Wednesday, September 19, 2007

K-Ville – Not There Yet But Maybe With Time

I frequently worry about writing about the debut episode of a new series. Pilots are, on the whole, not typical of the totality of a show. Sometimes a show is better than you'd expect based on the pilot. Sometimes the pilot is as good as it gets (and in some cases that's damning with very faint praise). The fact is though that a pilot serves two very big purposes – to sell the show to the network and to get the viewers to watch next week's episode instead of something else. A pilot has to be packed with exposition to introduce us to the principal characters, but it also has to grip the audience, whether it's an audience of TV Executives or an audience on Monday nights. FOX's new series K-Ville certainly gets a grip on the audience and holds it but to use another metaphor, at times the pilot feels like it's a mile wide and an inch deep and if they don't improve on that they could have problems.

K-Ville sets its location most effectively. Marlin Boulet and his partner Charlie are trying to help refugees on the I-10 freeway during Hurricane Katrina. Sent to their car to get a blanket to help someone with an injured leg, Charlie instead takes the car and speeds off, leaving his friend and partner alone. Cutting from that vignette to today we see a montage of images of devastation before we are eventually reintroduced to Marlin. He's making a sandwich when he spots a kid digging up a tree outside his house. The kid is stealing the tree "because people gotta landscape." Marlin is personally insulted by this – not only is the tree his but it's a cypress of the type that used to grow all over the city but now doesn't because the salt water from the flooding killed them all. Still the kid is one of his neighbours and in an ordinary place he wouldn't be stealing anything, let alone his neighbour's tree. We're soon introduced to another of Marlin's neighbours, a jazz singer who just bought a classic car ("cost two FEMA checks").

When Marlin gets to work – his police unit is based out of what looks like an old warehouse because their new HQ isn't finished yet – his boss introduces him to his new partner, Trevor Cobb. Cobb is from Cincinnati, an ex-soldier who did a tour in Afghanistan; these facts are enough for Marlin to question his motives or at least his sanity: "What is he, some kind of nut job?" They soon get their first job together; security at a benefit for the 9th Ward, the area where Marlin lives (and which is usually featured on real world news reports about the continued devastation in New Orleans). The featured performer is Marlin's neighbour and the host is the daughter of one of the city's wealthiest men, the owner of a major casino. Things seem calm enough until gunfire erupts killing Marlin's neighbour. Marlin and Cobb go off in hot pursuit, a pursuit which ends at the casino. They lose their suspect in the building. Marlin initially suspects the murdered woman's ex-boyfriend and goes to "question him"; questioning being a kinder and gentler word for tying him up and dropping him off the side off his commercial fishing boat until he gives them an alibi. When the alibi checks out they're forced to go back to square one. Another charity event is shot up. There's no high speed pursuit this time – the bad guys have put a bomb in the police car. Marlin and Cobb figure out that going to the casino wasn't random – it was part of the escape plan all along. They go to the casino to check the security footage of the entrance in hopes of figuring out where the shooter went but mysteriously, the security cameras at that moment were out of position (suspicious in itself). After another encounter with Charlie, who is now working security in the hotel attached to the casino, Marlin discovers that the casino's head of security and some of the other people he met with was actually a Gulf War vet who became a mercenary working for a company – Black River – which had provided security during the clean-up. They immediately become suspects, particularly after

Earlier Marlin's wife had been introduced. She's living in Atlanta with their very young daughter. The little girl was so traumatized by the storm that the sound of rain terrifies her, and even the sound of the wind means that her mother is up all night with her. They still love each other, but Marlin's attempt at a romantic evening with his wife are shattered when their daughter comes screaming down the stairs with a torrent of water following. A fire hose has been inserted into the daughter's room to flood it. Outside they find an ominous piece of graffiti – the address of Marlin's wife and daughter in Atlanta. Suddenly Marlin is mad. He brings in the three Black River mercenaries for questioning but between political interference – Black River is important for the war effort – and the fact that he has nothing proving positively that they are responsible for the murder or even the flooding of his house. They're let go. However Marlin discovers a motive for the attacks on the fund raising event. Large chunks of the 9th Ward have been bought up buy a development company, Orleans Renewal. The company is owned by Christina DuBois, the daughter of the Casino owner. She organized the relief events that were shot up but she also organised the attacks to scare people out of the 9th Ward. Her brother was killed in the area two years before the hurricane and she saw the aftermath of the storm as an opportunity to keep the people who had been forced out by the storm, people she felt had no sense of the value of human life, from coming back to the city. Cobb and Marlin arrest her, but before they can take her to jail, the Black River men attempt to silence her. They fail, but Marlin and Cobb take off in pursuit. The mercenaries seem to be getting away until Charlie crashes his car into theirs. He's taken hostage and the pursuit begins again, ending at a dock where the Black River men have a helicopter waiting. As the car with the wounded Charlie in it rolls off the dock, Cobb dives into the water to save him while Marlin uses a heavy chain to secure the helicopter to the dock. The denouement of the episode is a block party in Marlin's neighbourhood where his friends burn their "For Sale" signs because he has restored their confidence.

