Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Great Start, But Now What

CBS debuted their new series Smith on Tuesday night and while I basically like it, the show does have me asking some questions. Like this one - what is the show going to focus on between heists? You see, at the end of the pilot episode master thief Bobby Stevens (Ray Liotta) tells Charlie the woman who commissions his thefts (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo from 24) that he wants out of the business after three or four more jobs. Which leaves the question, what do you do with the rest of the episodes? Are these characters interesting enough to sustain the interest and the involvement of viewers without the benefit of flashy action sequences or a caper a week? At the moment I'm not sure. About the only thing that I can say is that what we saw in the pilot probably isn't typical of what this series is going to show on a week to week basis.

The pilot for Smith started with a museum heist. We see the thieves in white full faced masks cutting paintings out of their frames while another man holds one of the guards at gun point. The thieves are interrupted by a second guard, and as the shot shifts to the exterior of the museum, we hear gunfire. Most of the rest of the show is a flashback showing how we got to this point.

Bobby and Hope Stevens (Virginia Madsen) seem to have an average middle class life. He's in sales with a plastic cup company and apparently in trouble with his boss, not that this seems to matter to him. When his assistant tells him that the boss wants to see him, he essentially tells his assistant that whatever the boss wants will keep. Meanwhile Bobby is studying museum plans. Next we're introduced to Jeff (Simon Baker) who is off surfing in Hawaii. At least he is until a couple of locals inform him, with nothing more than their bulk and menacing looks to support their position, that he's surfing on a private beach. Apparently thoroughly intimidated Jeff leaves the beach goes to his car and, whistling a cheerful little tune, guns down the two locals with a high power sniper rifle. Next we're introduced to Annie (Amy Smart), a Vegas showgirl who has a profitable little sideline dealing in stolen credit card numbers, preferably stolen from high rollers. In business she's an ice queen. We meet Tom (Jonny Lee Miller), the next member of the crew, as he's leaving prison. He's met by Jeff who is driving a flashy (stolen) car. Tom has been released on parole, and it is immediately clear that he has some sort of history with Annie, and not a pleasant history. The final members of the crew are car expert Joe (Franky G) and Shaun (Mike Doyle), an electronics expert who works for him in his paint and body shop. They are all brought together by a text message from Bobby. When Bobby's crew gathers he informs them of their target, three paintings in a museum in Pittsburgh, including a Rembrandt. Annie immediately wonders about this - Rembrandts are nearly impossible to fence - but Bobby lets her know that this is a commissioned job and one where they'll have to move what they steal using conventional means. This is followed by a trip to Pittsburgh - Bobby tells Hope he's off on business to St. Louis - to work out the details of the caper and see the physical layout of the museum and its surroundings which includes a sort of booth for a couple of police officers who are there primarily to help tourists. The caper goes down, although not without a few hitches. The least of these is that Annie, who fakes being assaulted or possibly raped to distract the cops in the booth in front of the museum, is recognised by a woman she may have gone to school with and has to Taser her after the woman sees Annie ripping her own clothes and applying fake blood to her face and body. There a really menacing moment when Annie encounters the woman after the heist has been discovered and makes it absolutely clear to her that if she says anything or does anything that would reveal her real identity it would be a very bad mistake, and yet she does it without saying anything more threatening to the woman beyond "Stay put."

There are a number of nice touches in this episode. Bobby's seemingly pathological need to keep his "real" life separate from his "working" life as a thief is expressed in a scene where he leave home and goes to a virtually empty apartment where he drops off his watch, jewelry and wallet, replacing them from a stash of material he has in a safe there, the only reason for having the apartment. It becomes abundantly clear that the way that Bobby and his crew survive and thrive as thieves is not only by not doing anything that will attract attention to themselves but by actively taking measures that will disguise their identities. It isn't just a case of getting new identities, which is a major part of Annie's role in the gang, but of actively falsifying identifying marks and features. It's one of the reasons why Tom is mad at Jeff for stealing a fancy and readily identifiable car, and why Shawn's gambling debt is of such concern to Charlie and for Bobby when she tells him about it. Paying off the debt in one lump sum would attract attention to Shawn and might lead to identifying the crew. On a somewhat lighter note, Jeff takes a woman to bed, apparently with the sole purpose of stealing her cat. As part of his parole Tom has been equipped with an ankle bracelet to monitor his location - it is only through a plea to his parole officer that he is able to attend a wedding that is an essential part of the planning for the museum robbery. Shawn is able to remove the bracelet without setting of the alarms for tampering with it, and Tom and Jeff put it around the neck of the cat so that it will be in motion in Tom's home while Tom is in Pittsburgh.

Smith has a lot of things going for it. The primary cast is superb with particular notice going to Amy Smart and Virginia Madsen. Madsen's portrayal of a woman who probably knows what her husband is up to even if he's trying his hardest to protect her from the reality of his situation. She herself isn't as pure as most others think she is - she's nearing the end of a period on parole for a crime probably related to a drug addiction - may well put her in contention for an Emmy if the series survives long enough for it to be noticed by Emmy voters. Smart's role as Annie would seem to be a case of casting against type but she's letter perfect as the ice queen figure who draws Tom to her like a flame drawing a moth, even though he knows better than to become involved with her. Simon Baker does an excellent job as Jeff, a character who at his base is a cheery sociopath. Ray Liotta is also excellent, as always, but then it sometimes feels like he's been playing this sort of character for most of his career. The writing in the pilot was excellent. It didn't seem as though there was a false note in the whole thing, with plenty of nice little touches that weren't essential to the main plot but which helped to build the atmosphere. The pace of the show was just about perfect. We were introduced to this world in an unconventional manner - starting near the end of the heist - and then through the process of the flashback were brought into the characters' world. This is in contrast with some series that we've seen where everything has been thrown at us so fast in the first episode that it's nearly impossible to get details straight.

Based entirely on the first episode, Smith is a first rate show that deserves to run as long as the wirters, producers and the actors can make it work. My major concern - besides how well it will do against Boston Legal and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is how people will react to a show which has characters who are not conventionally heroic - in fact are the sort of people that most shows on TV these days have as villains - and how the audience will react to those episodes that don't focus on the sort of major action scenes that were a part of the pilot. Inevitably there are going to be a lot of those episodes, where we'll be primarily concerned with Bobby & Hope's relationship or Annie, Jeff, and Tom, if in fact Bobby is serious about what he told Charlie about only doing four or five more jobs before he retires. I really like this pilot but how well the show performs as a series will be seen in the second and subsequent episodes.

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