THE CAPE 1.1, 1.2: Pilot/Tarot

I was prepared to hate NBC’s newest superhero series, THE CAPE. After all, it looked pretty campy, and I just happen to hate circus settings, so things did not look good at the start. Luckily, THE CAPE improved steadily over the course of its inaugural hour.

THE CAPE is refreshingly free of overt camp and snarkiness; at least the initial two hours played the story straight. And the tale was a surprisingly straightforward superhero origin tale: Vince Faraday (David Lyons) was a cop wrongly accused of a crime, and then presumed dead in one of those amazingly unlikely explosions in which no body is found. But he survived, and undertook special training with a mentor to mold himself into a living weapon to strike at his nemesis, corporate mogul Peter Fleming (James Frain) a man so powerful he is untouchable by conventional justice. Vince keeps his true identity a secret in order to protect his loved ones from that menace (who has a sort of villain name of his own, being known as the murderer “Chess”), and yearns to clear his name so his son can grow up proud. That’s a lot of comic baggage for one show. Toss in a sexy sidekick, and you have a TV show.

And I was surprised by how very comic book-y that TV show played; it really felt like a comic come to life. (And not a snooty “graphic novel,” either; a very pulpy comic book.) That’s a good thing to me. I enjoyed seeing a heroic character who actually wants to behave heroically. The Cape belongs in the Batman class of heroes, meaning who derive their abilities from specialized training and/or weapons — in this case a cape made entirely of spider silk! Aging illusionist Max Malini (Keith David) teaches Vince how to wield the cape as a weapon in a fight and how to use it to grasp and throw things. Vince also learns how to appear and disappear mysteriously using stage magician tricks.

The secret weapon of this show will prove to be in the casting of David as the gruff/lovable mentor, Max, and Summer Glau as Orwell, the Cape’s sidekick. Orwell is a computer-savvy independent operator who throws in with the Cape as soon as they meet. Both David and Glau are immensely charismatic and entertaining performers, and mesh well with Lyons, best-known for a 2008-’09 stint on ER. Orwell is also a character straight out of a comic book: brilliant, sexy and quippy. One drawback: Dressing as sexy as she does, and driving such a flashy car will no doubt attract a lot of attention, and the Cape makes it clear he wants to work surreptitiously.

Another great point in THE CAPE’s favor: Vince likes his abilities as the Cape. This puts him ahead of HEROES, which, after the first season, got bogged down in the idea that all its characters regretted having powers and wallowed in self-pity. This rubbed HEROES’ core audience — most of whom wish for superpowers — totally the wrong way and grated on nerves. If you want to keep an audience, give them characters to identify with, not despise.

Frain was a little more restrained in here than he was as the manic Franklin on TRUE BLOOD. And it’s always nice to see Jennifer Ferrin (ex-Jennifer, AS THE WORLD TURNS, and last seen on the American version of LIFE ON MARS) add to her gallery of beleaguered women by playing Vince’s embattled wife. She wants to remain loyal to the memory of her presumed-dead man, but the rumors that he was a dirty cop haunt her.

I do wonder how committed NBC is to this latest entry in the beleaguered superhero genre. Is it worth investing my time to watch, or will the Peacock Network strangle this show before it really gets going?

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