Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Raising Cane

A lot depends on the series, but judging a lot of TV shows by their pilot episodes can be a dangerous thing. For a series like Cane, judging the entire series by the pilot is like judging a novel based on the first page. The show is – or will be if given the time to develop and mature – a family saga and those need time to introduce us to the family.

Pancho Duque and his family came to America from Cuba after the revolution that put Castro in power, and in America they built an empire, first in sugar then in rum. Alejandro Vega came to America as a child, airlifted from Cuba with other children, most of whom were reunited with their families – Alejandro or Alex was not. He was adopted and raised by Pancho and his wife Amalia, and married Pancho's daughter Isabel. Throughout their rise the Duque family which includes two more sons, Francisco (Frank) and Enrique (Henry) have contended with their neighbours the Samuels family, led by patriarch Joe Samuels and his two children, daughter Ellis and son Lamont (though apparently Lamont won't be a regular character in the show).

In the pilot, the Duque family is at a crossroads. Although he hasn't told his family yet, Pancho has been told by his doctor that he has at most a year to live. At the same time the Samuels Family has made a major offer to the Duques to buy the family's extensive sugar cane fields with a promise that the family's rum distillery will be able to buy the molasses needed to make the rum at a bargain price. They even offer to put this down on paper. Frank is all for the deal. His focus – when he's not out chasing women and running his boat full out and whatever other diversions may attract him – is on the rum business and the big companies like Bacardi don't grow their sugar. Alex, on the other hand is vehemently opposed to the deal. He sees things in the longer term and for him the production of ethanol from sugar is the future of the company. It's a future that he is working hard to ensure, lobbying a Senator to build Congressional support for shifting the production of ethanol from Iowa corn to ethanol from sugar. If this comes about sugar becomes the new oil, and not coincidentally trade reopens with Cuba. As for Henry, his greatest concern is finding the money to expand his club and music business. His involvement in rum is restricted to promotion in his nightclub. After a raucous family meeting, Pancho takes Frank aside; he intends to put Alex in charge of the company, though he doesn't say why he's stepping down. Frank doesn't take the decision gracefully and makes numerous complaints about Alex not being a "real" Duque. He takes solace in the arms of his current lover, Ellis Samuels.

Alex and Isabel have three children. The eldest is Jaime, who is supposed to go to MIT but is in love with Rebecca and has plans of his own, plans which reflect his father's own actions at that age. Their 17 year-old daughter Katie is a budding party girl who gets little air time in this episode, while their youngest child is Artie. At a tryout for a Little League All-Star team where Artie is contending for a spot, Alex sees and old man, standing apart from the crowd. He thinks he recognises the man and it brings back a flood of memories about an incident in his childhood when the youngest Duque child – three year-old Lucia – was kidnapped and killed. Through his friend on the police force (because what fabulously wealthy family would be without friends on the police force) Alex discovered that at the time of his sister's death the man had been working for Joe Samuels family. To raise the money to pay for his daughter's ransom, Pancho sold his cane fields to Samuels (it's not clear to me at least if the sale was completed after Pancho found his daughter dead). Later, Alex discovers a man – a recent refugee from Cuba with criminal ties back there – pilfering from the company. Instead of calling the cops or company security, Alex offers him and a couple of his friends a possible job at five times what they're earning.

Things come to a head in several different areas at the Duque family's Fourth of July party. At a family meeting Pancho announces his retirement from the company and splits his control of the business; each of his three natural children will get 30% of his shares while Alex will receive 10%. Because Alex is married to Isabel it means that Alex will control 40% of the shares. Pancho names Alex as his successor but things are set up so that Frank can get control if he can persuade Henry to vote with him. At the party itself, Alex notices that Artie has disappeared searching for the boy he finds him with the man from the ballpark, the one he recognised as one of the murderers of his baby sister. First he goes to confront Joe Samuels to let him know that he knows that Samuels was behind Lucia's kidnapping. Samuels is also told how Alex knew about the man; Alex shot and killed one of the men behinds his sister's kidnapping but only managed to wound the other. If Samuels sends anyone else to harm any member of the Duque family again, Alex will be back. Finally Alex has the criminal that he hired find and kill the man who killed his sister. He heard the shot over his cell phone.

There are some truly impressive performers attached to this project. Jimmy Smits plays Alex while Nestor Carbonell plays Frank. I know Carbonell primarily from his supporting role in Suddenly Susan so his dramatic turn in this show is a bit of a surprise for me, though I know he has done dramatic roles in the past. Playing Pancho an Amalia are Hector Elizondo and Rita Moreno. Moreno is notable as one of only two people to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy. Polly Walker, who played Atia of the Julii in HBO's Rome, appears as Ellis Samuels.

I find it difficult to evaluate the writing on this show, primarily because this is the pilot and as such it serves primarily as a platform to introduce us to the characters, and to provide some depth to the major characters – Pancho, Alex, and Frank. We know for example that family patriarch Pancho is dying, that he not only considers Alex to be part of the family but in some ways favours him and prefers his level headedness to Frank's impetuosity. In some ways Alex – the son he "chose" – is preferred to the sons his wife gave him. It may very well be because of that night when Lucia was killed and Alex showed his strength by shooting the killers. Frank on the other hand is hot-headed and impulsive. Not only is he literally in bed with the enemy (Ellis) but he seems unable or unwilling to see the big picture the way that Alex does. Alex is the planner while Frank is the one who rushes in without thought of the consequences. And because Frank realises that Alex is Pancho's favourite he never misses an opportunity to attack Alex directly or indirectly. It is Frank who insinuates that Alex joined the Army to please Pancho and married Isabel to secure his position in the family, an idea that both Alex and his wife dismiss with disdain.

Of course it is Alex that we get the most understanding of. He is devoted family man both to his wife and their three children (soon to be four since Isabel announced that she was pregnant) and to the family which raised him. The biggest thing that we learned is that the man is ruthless in dealing with his enemies. It gives his threat to Samuels an extra menace knowing that as a teenager he killed someone and that he had plans in place for the man who he perceive as threatening his youngest son. His foresight and intelligence in realizing the importance of ethanol in a society where alternative fuels are being sought is indicative of his intelligence. (Incidentally ethanol from sugar is already in use as an alternative fuel in Brazil where 50% of cars use ethanol exclusively. Sugar cane has a higher sucrose content than corn, is easier to extract and in Brazil the waste product is used as a fuel in power generation.) An intelligent, ruthless man is an extremely dangerous man and while it is clear that Alex is not a criminal by nature it is also clear that he is not above breaking the law for what he perceives to be the greater good of his family.

As I've said, this is one of those cases where I'm not really happy reviewing the pilot of this show. Interestingly I've seen the pilot described in some sources as strong and in others as dull. There were parts of it that I felt were weak and that could be accentuated. While I'm convinced that the central relationships in this show will continue to center on the Alex (and Isabel)-Pancho-Frank triangle I would have liked to have seen more development of other characters. Rita Moreno seemed to be almost relegated to the status of set decoration in this episode and at that she was luckier than Katie who was barely noticeable. Much the same can be said about Frank and Alex's brother Henry who at this stage at least seems firmly aligned with Alex. The trouble is that this is about all we really know about him. The thing is that this show is a family saga and one that will develop shades and nuances as episodes pass, even if the plots of the individual episodes are pretty much self-contained. The pilot is lacking that undefinable "something" that will make it a superior show. The potential for significant drama exists – for one thing will Pancho's intentions succeed or will things end up for the Duques the way they did for the family of poor old King Lear. The trouble is that like the first page of a novel the pilot of a show like this is no real indicator of what is to follow. If I were using the Ebert-Siskel thumbs system of rating shows (which of course I'm not because that would mean paying money to the copyright holders or stealing intellectual properties) my thumb would be quivering in an indecisive sideways position, neither up more down. This one, more so than last week's K-Ville will definitely require further study before I can really make any decision about it. For now anyway I am firmly – and uncomfortably – on the fence about Cane.

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