Monday, January 10, 2011

Here Comes "The Cape"

NBC's new superhero adventure show "The Cape" premiered last night. Before seeing a frame, I thought it had a lot in its favor, including a strong cast featuring some familiar faces - Keith David, Summer Glau, James Frain, and Vinnie Jones. The promos have been full of fancy CGI cape effects and slick villains with names like Chess and Scales. I'm not familiar with David Lyons, who plays the hero Vince Faraday, but he's got the right look for a superhero.

Every caped crusader needs a city, and sunny Palm City is a hotbed of crime. Its police force is replaced by the sinister ARC Corporation after the police chief is mysteriously murdered by a villain named Chess. Vince Faraday is a dedicated cop with a loving wife Dana (Jennifer Ferrin) and young son Trip (Ryan Wynott). When Vince discovers that his new boss at ARC, Peter Fleming (James Frain), is Chess, Vince is framed for the murder. He narrowly escapes and is presumed dead, left to figure out a way to bring down ARC and clear his name from the shadows. All this happens in roughly the first fifteen minutes, and it's pretty rote exposition, dispensed with quickly. Then we get to the fun stuff.

Vince is taken in by Max Malini (Keith David), the leader of a gang of circus folk who rob banks. Soon enough, Vince gets the bright idea to assume the guise of his son's favorite comic book superhero, the Cape. Max just happens to have a legendary magician's special, super-strong, super-light cape in storage, and he and his gang are perfectly willing to train Vince in the arts of fighting, illusion, legerdemain, and all sorts of other fun circus skills in an improbably short amount of time. He also finds an ally in Orwell (Summer Glau), a gonzo investigative reporter and technology wizard, bent on exposing corruption in Palm City through her eponymous blog.

So far, "The Cape" is very uneven, but I can see potential here. The show's biggest problem right now is that far too much time is spent with Vince's wife and kid. The second hour of the premiere was saddled with scenes of them struggling to cope with his absence and a few sentimental flashbacks, exactly the kind of melodramatic dead weight that killed "FlashForward" and is severely hampering shows like "V" and "The Event." If "The Cape" is meant to be a superhero action show, it needs to be less mopey and more exciting. Sure, having a tortured hero is fine, but there's only so far you can go with domestic drama when it's only going to be a minor part of Vince's adventures. Checking in every week with the miserable family is going to get tedious and repetitive really fast.

The show is much better when the focus is on Vince's interactions with Orwell and Max, or when he's out fighting crime and tracking down the show's villains. This is where the pace picks up, and we get some good action and humor. In the premiere I didn't think there was enough of either. I'm not sure why all of the recent genre shows produced by the major networks are keen on being so serious in tone when their fantasy premises call for a lighter touch. Vince Faraday may not have superpowers, but he's essentially running around in a magic cape and boarding with circus folk. "The Cape" isn't as thematically heavy as "Watchmen" or "The Dark Knight," so there's no reason why it has to be so dark and gloomy. The creators would be better off aiming for something a little more tongue-in-cheek like NBC's own "Chuck."

Where "The Cape" is the most successful is in its special effects and other fancy visuals. Vince can use the cape to vanish into thin air, to smack bad guys around, or to grab objects like an octopus tentacle. Orwell and Chess both have holographic displays for their computers, and the villains all get distinctive makeup enhancements. There were also some fine explosions and fight scenes, though I don't know if they'll carry over to the regular episodes, since they don't look cheap. The comic book motif is the most apparent in the stylish credits sequence and act breaks, which I thought was a nice touch.

As for the acting - well, it's a mixed bag. David Lyons as Vince isn't bad, but he gets hampered by a lot of awkward dialogue and multiple scenes of broody angst. It's the same with Jennifer Ferrin as his wife and Ryan Wynott as the cute kid. Genre show alums Keith David and Summer Glau are far more entertaining as the larger-than-life supporting characters. With television shows, fortunately, there's plenty of time for the kinks to get worked out and for the actors to improve and settle in. I'll probably give "The Cape" a few more episodes to see how it shapes up. There's plenty here that works, but I don't think it's quite where it needs to be yet.

"The Cape" airs Mondays at 9PM on NBC.

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