I am really torn about this show and I think it's because of the pilot. Anthony Anderson is superb as Marlin, a man suffering as much from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as his ex-partner or his little girl. In Marlin it's held back but from time to time it shows up: he drinks on duty and doesn't give a damn and at a crucial moment he flashes back to his time on the bridge. It shows up in his choice not to follow the wife and child, both of whom he clearly loves, in abandoning the city that he's sworn to protect. What he went through during the storm made the city more important to him than his family; leaving it would be surrender. I'm less impressed with Cole Hauser as Trevor Cobb. Maybe it's because Cobb has a secret beyond what he's told anyone else – a secret that Marlin unravels in a single episode – or it may be that Cobb is currently a less interesting character because he doesn't have Marlin's faults (at least not that we know about yet). The fact remains that Hauser seems rather flat when compared with Andrews...and since most of his scenes are with Andrews that weakness is quite obvious. John Carroll Lynch is his usual workman-like self playing Marlin and Cobb's boss, Captain James Embry. Lynch clearly has a talent for accents – Embry's slight Nawlins patois is a long way from his most famous role as Norm Gunderson in Fargo, and while it's not as heavy as Dennis Quaid's accent in The Big Easy it is noticeable. We really don't get much time with most of the other cops on the team. In a guest role as Gordon Wix, leader of the Black River security team, William Mapother does his usual good job playing a superficially civilized but secretly very dark and dangerous man.

Where I really have a problem with K-Ville is in the writing. Strip away the whole post-Katrina New Orleans aspect and you have a standard cop who breaks the rules but gets results partnered with a straight arrow who is his exact opposite set-up. There's even the boss who isn't always in love with their methods but keeps them together because they're effective. It's pat and clichéd and the fact that it works in this case says more about Anderson and to a lesser extent Hauser than it does about the writing. I'd like to see a lot more character and story development here. In the episode there really wasn't much in the way of plot development; instead there were two big car chases. Right up until the revelation that Christina was behind the entire plot there was no indication that she was even connected to the Black River men. They could literally have been working for anyone at all. While her motivation was intriguing (not to mention more than slightly insane) we as an audience had absolutely no clue that it existed until it suddenly appeared seconds after Marlin found out about Orleans Renewal. I swear it seemed like it was revealed because they needed a mastermind and they needed to shoehorn everything about why everything was happening in between the incident at Marlin's home and the big car chase finale. More thought – and more time – was give to giving us the clues about Cobb's deep dark secret and how Marlin figures it out than was given to revealing the identity and motive of the person behind the major event of the episode. I find that to be extremely sloppy and poorly paced writing but it also doesn't entirely surprise me in a pilot episode where you are introducing not just the antagonists for the episode and their motivation but also the protagonists for the series. The question for me is will this continue.

I look at K-Ville and right now I see a lot of potential which in the pilot episode at least hasn't really been tapped. FOX promoted the series as the next groundbreaking drama but except for making the city of New Orleans, recovering from one of the biggest natural disasters to hit a major American city probably since the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, almost a character in the show it isn't breaking new ground but rather going over well tilled soil. I hope that in later episodes the series does push the envelope more. I want this show to live up to its potential; I want it to succeed if only to remind people each week about New Orleans and what still needs to be done. The pilot episode was something of a disappointment but there's a ton of room in which to grow and to become what Fox promoted it as being, a groundbreaking new drama. It is definitely a show that I'll be checking in with to see if it lives up to what it can become. I can't call it a failure but right now, by most measures I can't whole heartedly call it a success either. It is definitely one to keep monitoring.

No comments: