators of how this show got such a massive slash fandom following–in “The Debt,” Ellison wakes up to Sandburg making them a nice breakfast, and refers to it as a failed “courting ritual” while sneaking food over Sandburg’s shoulder. And the final scene in “Cypher” has Sandburg joking about getting a tattoo of a police badge, and the two discuss how funny that would look placed over Sandburg’s heart, right above his nipple ring. Not exactly steamy, but in the context of a buddy cop show where the characters have surprisingly easy chemistry, it’s more than enough. And slash fans, as a whole, are very, very susceptible to these sorts of scenes, because they feel like they’re for fans. Slash fans create their fandom by reading between the lines; so when a show makes light-hearted jokes about being gay, it feels like the show is purposefully blurring those lines for them, inviting that interpretation. Many fans choose to see these scenes as outright confirmation; there’s a common belief that shows like this are full of actors and show-runners who want the show to be gay, but aren’t allowed to because of dastardly executives, the network, middle America, etc. This belief has even come to backfire on more recent shows, with fans accusing shows like Teen Wolf and BBC’s Sherlock of queer-baiting them by having very similar scenes, without canon queer content.

But in the late 90s, this kind of show was the purest ambrosia to slash fandom. Slash had been the black sheep of fandom for decades; content creators often actively disliked their slash fans, and even other fans saw them as an embarrassment. Between the threats of lawsuits, allegations of slash being distributed to minors, and the general perception that gay people were not “safe” or “good,” slash fandom had to work on the sidelines, sometimes tolerated, sometimes hidden in the shadows. Fans may have felt like The Sentinel, by contrast, was welcoming them with open arms.

I half-figured that I’d watch one episode, find The Sentinel boring, and forget it on the shelf. But I still haven’t fully unraveled this show, what made it quite so big, and how the fandom became known for passionate, inclusive discussion as much as increasingly esoteric erotica. And, frankly, I’ve found I actually like the show. I’m as weak to its charms as any slash fan, and I’d love to see where this show goes next.

You can talk to the author on Twitter @yipp33kiyay.

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