Review: Death Valley
I’m a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers. Over the past five years, the team has had a difficult time discovering their identity. By that I mean that they never seemed able to develop a consistent style of play – it’s like they’ve tried to be all things to all people and that was to their own detriment. They’ve tried to fit square pegs into round holes, taking slow players and trying to wedge them into an up-tempo offense. They have also recycled coach after coach after coach , each of whom brought their own unsuccessful style before finally settling on Doug Collins in 2010, making the playoffs by finally developing a successful personality. Why do I bring this up? It’s because I’m very much reminded of the Sixers’ search for an identity as I watch MTV’s latest unscripted offering, Death Valley.
The premise of the series , set in California’s San Fernando Valley, is for the past year police have been tasked with handling zombies, werewolves, and vampires, all of whom suddenly appeared in the Valley causing a special division of the LAPD called the Undead Task Force (UTF) to be created to deal with the supernatural baddies. Since this is television, the cops don’t always deal with the undead perps in the most serious manner. Part of the gimmick of Death Valley is that the UTF is followed by a news crew that’s filming their activities so imagine a mash-up of COPS , Reno 911, and Supernatural and you have a rough idea of what the show is pitching. It may be unfair to expect a series to develop a consistent approach in its first two episodes, but that’s one of the biggest problems that Death Valley faces in the two episodes that I’ve seen. I mean, other than that it’s not particularly funny, either.
MTV’s marketing for the show was actually fairly effective and played a large part in my decision to give it a chance. They played up the comedy angle and it looked like bumbling cops chasing after zombie burglars and vampire prostitutes could be a fun little piece of escapist entertainment. Instead, the “comedy” is few and far between (example line: “It smells like a cat’s balls in here.”)  and writers Eric Weinberg and Curtis Gwinn seem to prefer to focus both on the more serious aspects of the plot  and the gore factor over the comedic elements. What could have been a promising approach is instead stifled by either a network that interfered too much or by writers who just have no idea what they’re doing.
Part of the problem comes from the casting of the series. The show is actually scripted instead of being done in the improv style of Reno 911 and that’s probably for the best as no one on this show seems like they’d have any improv skill whatsoever. Bryan Callen (MAD TV), who I’ve never found to be anything other than annoying in his past work, plays Capt. Frank Dashell, the bumbling and incompetent leader of the UTF. See… it’s ironic because he’s the guy in charge and he has no idea what he’s doing. Yawn. Just as miscast is Bryce Johnson (Popular) as one half of the lead patrol duo, Officer Billy Pierce. Ostensibly positioned as the frat boy comedian of the crew, Johnson doesn’t prove particularly adept at comedy and comes off as kind of a dick instead of the loveable dick that I’d assume he was supposed to be. At one point, Pierce gets kidnapped and I think we’re supposed to care, but instead I’m kind of hoping the guy dies because he’s such an ass. Caity Lotz as rookie officer Kirsten Landry probably acquits herself the most successfully here, but that’s probably due more to some leftover residue from her guest spot on the fourth season of Mad Men, a show that she’s a long, long way away from here.
There are elements present in Death Valley that suggest that there could be something worthwhile underneath the mountains of garbage on the surface if the creative team was willing to search for it. For instance, it’s suggested at one point that it’s difficult for the UTF to police entities that are inherently stronger than they are. That’s a storyline that, given more time, could be an interesting road for the series to follow. The show also seems to want to continue storylines from episode to episode and, while I’m a sucker for story continuity, they need to be better than what’s present here to make me care enough.
Death Valley has the potential to be escapist fun, but Weinberg and Gwinn are blowing it. They just don’t seem adept at doing anything particularly well. The comedy isn’t that funny, the serious elements don’t fit, and the horror is just boring (save for one pretty cool scene where an officer punches through a zombie’s face with a handgun and then uses said gun on another onrushing zombie while his hand is still lodged inside the first zombie’s skull). All of this just leads up to Death Valley being a completely forgettable mess.
Where To Watch: Mondays | MTV | 10:30 ET
 Eddie Jordan, you are not missed. At all.
 Which actually comes from Spider One, Rob Zombie’s brother and the frontman for Powerman 5000. Maybe that should have been a giant warning flag right there.
 It’s interesting that Death Valley serves as a lead-in for another new series on MTV, Cuff’d, which is an actual COPS rip-off.
 It also tries to mine way too much material from the humor inherent in a Choco Taco. There isn’t any.
 As serious as a show like Death Valley can be, anyway.