The Cape: “Pilot” & “Tarot”

The Cape and The Crusader

“Pilot” and “Tarot”

The Cape

NBC, Mondays, 9/10 PM

“Pilot” and “Tarot” written by Tom Wheeler

“Pilot” directed by Simon West

“Tarot” directed by Deran Serafian

“I thought this was going to be fun.” – Chess

The one thing comic book heroes never seem to talk about is comic books. Now comes a hero who not only loves comic books, but explicitly adopts a comic book identity in order to fight crime. This idea could be played as ironic commentary, as farce, or as straight drama; for now, NBC is choosing the latter. I cannot recall when a series has debuted to worse timing. On the day after America is shocked by the murder of a public official by a deranged person, The Cape opens with the murder of a public official by a deranged person. Fortunately, this murder quickly recedes into the background, or else viewing this particular episode might have become too painful to endure. Our story is the usual Hero’s Journey: a good cop in the fictional metropolis of Palm City, Vince Faraday (David Lyons, ER), is framed for murder by corrupt cops, and to save his family and get justice for himself he goes underground. He adopts his son’s favorite comic book hero as his vigilante name, and is tutored in virtually every fighting technique there is by a troupe of circus/bank robbers.

“Don’t forget who it is who’s wearing the cape.” – Max

Okay, at this point, I started to wonder if this was not, after all, ironic commentary. I mean, circus performers who pull bank jobs on the side? Seriously? What do we get next, rodeo clowns who practice neurosurgery on their off days? This loony idea could have sunk the entire show, were it not for the intensity of Keith David’s (Numb3rs) performance as the ringmaster Max Malini. His ferocity and focus suffuse his scenes with a feral passion that haul them back from the edge of awkwardness, grounding our hero in a reality that I can accept. David’s Malini is a personality so strong he can create his own world and convince us, for a while, that circus dwarfs (Martin Klebba) and sideshow hypnotists (Anil Kumar) can actually teach a man to be a hero. One of the tools Vince adopts is a cape, which Malini tells us is made of “spider silk” (is there any other kind?) which is “stronger than steel” (which is true of all silk). This cape allows director West to give us the now-obligatory training scenes gussied up with some snazzy cape-twirling; at times Vince looks like a matador de toreros performing a series of passes with a bull. Finally, Malini decides he is ready for his first outing, against the villain who set him up.

Naturally, he gets the snot kicked out of him. This was a refreshing moment, a much more convincing outcome than the idea that, first time off the bat, Vince will defeat such a powerful enemy. Vince manfully picks himself up and goes back for more training. Vince is now battling not only his enemy but his own physical limitations. Meanwhile, his grieving family holds a memorial service for him, and his nemesis plots even more nefarious schemes to take over Palm City. And after that, the world, mwahaha, no doubt. James Frain (True Blood) plays Peter Fleming, whose alter ego, Chess, has pupils in the shape of chess pieces and a preference for tooled leather. As Fleming, he heads Ark, a corporation which specializes in “privatizing” war and police work. In other words—he’s a mercenary. He is determined to take over the police force of Palm City, turning it into the first privatized police force in America. Apparently the citizens of Palm City are narcotized or stupid, because they allow themselves to be stampeded into permitting this abrogation of a basic constitutional principle. Fleming now has his own private army, which Chess, his alter ego, uses in the same way the Joker used to use his clown troupe. Frain brings his patented sneer and compelling voice to the role of ubervillain, a role he could phone in and still have us mesmerized.

Vince: Who are you?
Orwell: No one special.

In the course of the rest of this two-hour-long introduction, we meet Orwell (Summer Glau, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) a self-appointed investigative blogger who keeps fingering corrupt officials and cops anonymously. She is a fervid crusader, but still does not have the courage to come out into the open, so she urges Vince to team up with her to fight crime and “take back this city”. Glau brings liveliness and grace to the role, and it’s refreshing to see her play something other than a monotone robot. But until the second episode, she really doesn’t have much to do except nag Vince. I hope that she will evolve into something other than the requisite sidekick and/or lover. Other characters include Jennifer Ferrin (Fringe) as Dana, Vince’s wife, and Ryan Wynott (FlashForward) as his comic-book loving son, Trip. Ferrin has little to do in the pilot, but by the time we get to the second, she has stepped up to show us a woman being strong for her young son, fiercely defending her husband, and becoming something of a crusader herself. In the few scenes they have together, Wynott and Lyons do an excellent job of showing a strong father-son bond, which is essential for the basic premise of this show.

