The Sentinel: Season 1 Review

Five years ago Special-Ops Captain Jim Ellison (Richard Burgi) was the only man to survive a mission that went balls up in the Peruvian jungle. Now he works as a detective for Cascade in Washington, led by Captain Simon Banks (Bruce A. Young) and also alongside his ex-wife and head of forensics Lt. Carolyn Plummer (Kelly Curtis). Ellison soon begins to experience strange things when his senses begin to play up and distract him from al round events. He learns that whilst in the jungle he developed hyperactive senses: touch, taste, listening, seeing and smelling all become new experiences for him again as he discovers things that he never would have thought were humanly possible. But he has yet to realise the potential of his senses and learn how to understand and harness them. He eventually crosses paths with Anthropology student Blair Sandberg (Garett Maggart) who has been studying cases that are very similar to Ellsion’s. He offers to help him try to understand his situation in exchange for a subject to study. Ellison agrees and has Sandberg enlisted on the force as a special consultant. Sandberg believes that Ellison is a “Sentinel”, which according to various tribal tales were specially appointed watchmen due to their unique abilities. And so Jim Ellison takes to the streets, “seeing” what he can do to about bad guys by “sniffing” out danger and “listening” out for – what people are saying from really far away. Alright I give up, I’m grasping here.

The Sentinel

first aired for UPN on U.S. network television in 1996, where it quickly went into syndication. Lasting for just ten episodes season one shaped itself as being a cop-buddy action thriller type show thingy. What makes the series somewhat unique from any other cop show is that creators Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo focus on the primal instinct of man. The concept is certainly intriguing, making way for all kinds of possibilities. Furthermore the central protagonist, Jim Ellison is trying to come to terms with his new abilities, and as such the experience often takes its toll on him and those around. Yet despite these many open doors and available paths to travel the writers keep things very formulaic by sticking to simple, tried and tested methods. Each week Ellison, with the help of Sandburg would track down a baddie, sniff out some evidence and run into a few dead ends until time came for him to use his brain powers once more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but ultimately it’s the premise that makes us want to watch more; however Ellsion’s use of such senses are given certain restrictions from a narrative standpoint. Rather than incorporate them to fuller effect the writers stick by standard cop show conventions, which makes The Sentinel often run of the mill. For example we never learn just how Ellison developed his skills, other than he spent a year and a half in a Peruvian jungle with the natives. There’s no backtracking to locate an understanding; the pilot episode gets straight into gear and moves forward five years. Having said that it’s still early days for the series, so one can forgive its slight ambiguities at this stage; hopefully such mysteries will be unravelled in future. Furthermore the secondary and tertiary characters tend to get little developments here and there, which means that not a whole lot can be fitted into a singular episode.

Which isn’t to say that The Sentinel is rubbish; it’s just more ordinary than it should be. Clearly the writers of the series have been heavily influenced by just about every cop show ever made, not to mention huge blockbusters like Die Hard, and as such you can expect to see a slew of recycled material, consisting of some obviously placed twists and turns and horrendous clichés - with one or two exceptions of genuinely good scripting. Here you’ll find stories concerning corrupt officers, the mafia, rival black gangs in the hood (“The Debt” being a big offender in terms of execution), best friends getting bumped off, serial killers, which admittedly was a strong point in “Cypher” and deadly viruses. Throughout most of these convention dictates the outcome, as the storylines – putting aside the secondary aspect of Ellison’s senses – offer little in terms of originality. Due to their solid pacing however they’re completely watchable and coherent, though on occasion the writers take such liberties that things can border on ludicrous:

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I refer to the scene at the end of “Killers” for example. When an Irish assassin with a dodgy accent takes a hostage, Ellison resorts to lying in order to free her. He tells the man that his twin brother isn’t dead and that they can exchange hostages. But the brother is dead and come the exchange Ellison wheels out the corpse in a wheelchair, via remote control. At this point I honestly didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh or not. It defies all explanation and reasoning

Which brings me to question the authenticity of what we’re seeing. Where many a police oriented series will go about educating the viewer in regards to investigations and how each department works The Sentinel hides it all. We never see forensics, led by Plumber or any of the other divisions within Cascade. It’s all so very “Go and do that. Yes sir, OK I am back now. Good, now Jim get out there and catch the baddie”. To put in simple layman terms – incredibly dumbed down. The old, worn and rubbish phrase “popcorn entertainment” can also be applied here.

In addition you’ll witness some brave but slightly off-kilter set pieces involving hanging from helicopters or holding on for dear life on moving trains. Nonetheless this is all very entertaining to some degree, despite the fact that even for its time the series featured some decidedly ropey special effects, though for a small budget production filmed in Canada that doesn’t come as a monumental shock. Unfortunately some of the effects are so bad that it becomes unintentionally funny; a prime example taking place during “Attraction” when we see three jewel thieves tightrope walking above an unknowing media crew – an horrific example of superimposed images, where we can even see the silhouetted thieves’ feet cut off as they touch upon the rope. These signalling moments threaten to take us out of the action from time to time, and as for the several car chases, well strategically placed boxes and barrels are the order of the day. Perhaps I’m being slightly unfair; as stated above there is an overall air of fun to be had and by no means is this the be all and end all of the series.

Far from it. I hasten to mention The Sentinel’s good cast. Richard Burgi is certainly a wise choice to play Jim Ellison; he’s charismatic which is always a strong point and he’s capable of dealing with his emotions on a believable level, which can be difficult for such a prominent role. Furthermore he’s funny and has a great smile, which always makes ladies swoon. Garet Maggart proves to be a nice counter-balance alongside Burgi, displaying a good repertoire and acting as the audience’s interpreter. Naturally there are several opportunities for gags, and they do arise to see each episode out on a happy note. With Bruce A. Young rounding off the primary cast as an effective captain the series coasts by far better than it might have otherwise deserved.


Paramount has released The Sentinel in a three disc collection, each coming in a slim amaray case, housed in a card slip-cover. Fans will be disappointed to learn that there are no extra features. Menus are static but functional, although there is no “play all” option.

Note: Garett Maggart’s name has been mispelt on the packaging, probably thanks to season 1 having done the same thing on the main credit sequence. Thanks to Suzi Sullivan for pointing this out.


The Sentinel is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. To be honest it looks better than I expected, with the only major drawback being some severe aliasing, which may be fixed a little with higher-end equipment. Otherwise colours are pleasant and detail is very good; close ups look great and there’s very little softness for wide shots. I couldn’t detect any Edge Enhancement, which is surprising and proves that you never really need it in the first place. These appear to be taken from broadcast masters, due to the CC and Dolby Surround logos that appear at the beginning of each episode.

We’re supplied with Dolby Digital English 2.0 Surround for audio. This is a solid track, entirely functional for a TV series, with a few decent surround moments. There are no defects, dialogue is clear and the action is well punctuated. As good as you can hope for.

There are no subtitles, which once again mars a DVD release. This really is a continual disappointment and I have to voice my concerns, particularly when I know people with hearing difficulties. It is very frustrating and should not have to be an issue in the first place. Not everyone has the option for Close Captions.


Season one of The Sentinel is a relatively successful outing. To be honest there’s very little to say about its short run. It’s not compelling viewing but it’s certainly fun, backed by some nice, charismatic performances. The series definitely has potential to be something great, if only the writers could get themselves out of their cosy little rut and come up with more intriguing storylines that can really make the most out of the premise.

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