Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Swan Tunes In: Smith

There was a time when, in my infancy as a pop culture-devouring tadpole, that I felt compelled to sample every new series when the fall television season began. Those days are long gone. For several reasons, not the least of which is that I don't any longer have either the time or the patience to invest. (Another is that I've learned to better identify — without actually viewing it — the programming that simply isn't going to appeal to my sensibilities. For example, I don't enjoy sitcoms, so I don't bother with them.)

Still, when the new network offerings debut, I immediately develop a mental checklist of the shows I want to try out at least once. As these random taste-tests yield results, I'll share them here.

Last night, CBS presented ("with limited commercial interruption") the premiere episode of Smith, a stark and seductive crime drama headlined by Ray Liotta (who, every time I see him, still makes me think of his eerie portrayal of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack). Liotta plays Robert "Bobby" Stevens, a master thief who's sort of the dark side of George Clooney's Danny Ocean from Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's [Insert Number Here] films. In every episode, Bobby and his coterie of high-tech pilferers pull off — or, I'm guessing, in some instances fail to pull off — a major heist, while juggling civilian lives and family responsibilities.

Liotta is buttressed by a supporting cast as stellar as any on the tube:
  • Virginia (Sideways) Madsen is Bobby's long-suffering wife Hope, who herself is a paroled felon and a recovering drug addict.

  • Simon (The Guardian) Baker is Jeff, the triggerman in Bobby's gang. As we learn in his introductory scene in the pilot episode, Jeff has a bit of a problem with anger management: Two hardcases shoo him off a private Hawaiian beach during an afternoon of surfing, and Jeff rewards them by shooting them both in the head with a high-powered rifle.

  • Jonny Lee (Trainspotting) Miller is Tom, the more reasonable yin to Jeff's loose-cannon yang. In a scene reminiscent of (and perhaps an homage to) the opening of Ocean's Eleven, Tom walks out of prison after being a guest of the state and finds his old partner Jeff awaiting him in a sweet ride.

  • Amy (Varsity Blues) Smart is Annie, the stereotypical stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold who acts as the decoy and token feminine pulchritude for the crew. Annie and Tom are a couple, celebrating the renewal of their relationship following Tom's penitentiary stint by becoming the newest inductees into the Mile High Club.

  • Franky G is Joe, the team's wheelman and mechanic — essentially a reprise of the role Mr. G played in The Italian Job.

  • Shohreh (House of Sand and Fog) Aghdashloo is Charlie, the mysterious figure who arranges assignments for Bobby and company. No, she doesn't communicate from a speaker phone, and no, she doesn't sound at all like John Forsythe.
As would be expected from the personnel, the performances in Smith are spot-on. For the benefit of the small screen, Liotta reins in his occasional over-the-top tendencies and just lets his natural charisma take over. Madsen, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, is quietly luminous in what could prove to be the most thankless role in the cast. Baker and Miller do a nice job of playing against type — the safe and easy route would have been to assign each the other's role. The rest of the cast is equally fine.

The challenge for Smith will be to keep the scripts at the same high level as the acting. Constructing a complicated heist can be an exercise in cleverness when you only need to do it once every few years for a motion picture. The same thing week after week could rapidly exhaust the show's freshness potential, unless the writers can invent other directions in which to take the storylines. Already, it looks as though the plan is to stir in an element of The Fugitive, with a pair of FBI agents on the trail of the gang of thieves led by the unknown mastermind the Feds code-name "Smith."

Fortunately, there's solid potential for long-term success here. Clearly, the tightrope relationship between Bobby and Hope — who takes a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to her husband's nefarious activities — will be a highlight of the series, offering opportunity for Liotta and Madsen to strut their stuff. The rest of the regular characters have been provided adequate backstory to make them rounded and realistic — if not terribly likable — people with complex, interesting lives beyond crime.

That likability factor may be a tough nut for the show to crack, though. No one in Smith is a good guy. These are bad people doing bad business, and at least in the first episode, the show doesn't flinch from that violent reality. We see the series regulars threaten, injure, and even kill people — up close and personal — during the commission of their crimes. (A scene in which Smart's character coolly blasts an annoying woman bystander in the chest with a Tazer shot icicles down the back of my neck.) Unpleasant, unheroic lead characters can be a hard sell in series television. (Just ask Dabney Coleman.) Viewers have to be willing to open their living rooms to these folks week after week, without feeling the need for a shower afterward. Can Liotta and company pull that off?

Smith's pilot episode bought enough of my goodwill to warrant a few more viewings. If you like the Ocean's... films, and can stand more of the same only with less humor and no Clooney, give Smith a look.

Labels: ,

0 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Post a Comment

<< Home