“My family’s not my weakness; they’re my strength.” — Vince

And that premise is, in my understanding, pretty rare in comic book based stories. Vince Faraday, like Bruce Wayne and Kit Walker, is just a normal man with normal powers – intelligence, wit and speed. Despite the fact that everyone in this show keeps telling Vince he’s a “superhero”, he’s not. He has no superpowers—unless you count the scene where he dives out of a tenth-story window and survives the fall. Bruce Wayne and Kit Walker are wealthy men who use their money to become vigilantes; Wayne becomes the Batman and Walker becomes the Phantom after their families are slaughtered. By contrast, Vince is not wealthy, has no powerful protectors, and is fighting to keep his family alive, not to avenge them. This keeps The Cape centered and grounded in a reality viewers can relate to. Perhaps this makes it a darker story than the brightly colored Heroes or No Ordinary Family, but I like that. I can believe that a man would let his family think he was dead, and would run around in various cape costumes, because he believes his family is in danger otherwise. I can believe that a man with his fierce pride in his name and his heritage would fight to clear it. In this case, the presence of a strong wife and loyal, adoring son strengthen the character of the hero much more than the ghostly memories of a lost family.

“I never heard about this when I was a cop.” — Vince

The second episode of this two-hour introduction brings out more of Chess’s villainy, as he targets Patrick Portman (Richard Schiff,The West Wing), the director of prisons and an opponent of Chess’s “police privatization” plan. Chess resorts to the Tarot – not the game, but a shadowy coalition of killers. I guess it wouldn’t be a real comic book if we didn’t get all the clichés in, and of course a shadowy coalition is de rigueur. The Tarot (does it have only 22 members, or all 78?) sends in Cain, a master chef whose hobby is brewing poisons. Vince gets a dose, and barely recovers after Max and his troupe try out some remedies that can only be classed as voodoo. Max is so made at Vince for screwing up that he takes away his cape, forcing Vince to become, for one episode, merely the Mask. Vince finds himself a suitably grungy lair, installs assorted beat-up computers, and proceeds to educate himself about poisons. Best of all, he puts up a case wall. I liked this sequence the best, where we get to see Vince acting on his strengths as a cop and a smart guy. Muscles and a nifty cape are all very well, but if you’re a superhero with no powers, you need to fall back on mankind’s oldest weapon, the brain. When Vince finally figures out the Nefarious Plot and races to the rescue, I can believe that he worked it all out on his own, instead of being handed the case by his Trusty Sidekick.

Vince: I’m The Cape
Portman: You’re not wearing a cape.
Vince: I’m… aware of that.

It’s not a great pilot, but it has its occasional moments. The dialogue sparks here and there, but never really catches fire; sometimes it falls flat with an audible thud. The tone falls somewhere between the earnest and the facetious, somewhere between Heroes, which took itself too seriously, and Batman, that never took itself seriously at all. The premise, like that of all comic book heroes, is absurd, so there’s already a huge hurdle to cross in the transition to the small screen. This one has made a decent start. It’s great to see a comic book dad who honestly loves his family, who is a nurturing and caring father – how rare is that on TV these days? Most of all, it’s fun to watch. Slavish adherence to comic book plots notwithstanding, the action sequences are well paced, the villains are all suitably ugly, and the circus characters actually bring a little comic relief to a show which could easily devolve into despair and gloom. It’s no longer fashionable to cheer on or believe in the man of honor, but The Cape gives us a real hero, without cynicism, one who might emerge from among any of us, whose motives fall on the right side of love and courage. I don’t know how long it will last, but I’ll be watching it.

Orwell: Are you listening?
Vince: Off and on. I’m dying.

The two hour premiere debuted at 8.4 million viewers, which is bound to disappoint NBC after such heavy promotion. It won the second hour, however, so perhaps word of mouth kicked in at some point. On January 17, The Cape goes to its normal programming slot, Monday at 9 PM. That’s about the right time for a gritty, dark story grounded more in pulp noir than in Superman.