Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Cape: NBC's Latest Superhero

NBC has had a long-running love/hate relationship with the scifi and superhero genres. They dumped their "it came from the deep" invasion series "Surface" (which was actually on its way to being good) to put forward "Heroes", a really promising idea for a superhero series that never quite got the point. Their effort to revive "the Bionic Woman" died as quickly as the time travel series "Journeyman". Their recent roster is as littered with single season genre failures as the average Friday night lineup on Fox, but they keep trying.

The current trend toward dark and gritty scifi, brought on by the success of moody mysteries like "Lost", has spawned halfway hybrids like "Persons Unknown" and "The Event", which cosmetically employ scifi elements but are more closely derived from conspiracy thrillers like "24". "The Event" even promotes itself as a cross between "Lost" and "24", which is obviously what the creators intended.

But getting back to "Heroes": This show's the one that represent the problem fully. It was stylish and cool, but in its effort to reinvent the superhero genre it managed to invalidate everything the genre was created to uphold. The characters were dark and conflicted, flawed to the point where they flip-flopped constantly between good and evil, ultimately failing to stand for any principles at all, even friendship and family. The stories were convoluted soap opera serials that bent the characters to fit the plot from week to week until no one knew or cared what was going on. So after a record-breaking 4 seasons, "Heroes" disappeared from the NBC roster too.

Which brings us to "The Cape". This show offers nothing new or original to comic books or television, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  It's set in the comic-themed Palm City, which is terrorized by a masked madman called Chess (who is also a billionaire businessman privatizing the police force like the OCP corporation did in Robocop). Our hero Faraday is a cop framed by Chess and forced to let the world believe he's killed. Afterwards he is taken in by the Carnival of Crime, a circus who make their living as bank robbers for about 10 minutes until their ringleader (played by Keith David) decides instead to train Faraday in all the arts of escapism and illusion.

This is just one in a string of lucky coincidences that conspire to create Faraday's superhero identity, but that is itself an accepted part of the genre, so it's forgiven. The persona of the Cape already exists as the comic book hero of Faraday's son, so when he starts his training his new instructor just happens to have an indestructible super-cape he can wear to serve that purpose.

Faraday is also in contact with a mysterious all-knowing computer hacker called Orwell, who puts him in harm's way while feeding him information about his enemies. Orwell turns out to be scifi series refugee Summer Glau, who has herself been a regular on no less than three failed genre shows, all of which met an untimely death on Fox.

So Faraday is taught to be a master magician and escapist, dons his super-cape and sets out to defeat Chess and restore liberty to Palm City.

"The Cape" is simply a retread of comic book conventions recycled into the TV format. The Cape is about as generic a moniker as you could come up with for a superhero.  Orwell is obviously based in some way on the DC character Oracle, who is also a hot chick computer hacker who knows everything.  And all the villains have simple nicknames like Scales or Tarot; a rogue's gallery more suited to Dick Tracy than a modern superhero. But is that all bad? I think a back to basics approach may be just what we need. So many people have tried to reinvent the wheel in the superhero genre that no one's just telling stories. Superheroes don't have to be re-packaged for the modern audience, they just have to be well-written. There's a reason you don't reinvent the wheel: The wheel works.

"The Cape" is fun and well told, and it's populated with good actors. This is a series that could really work if it has a chance to catch on. Maybe it will.

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