This series aired from 1996 through 1999. I remember watching the hell outta this show. It was through this show that I rediscovered slash fan fiction, having gotten away from it, from when I’d discovered Kirk/Spock.
This was very possibly one of the slashiest shows on TV next to Star Trek. Ao3 didn’t exist back then, (although yes, the internet existed) and there was so much fanfiction written about the two male leads of this show, that there were several whole archives devoted to it. (Like 852 Prospect). You can probably still find them. I feel that in some ways this show contributed to many of the tropes of slash fan fiction, that we find so annoying today.
The show featured a Ranger named James Ellison, played by Richard Burgi, who lost his Special Ops team in the Amazon jungle. The sole survivor, he discovered he was a member of a mystic warrior race with heightened senses, called Sentinels, whose job it was to watch over their specific tribes. After his rescue, he goes back to Cascade Washington (really just someplace in Canada), becomes a cop, and years later, has forgotten all about his time in the Amazon, until his senses get accidentally re-awakened, when solving one of his cases. At this point he gets discovered by an anthropology researcher named Blair.To help control his superpowers, Jim adopts Blair as a spiritual focus, whose job is to bring Jim back to reality, when he gets too caught up in whatever he’s sensing.
Now, is that, or is that not, the kinda stuff slash fiction is made of. You’ve got superpowers, spiritual bonds, mystic shenanigans, cops, a handsome and gruff older man, and a cute and excitable younger partner. It’s like the plot of every yaoi anime ever, and I was totally here for it. This show took me to church!
The popularity of this show was not at all harmed by shirtless images of Richard Burgi in his prime, and that the show’s actors were well aware they were being ‘shipped, and were all for it. Possibly they were even playing it up, since, because of censorship, the show’s creators would have been largely prevented from showing an openly gay relationship, between the two male leads. The study of slash fanfiction was also in its infancy then, and most people wouldn’t have known anything about it, as that was very much under everyone’s radar. To give you some idea of the timelines involved, Buffy began the year this show ended, and ran until 2003. The show Supernatural began in 2005.
Richard Burgi was the new hawtness at the time, and Garrett Maggart, who played Blair, wasn’t too shabby looking either, and a lot of the show was really suggestive. The two of them lived together as roommates, they also worked together, because Blair said he wanted to monitor Ellison’s superpowers, they were very touchy-feely and dramatic, everyone in their lives knew they were living together, including Jim’s ex-wife (Jim simply referred to Blair as his partner, with no other explanation to the rest of the staff of the police dept.) and the two hung out together ALL the time, and everyone seemed perfectly okay with it. This show set the grand standard for queerbaiting .
But I don’t think of this show as queer baiting because that wasn’t really much of a thing back then, and because of the time period of the show, an open homosexual relationship couldn’t be shown. (Well, rather say that it is, in fact, queer baiting, but its the same kind of queer baiting that exists in old movies, where nothing could be explicitly stated.) Neither character had any long term love interests that the viewer knew they’d eventually end up with, and both of them spent entirely too much time standing uncomfortably close to one another, and looking into each other’s eyes. Queer baiting wasn’t a term that was used yet, but people did spend a lot of time discussing whether or not the characters were gay.
I really think this was a way for the show’s creators to get around gay relationships not being shown (or allowed to be shown) on prime time TV. In other words, they had to be sneaky. If you were gay, or gay adjacent, you would see it, and if you weren’t, then you didn’t, (because plausible excuses had been given for why they were not), which is entirely in keeping with the way homosexuality had always been dealt with in popular culture, with innuendo, hints, and allegations, and the show made absolutely no effort to go the “no homo” route by playing up the character’s relationship with each other, while putting them in endgame heterosexual relationships.
It helps that there was nothing about this show that was even remotely realistic, although if you’re not gonna quibble about the mystical aspects of the show, you shouldn’t have too many problems with other stuff on the show, such as the relationships, or how the “detectiving” was done.
Has anyone else noticed how the detectives on these shows don’t seem to specialize in any one type of detection, even though you can see that wherever they work is fully staffed? Ellison shouldn’t be working a murder case, a drug deal, and a counterfeit jewelry op, all while trying to catch a terrorist bomber, at the same time. Most 80’s cop shows just call for the detectives to work on whatever crime pops up that day, instead of specializing in a particular type of crime like homicide, or drugs, or something, which is not how that actually works, in big cities.
At least several times a season Jim’s senses would go haywire, and Blair would have to talk him out of it, all while trying to keep this a secret from his commanding officer, Captain Simon Banks, played by Bruce Young, because, according to Ellison, if people found out he had superpowers, all his old cases would come up for review, and all the criminals he captured would have to be released. After all, superpowers are not sanctioned by the court system. I think this was a thinly veiled metaphor for being closeted. Jim and Blair often lived in fear that the people around them would find out about Jim’s superpowers, but neither of them cared that they looked like they were in a romantic relationship.
Simon wasn’t clueless the whole time. He eventually finds out, and keeps Jim’s secret, although I do like to wonder what he was thinking about this supposed academic following Jim around, and living with him. And Jim wasn’t actually wrong either. At the end of the series, there’s a riff between him and Blair, when Blair’s dissertation on Jim is accidentally leaked to the public, Jim is outed as a superbeing, and all hell breaks loose. Jim gets suspended. His cases all come up for review. He blames Blair for the potential loss of his career, and civilians (and the media) are harassing him in the streets. But it all gets resolved, and the series ends on a positive note.
Since there was a mystical component to Jim’s superpowers as a Sentinel, there was a lot of references to his time in the Amazon, and a black jaguar, which appeared to be Jim’s totem animal. My biggest issue was that Jim had regular sightings of this jaguar, and I feel some type of of way about a cop who regularly hallucinates about his spirit animal. That just really bothered me. I’m dubious about the motivations of most cops when they’re completely sober, so a cop who has visions, yeah…no! But I admit, I really enjoyed that one episode that involved Jim’s Amazonian shaman visiting Cascade. That was kinda cool.
Jim’s hyperacute senses allow him to perceive things undetectable by normal humans. He can see perfectly in low light situations and with superb acuity at long distances, hear sounds at extremely low volume or beyond the normal range of human hearing, and sense what others cannot via taste, touch and smell; he declares himself “a walking forensic lab”. Jim’s powers have a drawback: if he concentrates too strongly on one sense, he may become oblivious to his immediate surroundings. Part of Blair’s job is preventing this, and protecting Jim when he is focusing. As a Sentinel Jim has several powers:
- All 5 senses are strongly enhanced
- Able to communicate with ghosts
- Has a spirit animal, a black jaguar
- Receives visions that guide him in the choices he makes and sometimes predict the future (Jim had a vision that showed Blair’s death before Alex killed him)
- Used the power of his animal spirit to bring Blair back from the dead
Despite my misgivings though, I genuinely loved the show, and not just because I thought Richard Burgi was the second coming of hawt and bothered, which…yeah!. I actually liked the premise of the show. It was inspired, and I think it would be great for a remake.
Some of the best fanfiction I ever read came out of this ‘ship, and I’m sad that I never let those writers know just how appreciative I was of their skills, at that time. Most especially, Saraid, and Brenda Antrim who now goes by the name Glacis, and has her own Wikipedia page. (She is so good that she’s won awards just for being a fan.) Saraid’s Panther Tales series can be found on Ao3.
Oh yeah, here is one of the funniest reviews I ever read about this show:
The Sentinel is not currently available for streaming . All four seasons can only be found on DVD.