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TV Quickshots #6

TV Quickshots

Edge of Darkness (BBC; 1985)

I can trust no one but Mr. Honeybuggles.

This well-regarded Thatcher-era BBC dramatic serial about murder, grief, and corruption starts off strongly enough. Detective Inspector Ronald Craven (the perpetually long-faced Bob Peck) is walking with his scientist/activist daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley, pre-Kilmer) outside his country home when an angry man with a shotgun steps from the bushes, cursing Craven’s name. Emma steps in front of his gun and he fires, killing her. As the stricken Craven begins to look into her death (with and without official sanction), he uncovers a web of intrigue involving mining unions, environmentalist radicals, government inquiries, espionage, the IRA, and corporate nuclear power concerns.

This strange multi-headed best of modern corruption ingests his grief whole and regurgitates it as obsession. Aided by a pair of British intelligence types (Charles Kay and Ian McNeice) and crossing paths with a voluble Texan CIA operative (who could only be played by Joe Don Baker) at nearly every turn, Craven comes ever closer to understanding the dark truth behind his daughter’s death but ever further from a solution to the myriad sociopolitical ills that lead to it.

Although Edge of Darkness is an ambitious and smart slice of television, for its time (the complexity of its mystery suffers in comparison to a more recent telenovella analogue like State of Play, to say nothing of HBO’s dramas), it slips over the top in its final couple of hours, as Craven and the CIA agent, Darius Jedburgh, break into the Northmoor nuclear facility for, as it turns out, very separate reasons. There’s a bit too much of Peck (though a fine actor and no mistake) peering and straining and feeling anguish, just to show us how amazingly psychologically tortured he is (that Mel Gibson took on the role in the Hollywood adaptation directed by the original’s helmsman Martin Campbell should be no surprise, given his own proclivities for noble onscreen suffering). Whalley is a lighter presence, and Baker is tons of fun as always, looking like a cowboy soldier but speaking like an ambiguous academic.

But the mystery loses interest quickly enough, and the brew of action and suspense that conquers the final act becomes tiresome without warning. Perhaps things grate all the more because of the score, a litany of wanking slide guitar from Eric Clapton and ‘80s synth backgrounds from Michael Kamen. It’s supposed to set a mood, but that mood is plenty overwrought, as is, ultimately, the show and its political message.

Alcatraz (Fox; 2012)

Quick: which one is the obsessive scholar and which one is the cop?

A considerably less hardboiled take on the mysterious paranoia-driven drama premieres this coming Monday on Fox. Exec-produced by Lost mavens J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Jack Bender and based on a screenplay from Lost and Deadwood writer Elizabeth Sarnoff and two others, Alcatraz is shot through with ample noir-lite mood and curious plot uncertainties, albeit pitched in a much more simplified mainstream way, at least in the pilot.

The show’s central premise is not so much politically charged as it is pulpily resonant of vague supernaturalism: when the notorious maximum-security federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay closed in 1963, the remaining prisoners were not transfered elsewhere, as we have been told. They all mysteriously vanished without a trace, and now, almost 40 years later, they are reappearing one by one, without having aged a day.

Enter plucky, ambitious SF PD Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, yet another woman on television far too attractive to be a believable cop), who picks up on the trail of clues after the first returned prisoner (Jeffrey Pierce) commits several murders, evidently out of revenge. Although shooed away from the case by the typically shadowy government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), Madsen enlists the aid of nerdy Alcatraz scholar Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, aka Hurley of Lost) and eventually proves herself to the doubting Hauser to be worthy of participating in the investigation, or at least learns so much about it that enlisting her aid is the only viable alternative to indefinite detention.

That Madsen and Hauser each have personal, undisclosed ties to Alcatraz and to the bizarre events on the island should not be surprising, either. It’s possible that Soto does, too, but the pilot seemed uninterested in his backstory, mostly employing Garcia for occasional expert exposition and some trademarked Hurleyesque geek-culture references (he is introduced playing video games and later calls Hauser’s high-tech subterranean operations center on the island “the Batcave”). This is not very meaty stuff, but it was not unappealing in its opening hour of episodic suspense. Neill operates as a flinty glowerer, and Jones and Garcia hint at a touch of unforeseen chemistry, though I’d put that mostly down to Garcia, a Smiling Latino Buddha of a performer who draws all around him into his benevolent glow.

Their interactions will continue to be key to the show’s success, but clever suspense plotting (which the pilot only hints at) will determine whether Alcatraz will be a more tantric, prisoner-culture-centric version of The 4400 mixed with the cult interest of Whitechapel or if it develops into its own dramatic beast entirely. I would also express the hope that the San Francisco setting be mined for some of its foggy West Coast noir charm were the show not being shot in that constant onscreen urban proxy, Vancouver. San Francisco richly deserves a television depiction of its distinct urban reality more detailed than, say, Full House provided (is there a better-known fictional program set in San Fran than that? I can’t think of one). A show like Alcatraz, for all of its promised mystery and mythology, could derive added appeal from such detail. But that element, much like the implied promise of fascinating revelations and loopholes, is likely to be minimised. If I have little in the way of high hopes for Alcatraz, I at least can boast a large surplus of low hopes.

Categories: Reviews, Television
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