“Is there pressure? Yes, yes there’s pressure. I mean look, any endeavor that costs this much and, you know, is such an undertaking, a big show like this with effects and budgets and all that, I mean sure I wanted to succeed and it, you know, on its own. Launching any show is a challenge in this environment.”
–Tom Wheeler, Creator of The Cape, just before the premiere
The creation and production of any television series really is exactly that, a challenge. Actors, writers, and other production people are all trying to bring a creative vision to life that will, hopefully, attract an audience large enough for it to stay on the air. In the current TV environment, that can be more than difficult, especially with the multitudes of competing media. Trying to find a voice that speaks to many, and getting those viewers to watch, is an effort even a superhero might shy away from.
But still the effort is made. That’s how we got The Cape.
I wrote in my Christmas entry how shows need to be given time to grow, to get exposure, and to find their own “voice” as a series. I used as an example a picture from the (then) upcoming series The Cape, due to premiere in January (with a caption about hoping it wouldn’t disappear by February).
Let’s hear it for a heroic effort, at least.
Vince Faraday (David Lyons) is a cop in Palm City, one of the last remaining good guys left in a place that’s becoming overrun by criminals of both the underworld kind and the crooked cop kind. He’s framed for a series of crimes being committed by a supervillain known as Chess, and in the ensuing chase (shown live on TV) Vince is believed to have been killed in a tremendous explosion. Faraday is thought to be dead, and he decides to remain that way publicly, to protect his family from any possible reprisals. But he also wants justice to be served, and to clear his name….
Faraday falls in (almost literally) with a circus troupe that finds him left for dead. Informally known as the “Carnival of Crime”, Vince ends up being trained by its leader Max Malini (Keith David). Max and his group of crooked carnies take Vince under their wing, training him in acrobatics, the trickery of performance magic, and other feats unknown to most, allowing him to intimidate his foes and do things he never thought possible. While Max is something of an inscrutable “Yoda” to Vince’s “Luke Skywalker”, Max is also uninhibited by little things like morals and “right and wrong”, adding layers to the idea of what a “hero” has to be in a world that doesn’t recognize pure good and evil anymore. But Max provides Vince with his greatest tool of all, and that’s the “Cape”.
“You’re just Alice and you fell down the rabbit hole. Now all the rules are different. Up is down, black is white… but the Cape — the Cape is your compass that will lead you home.”
–Max, rallying Vince in a moment of doubt
More than just a superhero accessory, in this case the “Cape” is an instrument that can be used and manipulated as a weapon, a distraction, and an extension of Faraday’s self. Faraday uses it to become a masked avenger known as The Cape, which is also a message to his son Trip (Ryan Wynott), a fan of the comic book character of the same name. He even appears in disguise as The Cape to his son, telling him to continue to fight the good fight, and that Trip’s father was a good man, no matter what the public may believe after his being framed.
Faraday isn’t really a superhero in the traditional comic sense, in that he has no superpowers, isn’t immune to physical damage, or has any special abilities. He’s got his wits, his police skills, whatever training he’s absorbed from the Carnival, and a dogged sense of determination to protect the family and city he loves. In this day and age, that does make him a superhero, Cape and all.
“I’m gonna make a pair of boots out of you!”
–Vince, as The Cape, to the villainous Scales
Faraday then takes the fight to the criminals of Palm City. He has battles with strongman Scales (Vinnie Jones), named for the unusual skin condition that makes him look almost snake-like, but also gives him a tougher hide and allows him to take an unusual amount of punishment. He’s a rough-and-tumble dockside crook with designs on being something more refined, although that’s unlikely to happen with his too-direct manner.
Refined is better applied to the aforementioned ultimate bad-guy Chess (James Frain), who’s public alter-ego is responsible civic leader Peter Fleming. Fleming is supposedly also fighting crime in his own way — by privatizing the city’s police force, with the ultimate effect of putting the fox (himself) in charge of the chicken coop. Through his calculated manipulation and intricate plotting, he can do almost anything he wishes… if it weren’t for that pesky guy calling himself The Cape interfering. Vince (as The Cape) is even involved in having to save Fleming/Chess from other people the criminal has crossed in the past, if only to make sure Vince’s own name may be ultimately cleared. Another level, as we have a hero who has to, on occasion, protect the villain.. and you can be sure the villain has no inclination to return the favor.
