The Cape: “Scales”

Fashion Choices


The Cape

NBC, Mondays, 9/10 PM

Written by William Wheeler

Directed by Dennie Gordon

“What do you want the Cape to be?” – Vince

Gee, Vince, if you don’t know, who will? This is the fourth episode of The Cape, and so far the whole is less than the sum of its parts. But those parts are mostly fun, so it’s watchable. There’s a lot about it that I like. I like it that Vince is poor, and scrambles to put together resources the Batman would have paid for out of petty batcash. I like Summer Glau playing an elegant, smart and articulate character, for once. I like James Frain and Vinnie Jones eating the scenery with more relish than a Chicago hot dog. I like it when the hero’s plans go awry and his super-costume fails him and he is forced to improvise. Even some of the dialogue sparkles with the acerbic wit we expect from adult comics. Most of all, I like Vince’s dedication to his family and his son, a character element that firmly grounds what could be a pastiche of every bad comic cliché in the genre. But the seams are still showing: I both like and dislike the Carnival of Crime, the plots are slow moving and obvious, and there’s something naggingly annoying about David Lyons’ voice I just can’t get past. Is it an accent? I don’t recollect this Australian actor as having a noticeable accent in his previous appearances on ER; maybe this is his attempt at a California twang. Whatever it is, it’s distracting.

“Let the war begin.” – Scales

Vince has a simple plan: pit one reptile against another and see if they can take each other out, and maybe save Vince’s reputation into the bargain. He confronts Scales (Vinnie Jones, Chuck), a saurian-skinned gangster who looks like he’d be more at home on a Visitor mothership in V, with the information that his patron, Peter Fleming, is also the criminal, Chess. Scales, who is paying protection to Fleming’s cops, is being fleeced by the same guy twice. Scales decides to crash a train party being thrown by Fleming and see if he can’t cut himself a better deal. Orwell puts on a party dress to do some crashing on her own, hoping to videotape Scales outing Fleming as a criminal mastermind. At the last minute, Vince discovers that Max’s carnies are in the middle of a train robbery, and he is forced to board the train himself. How lucky for him that it’s a masked ball, and no one even comments on his cape and mask. Alas for his plans, however, Scales is unequal to a task that calls for more finesse than a club upside the head; everything falls apart.

“I’m just wondering how this inarticulate class resentment translates into a specific course of action.” — Fleming

Me, too. Apparently, things don’t get much more articulate for Scales. When Fleming and the mayor laugh at his “revelation” and dismiss him as a low-class thug, he reverts to type, taking the train hostage. He and Vince battle on the roof of a train car, where the wind neutralizes Vince’s Cape and he gets knocked off the roof to hang by his fingernails. Worse, Scales decouples the caboose from the train and glides away with it — that would be the same caboose containing the loot, the brakes and the carnies) — leaving the runaway train and its passengers headed for disaster. Vince has to team up with Fleming, who when he’s not a criminal mastermind is a mechanical engineer, and they cut the brake hose and save the train. Popcorn for all! But Vince, as Brooding Superhero™, can never be satisfied:

Vince: I got nothing.
Orwell: You got Scales and Fleming at war. The Secretary of Prisons wants to be your Tonto. You saved hundreds of lives. It’s not getting you home, but it’s not nothing.

Yeah, lighten up, Vince. There’s plenty to giggle over here, even if Vince is doomed to frustration. During the train sequence, he runs into a doppleganger: Patrick Portman (Richard Schiff, The West Wing), the only man in city government who has stood up to Fleming so far, turns up in a costume mimicking The Cape, which gives us the best dialogue of the episode:

Vince: I love the utility belt.
Portman: It’s velcro.
Vince: Nice… It’s upside down.

Portman proves that sometimes clothes really do make the man, as he determinedly joins Vince in confronting Fleming and trying to foil the robbery. Seeing Richard Schiff in tights and a cape was worth tuning in for all by itself, a moment of self-aware campiness all too rare in the dour atmosphere of this show. There are also snappy moments between Orwell and Vince, which once again proves that superhero wives are never as attractive as superhero sidekicks. And of course, there is Keith David’s Max, who not only plays a thief but steals every scene he’s in. As I said, I’m still not sure this whole Carnival of Crime doesn’t push the show’s concept right over the edge of irony into farce, but for now it’s teetering on the edge. What’s holding it there is the massive gravitas and sinister charm David brings to Max Malini.

“I look like an escaped mental patient.” – Peter Fleming

Yes, he does. In a show based on a costumed character, costume choices become more important than usual. Sometimes they can be self-parodying, as in the mirror-image Cape costumes worn by Vince and Portman. But then there’s the white cowboy suit and oversized Stetson Fleming dons for the train ride. A man with ears the size of James Frain’s must choose (or have chosen for him) his hats very carefully. The white hat Fleming wears through this episode robbed his character of any vestige of malignancy and made him a clown with a malignant smile. It’s never good when an evil crime lord is made to look ridiculous while the hero remains dead-earnest; it’s an emotional washout. In fact, it’s a continuing question whether the grim tone of this entire concept isn’t at odds with the concept of a comic book. Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton made it work in their Batman movies, but Tom Wheeler is building this franchise from the ground up, making it up as he goes along, and it shows. Sometimes this show is campy, sometimes it’s serious, and it’s hard to know what to expect. I like a little mystery (well, actually, a lot) but not confusion.

“I blame the outfit.” – Orwell

The Cape racked up 5.8 million viewers and a 2.1 share in the 18-to-49 demographic. That represents an 11% dro from last week, which gives it a 40% drop overall from its premiere. At this rate, The Cape is going to end up in the rag bag. Which would be a shame, because I still think it has potential.