by Sarah Stegall
copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall
I’m getting to really enjoy this show (“Strange Luck”), as much for what’s hiding in the corners as for what’s sitting out in plain view. The quirky minor characters who add depth to the show, the
melancholy, stark score, the low-key but effective performances are driving forward a show rooted in absurdity and creating a universe where, for an hour anyway, I can
believe in “Strange Luck”.
In Friday’s episode, “Last Chance”, our hero Chance Harper drops in to his local mechanic’s to pick up his car and finds his mechanic in the middle of a suicide attempt. After he rescues the ungrateful Henry Plume (Jon Gries), we get a wonderful, uneasy scene as both men try to pick up the thread
of daily life. But their customary roles–customer and mechanic–are now false and uncomfortable because their true roles are rescuer and victim. Neither man can forget this and so we get a wary, edgy, funny scene where Harper isn’t sure how to treat this man who owes him a life and Plume can’t figure out how to be angry at the man who saved him. It’s a short but wonderful scene. Driving away (in what is arguably the most wonderful car on television today–clunky, lived-in, and believable), Harper’s brakes fail him and he bumps into a taxi, acquiring a minor head wound which sends him to the hospital. There, he again runs into Plume, who now confesses that his suicide attempt was motivated by guilt. It seems
that several years ago he killed a man, and another man is scheduled to die for the crime at midnight. For the next 35 minutes, Harper tries to help Plume “set things right” and save the life of Griffiths, the innocent but condemned man.
Plume, played with a peevish intensity by Jon Gries, never shows us why he has had the sudden change of heart, but we get glimpses of a complex, quiet man who is a mass of contradictions: in one scene, while Harper is driving him to the district attorney’s office, he solemnly assures Harper that the bad brakes on his car “just need some time to break in”. Plume will confess to murder but not to fraud.
On a less humorous note, a low key but very well done video montage sequence in the office of Griffiths’ lawyer (Jensen Daggett?) shows us Chance Harper identifying with the condemned man, projecting himself into the video to literally put himself in the man’s place as Griffiths says, “There are
no accidents. Luck is not a mistake.” The video sequence allows us to get inside his head for a moment, something very difficult in the medium of television without so obvious a device as a voice-over. I have wondered what Harper’s reaction to his weird life is, what mark it has left on him:
optimism? resentment? weary despair? We get a glimpse of an ongoing inner dialogue within Harper on the universe as it appears from his unique perspective: “I don’t doubt I’m meant to be here. The only question is why?” The word “meaning” or “meant” arises a lot in this show, proving that it is not
really about luck at all.
Indeed, the whole show revolves around what in a less cynical time would have been called Providence, the hand of God. Luck, as an abstract concept, is both more and less than people make of it. When people say “luck” they mean good luck. Events acquire meaning only in context and as they relate to us–when Chance Harper watches a Marine run down a street in full dress uniform it means nothing. His collision moments later with the taxi seems to give it meaning, a spurious cause and effect that belies the real meaning of “chance”. Now it appears “significant” that the Marine was running down the street, whereas Harper’s attention could as easily have been distracted by a barking dog or a falling woman. We are doing what humans are hardwired to do: finding patterns–significance–in events that may have none. The ability to spot patterns is a survival trait we have not outgrown, long after we realize that not all sequences indicate real cause and effect. So when the long arm of coincidence brings tragedy and joy into Chance Harper’s life, we are still able to identify with a man singled out by the gods because we identify with his seeking of significance.
Random, or seemingly random things happen to us, too, and like Harper we would like to think that we “were meant to be here”.
Of course, we are not talking about luck any more, we are talking about God, the one concept this show will never touch, I am sure. Writer Michael Cassutt dances deftly around the concept, never actually using the G-word, but giving the characters “development” speeches in which they say things
like “I’m meant to be here”. If this universe has a purpose, then it has Mind and Will, and we are smack dab in the middle of a theological discussion of post-modern proportions. Which means that Chance Harper is on a mission from God.
Harper could easily be a silly clown, a pinball in a huge arcade being shuttled back and forth by a freaked-out cosmos. D. B. Sweeny’s low-key but wry performance as Chance Harper humanizes him and makes him a likable, down-home guy who has not quite gotten a handle yet on this situation, but who is
game to try. He’s a humble hero, unburdened by any ambition loftier than a desultory search for his brother (a distracting “X-Files” rip-off subplot I hope dies quickly). The ancient Greeks, who conceived of their gods as wayward children, would understand Harper’s plight immediately.
As seen in earlier episodes, the writers allow minor characters who might otherwise fade into the background after delivering their little bit of plot to emerge as more rounded figures, which give the show depth and reality. The taxi enthusiast brothers, and Wilier, are not quite as surprisingly eccentric as last week’s birdwatching cop, but they add a touch of the truly absurd, pointing up Harper’s essential
normality with their obsessions. Jensen Daggett gives a straight-ahead, no-nonsense performance as Sarah Coughlin, Griffith’s determined but inexperienced lawyer beset by self-doubt. Bill Croft gives the condemned man a resolution and unctuous veneer that makes him sympathetic, if not quite likable. Frances Fisher as Angie is excellent as the wisecracking waitress with the heart of gold. I’d like her better, though, if she didn’t have “potential love interest” stamped so prominently on her. In her own right, she is as interesting a character as Harper, and I would like to see her shine forth a little more in her own right before she is turned into a reflection of Harper. The only characterization I didn’t like was the governor–what Superman comic did he come out of? I cannot imagine any governor so inconveniencing himself as to drive several miles in the rain to rescue a condemned man (are there no police radios available?) even in an election year. This just struck me as a little too good to be true, even in a series built on the unlikely.
Some artistic matters I liked: the car. The car. The Car. This is a wonderful car. Have I said I like the Car? The bluesy soundtrack adds commentary as well as atmosphere to the scene without distracting from it. The final scene, where Plume is electrocuted by a falling electrical line in a case
of justice coming home against the odds, managed to convey both pity and satisfaction through the images of rain, darkness, and the sprawled body freed in death from a burden too heavy to bear in life. The final montage, with Harper imagining himself strapped to the chair, evoked pity, wonder, and hope all at once in a welter of well-edited images intercut with a despairing score. Very well done.
Altogether, I’d say “Strange Luck” is off to a good start, with solid plots which manage to incorporate the basic premise–a bizarre string of coincidences–without descending into farce or soap opera. Loose ends could be a real problem with a show where you never know where your next plot twist is coming from. Creator Karl Shaeffer will be challenged to keep coming up with episodes in which the luck does not overshadow the character, and keep us balanced on the edge of belief in what is really a wilder premise than “Superman”. The show is still getting its feet under it, and has some baby fat on it–again, we need to lose the silly looking-for-his-long-lost-
This episode gets four lucky stars out of five.