Others are involved, including the “little person” Rollo (Martin Klebba) of the Carnival of Crime who’s the surprising muscle of the group, and Faraday’s wife (widow?) Dana (Jennifer Ferrin), a lawyer/public defender fighting for justice in her own way. But The Cape’s greatest ally in Palm City is the mysterious Orwell (Summer Glau), an investigative journalist and internet presence who is on the trail of Fleming’s alleged crimes. Although she’s quite a mystery herself, Orwell aids Faraday in his fight for justice. In fact, her fight against Chess may turn out to be something more personal, just as Faraday’s fight ultimately is more about getting his own life back than any noble heroic cause.
None of the characters are really on the same page in this show, creating many different shades of grey in what was promoted as a colorful comic-book. The Cape operated on a number of different levels, some more successful than others. The fact that our hero Faraday actually learned his craft from a group called the Carnival of Crime meant there was friction between them, because Faraday was a former cop fighting for justice and the circus performers robbed banks (although they had a strict code that no killing was involved). Scales was (despite his looks) a much more traditional bad guy, using brute force to achieve his ends, but desiring a bit more respect than he even likely deserved. Chess/Peter Fleming played both sides of the fence, portraying a public persona supposedly interested in positive achievements for the citizens of Palm City, but in reality manipulating events for his own gain in a much more sinister manner. Orwell was trying to stay anonymous (for her own reasons) and yet shine a light on the villainy of the city. And then there was the entire saga of Faraday’s family, his remorse for leaving them behind, and his desire to regain the life he lost. Levels of good and evil, levels of trust and betrayal, levels of truth and lies….
A bit deep for what television (and TV viewers) traditionally consider “comic-book” style adventure….
“Our fate is fixed. It’s our destiny that must be seized.”
And maybe that was the problem, as far as NBC was concerned. Anyone who actually reads comic-books (or, as they’re more properly known in modern parlance, “graphic novels”) would understand that today, they’re a far cry from the simplistic stories for the pre-teen set of yesteryear. Stories of personal emotion and angst are combined with larger-than-life characters and situations, but the best of these still remember that without a good story, all the colorful pictures and whiz-bang adventure in the world falls flatter than the four-color printed page. Were the executives at NBC familiar with this idea, or were they thinking that a flashy show about a would-be superhero would be enough? Judging from the early commercials, maybe the flashy camp style was winning… but it’s hard to get the depth of levels across to an audience in 30-second commercials. It’s much easier to show off the over-the-top look of potential villains and hope viewers will tune in.
Of course, executives at NBC probably had other things to worry about at this time. The Cape aired from January through February 2011, and it was during this same period of time that NBC (and its sister company Universal) was being sold to cable giant Comcast. The Federal Communications Commission finally signed off on the deal, and the marriage was consummated… meaning that most of the leadership of NBC was out, replaced by new executives from the Comcast side of the business.
Suddenly, The Cape no longer had a champion. Not meaning the superhero (or “pretend” superhero) of Vince Faraday, but the NBC suits that had believed enough in the possibilities of the show to put it on the air in the first place. What hope did The Cape have if there was no longer anyone around to fight for a continuing adventure in the network offices? Promotion fell, audiences fell, and an original order for 13 episodes fell to just 10, less than three weeks after the series premiered. The showrunner (John Wirth) left the series in mid-February to become executive producer and showrunner on a potential fall TV series for the CW network called Cooper and Stone. Other actors and production staff were finding their own spots on potential new pilots, hoping to land a job that might last in the next season. The ship was sinking. The villains were going to win this one, and they worked for Comcast.
“I want to say something profound. Last words, and all.”
–Max, as his life is being threatened before his last-minute rescue
In the current world of broadcasting, it’s difficult to find a hero in the board rooms anymore, especially on a network fighting for ratings and unable to stand on its own as a corporate entity. In the fast paced executive world of television, results must be quick or jobs will end quicker, and there’s no longer the stability on either the program side or the corporate side to save a show with slow growth. Many consider the comedy Seinfeld to be one of the greatest success stories in television history… but few remember that, during its first two seasons, Seinfeld was one of the worst performing comedies in the ratings on all of television. But it skewed well with younger viewers and NBC could afford to be patient then, as it was the #1 network. There were people comfortably in place at NBC who believed in the show, and lobbied for its continued existence… and Seinfeld became a television phenomenon a few years later. At the time of The Cape, NBC was finishing fourth as a network, and its competition was the younger skewing The Bachelor and the top-rated CBS comedy block. With no executive consistency and no hero to champion the show, it was almost done for before it started. Like the continued existence of Vince Faraday, as far as the public was concerned The Cape had already died.
