Imagine if Harry Potter grew up to be Philip Marlowe, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what "The Dresden Files" is like.
While it starts weakly -- and is rarely faithful to Jim Butcher's novels -- "The Dresden Files" manages to whip itself into a solid supernatural-mystery series, with a pretty good cast and some genuinely twisty-turny mysteries. And, of course, a snarky ghost living inside a skull.
Harry Dresden (Paul Blackthorne) is Chicago's only wizard-for-hire, with a tragic past, a hockey-stick staff, and a companion spirit named Bob who lives in a skull (Terrence Mann). He's also perpetually in bad with the wizard council, and moderately famous among the supernatural crowds lurking around Chicago.
As the series opens, Harry is approached by a young boy who claims he's being stalked by otherworldly forces -- and his mother confirms that he's been followed by blackbirds, crows and ravens ever since he was born. Even worse, a skinned body is found in a nearby apartment -- and the malevolent skinwalker who stole the woman's dermis may be after the boy as well.
Arguably the premiere is the weakest of the series, since there's little actual detecting going on. But things perk up in the following episodes. Harry tackles a hellspawn in love, a serial killer murdering werewolves, a bodysnatching murderer, a fertility clinic with a dark secret, a bunch of young thieves using deadly magic, and an attempt to frame Bianca, the sultry vampire club-owner.
Things get even worse when Harry is trapped with a bunch of hostile wizards inside a deadly cloud, which can only have been conjured by one of them. And when Bob is stolen, Harry finds himself confronting his cruel uncle Justin -- whom Harry "self-defensed to death" five years ago.
"The Dresden Files" are only loosely based on the Jim Butcher novels -- it's not as dark or as complex, and a lot of characters are changes. But take it as its own animal, and it ends up being a very solid detective series... albeit one where the suspects and victims just happen to be vampires, devils, lycanthropes, incubi and necromancers.
The plots are genuinely mysterious and gritty, sometimes with genuinely surprising answers, and odd twists on typical urban-fantasy, like vampire junkies. The stories are kept from being too grim by Bob, who provides some witty dialogue to offset the cop-style stuff ("And you wonder why your life is an unending series of insurmountable intellectual, financial and emotional hurdles!").
If the series has a problem, it's that sometimes they overuse the handheld camera, especially in fight scenes. And the CGI ranges from decent (Bianca's vampire transformations) to somewhat hokey (dragon, werewolves), but not bad considering.
Blackthorne is just right for the role: quirky, likable, and a little bit charming. Mann makes a brilliant foil as a damned ghost, who provides hilarious, slightly pervy information for every occasion, and Conrad Coates is good as the rigid Morgan, who is just waiting for a chance to behead Harry. Unfortunately Valerie Cruz is far too dewy-eyed to make a convincing hardcore cop -- she's completely eclipsed by the hilarious Claudia Black in "Other Dick."
The first season of the "Dresden Files" has its flaws, but it's still an enjoyable, suspenseful urban fantasy series that gives a new spin to the lone-wolf detective. Definitely worth watching.