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(Credit: The Sentinel)

Film

Why 'The Sentinel' is a watershed moment for 1990s television

From the frenzied opening shot to the barrelling silhouettes that centred the episodes, The Sentinel was peak television from the 1990s. And in some ways, it spearheaded the action genre we now enjoy in the cineplexes, by boasting cutouts, fast-paced edits, and action set pieces bolstered by a guttural urgency that made the series that bit more compelling to watch, particularly as it was shot with the detail and pathos of a Hollywood action film.

For every episode was put together as if orchestrating an action film, and the genuine ennui, dizzying angle shots, and frenetic fire set the template for the formula Joss Whedon and Michael Bay were set to follow. It was a crime action series, based on the exploits of Jim Ellison, a maverick agent, toying with riches beyond his weight class.

The series starred Richard Burgi and Garett Maggart, bringing diversity and density to the action genre. It was less James Bond, and more James “burnt out”. Burgi’s Ellison is caught up in the red flags of his mission, despite being a wild horse, untameable and unbridled.

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It was all about gut and instinct, earmarking a shift in tone from the docile, catchphrase heavy works of the early years, and turning into something that was more primal and remarkably thorough. The pulsating backbeats created by the backbone of the series in question, creating a more frenzied furious tone to the show in question.

As it happens, the series came at a time when Pierce Brosnan was capturing the flag for a more popular style of the audience, which didn’t discriminate between family members but set about bringing James Bond back to the popcorn tentpoles that had made the producers rich.

“We shot The Sentinel in Vancouver,” Burgi recalled.”We tried to do a mini action movie a week. Every episode had explosions or shootouts, a chase scene, fight scene, and usually some romantic entanglement. I did a fair amount of stunts, but had a great stunt double that made me look rather studly. I had the good fortune of working with Bruce Young and Garrett Maggart, two terrific people and actors.”

Caught in the urgency in the work, Burgi delivers a stellar lead, high on grit and emotion, making his lead more pensive by focusing on the intensity of the moment. The bravura and bravado meant that it was typical of the decade it stemmed from, but the focus was on the strength of the question, as it showed a lead actor acting on irritation and imagination.

Every episode lasted 45 minutes, making it the average length of a tv movie, and punched up the running time of the television episode. It was determined to push the envelope in a series of probing manners, every manner of the show bursting with ambition and intelligence, energy and angular synchronisation, standing on the passion of the character in question. It was raw expression and may have tipped the scales to Irish tragicomedy Normal People, expressing an animal desire that was rooted in self-expression and exploration.

At that time, Ireland was in the throes of self-examination (Father Ted) and Britain was in the throes of basing crime films based on British pop (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). It was up to America to point the way for the next step of television, as it catered to a new form of development that was strong to take care of, culminating in a work that was steeped in human form. But The Sentinel did something more with its activity. It made people happy, and then made people follow the tide.