DAVID LYONS (Vince Faraday/The Cape) hails originally from Australia, where he starred in the series Sea Patrol. He’s best known in America as one of the lead actors in the last two seasons of perennial hit ER, and was also seen in the movie Eat, Pray, Love.
KEITH DAVID (Max Malini) and his great bass voice have been heard in numerous television animation series and video game franchises, most especially as Goliath in the cult hit Gargoyles and the title character in Spawn. He’s been nominated for a Tony for the musical Jelly’s Last Jam, and his television and film work include everything from Denis Leary’s The Job to the movie Platoon. He also is a common voice-actor in many TV commercials.
SUMMER GLAU (Orwell) is a geek-favorite, with significant and memorable roles in SF favorites Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and The 4400. With her geek credentials, she’s a popular guest actress in shows like Chuck, The Big Bang Theory, and Dollhouse. She has had training in ballet, as well as kickboxing and kung fu, and is a strong supporter of animal groups, including the Los Angeles chapter of the SPCA.
JAMES FRAIN (Peter Fleming/Chess) and his cold, calculating looks make for an excellent villain, with evil intent in shows like True Blood, The Tudors, Invasion, and the recent movie Tron: Legacy. He acts in both his native England and here in the US, with actors like Sir Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchet, and Natalie Portman.
VINNIE JONES (Scales) is another Brit, but one who gained his original fame on the soccer field. His playing style was extremely rough-and-tumble, earning him notice from director Guy Ritchie who cast him in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. An acting career soon followed, with Jones typically cast as musclemen and tough guys. His role in The Cape was originally meant as a one-shot guest part, but his performance gained him regular status as the series progressed.
MARTIN KLEBBA (Rollo) has been featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and appeared on multiple episodes of Scrubs and guest shots on CSI: NY and Andy Barker, PI. He’s extremely athletic, and a member of top-rated Los Angeles Breakers, a team of “little people” adept at soccer and basketball. He also runs a six-second 40-yard dash, and has done stunt work in numerous TV and movie projects.
JENNIFER FERRIN (Dana Faraday) performed three seasons of soap opera duty on As the World Turns, earning her a Daytime Emmy. This led to recurring roles on Rescue Me, The Kill Point, 3 Lbs., and the American version of Life on Mars. She was also in the original theatre cast of The 39 Steps, a tribute play to Alfred Hitchcock movies where she played ALL the female parts.
RYAN WILNOTT (Trip Faraday) is only eleven years old and has a resume many actors twice his age would appreciate, having appeared as a regular in no less than three series in the last four years. In addition to The Cape, he had roles in FlashForward and the HBO series Tell Me You Love Me.
Since The Cape is practically a current series (only having been officially canceled less than a month ago, with the final episode airing the last day of February), the episodes are still available on both the NBC site and Hulu, plus both sites have recently posted the remaining unaired episode as a “special online presentation” (read: we already canceled this, but here’s the last thing we shot before we stopped production). Hey, one more episode is better than none, right? There’s also the Orwell is Watching website, designed as if it were the actual website shown on the series, plus a great fansite on the series with numerous photos. I’d also recommend, again on the NBC site, reading the comic (sorry, graphic novel) that was created to coincide with the show. The Cape is too recent to have received a DVD release as of yet, but I’m certain one will eventually show up, as it’s one more way for networks and production companies to recoup money spent on making a show.
A hero needs someone to believe in him. For Vince Faraday, it was the faith of his son and the commitment of people like Orwell and Max Malini that kept him going in the face of insurmountable odds. There were fans of The Cape who, although not significantly great in numbers, followed the show and wanted it to continue, finding in the series something more than the manufactured drama of a reality series and the comedic efforts of Charlie Sheen, whose personal trainwreck of a life started unraveling publicly during this time. The corporate upheavals of Comcast/NBC caused even more uncertainty and less faith, as shown by the reduced episode order almost immediately, and the fact that the final episode wasn’t aired was the last insult for the series. I’d hoped for better, although my prediction about the show not making it out of February was unfortunately prophetic, despite the high hopes of many.
In The Cape, Vince Faraday tried to be a hero. What he needed was one of his own.
9 aired episodes – 1 unaired (available online)
First aired episode: January 9, 2011
Last aired episode: February 28, 2011
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? No. NBC seems to believe the “hero” spot on the schedule is Mondays at 9/8 Central, a spot previously occupied by Heroes.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.