Tuesday, January 11, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Cape “Pilot”/”Tarot”

The television and film landscape is so covered in superhero series and films that the whole genre could be reclassified as an out of control species of weed—and in many cases I wish it were treated as such.  So it’s not entirely surprising that NBC was open to the idea of a wholly original superhero concept that they could overproduce and overhype and unleash on a viewing audience that seems (this genre has to get old soon, doesn’t it?) hungry for it.  What did surprise me somewhat is how fully The Cape embraced its status as a comic book concept—to an excess, if anything--when to do so might turn off some casual viewers who are up for a new action series but don’t want to feel like they’re watching it alongside LARPers and The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.  I know that’s not a fair standard, but the networks certainly know about such specific demographics and about how to market their products, so it says something about their commitment to this concept that the show contains an oft-referenced comic book by the same name within its storyline, introduces no fewer than three comically-named villains within the course of its first two hours, adheres like a leech (one of several in “Tarot”) to the plot points of the superhero origin story, and even models its episodes after the brief, fast paced, serialized storytelling of action comics.   

The Cape opened its run with some very frenetic pacing as we learn about some big changes coming down the pipe for Palm City’s police force just before Chess (James Frain, who is excellent but will probably never get the chance to play a non-villainous character) kills him using the cool L-9 chemical explosive that does, um, something, to make you both die and explode if you sit inside of a locked SUV with it.  We also meet Vince (played to mixed effect by David Lyons), who will become The Cape, but who at first is just a super boring, super thinly developed comic book cliché.  One who the show apparently wants us to associate with Clark Kent/Superman since his musical theme is almost shamelessly similar to the original Superman’s and he even pulls up to work in an antiquated red pickup truck just like Clark’s old man drove back on the farm.  It’s a reference meant to play subtly, but what modern cop in a super-slick cityscape like Palm City is puttering to work in a Norman Rockwell era red pickup truck? 

We are also introduced to an odd little feature of Palm City early in the story when we meet a mysterious broadcaster/blogger named “Orwell” (apparently series creator/writer Tom Wheeler took AP Literature but didn’t appreciate understatement as a literary device) who basically Big Brothers the whole city but only exposes the villains.  Not that they get a trial, or anything, but Orwell totally knows who the bad ones are. 

The show only took an hour to do exactly what I was afraid it was going to do by introducing the face behind the Orwell broadcast to be a hero, and a very leggy, attractive one at that.  “The Dark Knight” propelled a lot of discussion about a scene where Batman uses a form of illegal spying to see what everyone in the city is doing, all in the name of the greater good, of course.  This show seems to be content using an identical conceit (Orwell somehow owns a near-magical computer that can apparently do whatever she wants it to with the click of an imaginary button) on a permanent basis to help The Cape find who he needs to find and jam cell phone services when he needs people to stop texting and pay attention to the road, or whatever other emergencies might present themselves.  This seems problematic, and by way of comparison, even “The Dark Knight” seemed aware of the constitutional violations it entailed, as Morgan Freeman’s character vocally disagrees with the idea and vows to resign if it continues.  Here, however, we’re meant to take Orwell’s glossy-lipped smile and verbal reassurance that she only picks on the bad guys of the city as more than enough sexy, steamy justification for what amounts to the violation of every citizen’s privacy.  Not a great start for the character.

But that’s all heavy handed complaining, and the truth is there was quite a bit of fun stuff in this episode.  What was starting to look like an overly serious dramatic opening takes a pleasantly weird twist when Vince finds himself suddenly in the lair of Max Malini and his “Circus of Crime” where we meet Max (the scene-energizing Keith David throwing himself into this three-ring circus with gusto) and his entourage of oddballs who have mastered various carnivalesque skills from escape and disappearance to being small but still throwing a wicked punch to looking like a young Michelle Pfeiffer.  We meet them in flashes as Vince regains consciousness after laying underneath an explosion, and the scene doesn’t quite play right—what should be disorienting and disconcerting plays just a touch too cheesy and contrived  For one thing, if you want to use a little person to disconcerting effect you should be studying episodes of Twin Peaks, not using the B-list version of Vern Troyer clad in leather punching your hero in the face.  The show nicely recovers with the odd little circus crew when we see them in action later in the episode.  The bank heist scenes are handled playfully but convincingly and have an interesting visual style to the; the show seems very confident in creating montages for quick and effective storytelling.

