When the film Crash was released in 2005, TV guy Paul Haggis — who’d written for everything from The Facts of Life and thirtysomething to L.A. Law and created the acclaimed, short-lived crime saga EZ Streets — vaulted into the movie leagues as a prestige writer/director. Crash envisioned a cross-hatched Los Angeles of seething racial prejudice forced into the open so it could dissipate when confronted by innate goodness. But remember how the movie felt like a miniseries squeezed into two hours? This is only one of the reasons I didn’t care for the film. (Sorry, Roger Ebert, I’m with my Weekly colleague Scott Foundas on this one.) Haggis can be a talented writer and the movie was well-acted, but Crash (written by Haggis with Bobby Moresco) subscribed to twists, schematics and rhetoric at the expense of character, and felt so obsessed with setting fires and then sentimentally putting them out — bigoted white lady bonds with Hispanic maid! Racist cop can save his molestee’s life, too! — it was like slapping a “Practice Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty” bumper sticker over a gaping social wound.
But in its relate-not-hate message, Crash struck a hype nerve, enough to knock that year’s other emblems of tolerance — the cowboys in love — out of a (more deserved) Best Picture win at the Oscars. Now, Haggis and a team of producers have brought Crash to television — back to television, you could say, since Haggis originally conceived of it for the small screen — and the pilot episode, though not great, already leads me to believe that this medium is where Haggis should have fleshed out his notion of colliding lives all along.
One reason: The show, which is actually spearheaded by writer/executive producer Glen Mazzara, seems to understand it can’t hang an entire series on the downside of name calling. And it isn’t wrapping shit up by the end of the hour so we can feel an easy resolution. Instead, we’re set up with what promise to be drawn-out, intriguing storylines: a Brentwood family in which the wife (Clare Carey) has to deal with an ailing father (Michael Fairman) and a husband (D.B. Sweeney) floundering as a real estate developer; an ex-gang member (Brian Tee) who’s become an EMT but can’t shake ties to his past; a wealthy and perhaps unstable record producer (Dennis Hopper) who takes on an aspiring musician (Jocko Sims) as his driver; and, because it’s TV, a handful of cops (Arlene Tur, Ross McCall, Nick Tarabay) in various stages of moral dubiousness.
Crash the series keeps the mixed-cast element, for sure — Caucasian, Latino, African-American, Korean, movie star (Hopper being the only name in the cast) — and there are a few brief moments of prejudicial tension, as when Carey’s character, riding with her collapsed father in the ambulance with the EMT, notices his gang tattoo and gently prods, “Have you seen my father’s watch?” But later at the hospital, an East Asian day player shows up as a doctor, and when he escapes without someone railing against his ethnicity, I feel it’s a sign that the series and the movie — which at times seemed to seek out and relish its non-PC flare-ups — are truly not alike. What seems more important for the TV show’s writers is establishing characters whose collision-prone behavior is ongoing, who must straddle two worlds — not even necessarily racial ones, but perhaps personal and professional, or familial and personal — where succeeding at both is the struggle.
That said, these are only hints I’ve gleaned from the measured tone of the pilot, and although the writing staff has alumni from The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood and The Sopranos, a serialized show like this one proves its real mettle as more episodes unfurl. (Thirteen are planned for this inaugural season on the pay-cable channel Starz.) For now, I’m concerned that visually Crash can’t shake the atmospheric aridity of subbing Albuquerque for Los Angeles, a budget decision that may prove creatively difficult in capturing the moody turf shifts in our sprawling urban playground. Another problem: a lackluster cast. Hopper is a treat as the record producer prone to oddball ruminations and off-the-handle moments that will clearly test his South-Central-raised employee’s skills coping with a crazy rich white dude, and McCall, as a roguish policeman who enters into a flirty back-and-forth with a hotheaded babe (Moran Atias) threatening to sue the LAPD, has a compellingly dangerous smarm. Elsewhere the performances haven’t gelled yet, and this is where you may pine for the movie version’s spot-on casting of people like Terence Howard, Thandie Newton, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock and Michael Peña. I’ll come back to Crash the TV show, but for now, the acting doesn’t exactly induce gaper’s block.
Low expectations perfumed the air as I settled in to watch NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy, a spy show whose teaser spots featuring an extra-smirky Christian Slater slo-mo-walking away from an exploding house looked like a parody Ben Stiller might have directed. Or a foreclosure revenge nightmare from our nation’s collective mortgage crisis.
But after a truly ridiculous Paris opener introducing Slater’s superspy, Edward (really? Edward?), as a globetrotting agent/ladykiller, the gimmick comes into play, and it’s more enjoyable than you’d think. Back at headquarters, we watch Edward enter an elevator and, after a few keyboard taps from a geek behind a bank of computers, he goes to sleep and wakes up as Henry, 9-to-5 drudge and family man, oblivious to the other personality in his brain. (Edward knows about Henry, but Henry has no idea that he’s leading a double life and believes he’s just been to Akron on a business trip when he awakens.) The problems arise when, on an assassination job in Moscow, Edward’s mild-mannered alter ego makes an unscheduled (and needless to say catastrophic) appearance right when he’s training his rifle sights on his target. Suddenly, Henry learns about Edward, and Edward — if he wants either of his personae to stay alive — had better learn how to communicate with Henry.
The show’s biotechnological twist on the double life of spies — or any superhero/alter ego construct — certainly satisfies the popcorn-thriller needs of My Own Worst Enemy, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as thematically resonant as it was. Like the Bourne films, in which Matt Damon’s amnesiac operative must come to grips with his role as a conscienceless killer for his government, or Viggo Mortensen’s compartmentalized enforcer-turned-husband/father in A History of Violence, Slater’s Edward/Henry conundrum is a nifty American metaphor for the difficulties this country has had reconciling its well-built image of everyday peace and freedom with the longstanding underpinnings of brutality and warring it still can’t shake. It’s perhaps a fool’s game to tag a piece of prime-time escapism with that kind of baggage — and My Own Worst Enemy isn’t out to disturb us as much as entertain us with its switcheroo adventuring — but the best pulp has always been schizophrenic anyway, part dream and part nightmare. How else would you quicken the heart rate?
CRASH | Starz/Encore | Fridays, 10 p.m. | Series premiere, Oct. 17
MY OWN WORST ENEMY | NBC | Mondays, 10 p.m.