 At times, it seems to develop its characters more effectively through montage than dialogue.  The sequence where we watch Vince become The Cape is enjoyable and has a couple of nice touches that feel fresh in a genre that’s getting pretty stale.  Particularly enjoyable are the stories Max shares from the Circus and Carnie Hall of Fame about previous experts of deceit, escape, cape flinging, and so forth.  They give the supporting cast an interesting and unique background and mesh nicely as a simple explanation of what it is that Vince is learning as he whips his CGI cape around (an effect that isn’t quite convincing but comes so close that it manages a couple of “wow” moments despite the flaws).  “Tarot” manages to cram in yet another enjoyable montage as Vince becomes the true superhero on his own (as all superheroes must—this show ran the full marathon of superhero origin story at a sprinter’s pace, to mixed effect) while dodging and catching (I know, just deal with it) knives being fired from an automatic pitching machine and sampling random poisons just to see what it feels like to almost kill yourself.

"JK--I'm totes alive!"

It’s unfortunate that the climactic first test of The Cape’s newfound powers, once the stickiest-of-the-icky spider silk cape is returned to him by a reassured Max, comes off so disinterested in itself.  Cain isn’t the most exciting of characters to begin with (though his murder organization, “The Tarot” holds a lot of promise) and the brief knife fight in the kitchen doesn’t really feel like payoff for the two hours we’ve spent with these characters, nor does the random shooting and running around that leads to a non-standoff with Chess himself.  The episode leaves you feeling like there’s a lot of potential here, but in a myriad of directions, including down.  I did enjoy the laugh at Max’s fake death—a nice little sneak attack there; I just had time to be amazed that they killed off one of the best characters on the show before he popped back up.  It’s a moment suggesting this show might reveal a very unique tone and personality, but there are a lot of wrinkles to be ironed out of The Cape before that personality either reveals itself, or disappears in a puff of brownish smoke. 

Overall Rating:  7.3/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

  • Scales is an odd villain—he seems like a retread of a million other villains and is made even stranger by the fact that he has no back story (he’s just scaly, that’s all we get?), but maybe they’ll fix that with time. 
  • Chess is not much better so far.  Why is his name Chess?  Why is he wearing The Rocketeer’s jacket and a lizard mask?  Internet digging reveals that his contact lenses are a rook and a knight, but that really doesn’t come across well on screen—I don’t know if that’s fixable, but it just looks odd as it stands right now.  Don’t they do screen tests anymore?
  • I thought it was a nicely savage touch that they attach Chess’s mask to Vince’s head with a nail gun when they frame him—these are the little touches that give me hope for the show. 
  • Why does Vince go along with the bank robberies so easily?  Yeah it hurts Ark, I guess, but doesn’t it hurt citizens much more (even if they’re federally insured, it’s inconvenient and flat out horrifying if you happen to be in the bank when the Circus rolls into town).
  • I’m hoping that this show has the wherewithal to explore the parallels between super heroes and circus freaks as an actual thematic idea, because I love the potential there.
  • Who is Orwell?  She curiously says “No one special” when asked, but that only makes her back story more suspicious—Chess’s offspring perhaps?
  • Best line of the night:  The shop owner who witnesses The Cape in action reacts perfectly to the cheesy superhero name:  “The Cape?...Well, you work on it.”
  • “Where’d you meet her, was it an online thing?”
  • The other comic visible on the rack where Vince gets his copy of The Cape is called Bad Lass.  I wouldn’t read either title.
  • Did Chess literally design an evil plan called “Siren” by spinning a bunch of virtual objects like a roulette wheel (which has nothing to do with the game of chess besides the pattern they briefly take)?  Because if he did, this character’s persona needs a LOT of work.
  • Regarding the Tarot secret society of killers:  “Cain is their poisoner.”  I like that there are positions in this secret society.  I’d most like to meet their stabber, bludgeoner and decapitator this season.
  • I will make a joke at some point during this season about what this show is “Cape-able” of.  And that wasn’t it. 

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