Friday, January 7, 2011

Reviewing NBC's "The Cape": Seriously?

NBC's new series "The Cape" has all the makings of a delicious piece of camp entertainment. There's a superhero in a goofy costume who goes by a dumb name; circus folk who use their skills to rob banks and even a weird villain named Chess who keeps a chessboard in his lair and speaks in chess metaphors.
And yet, the odd thing about "The Cape" is that almost none of this is played for laughs. The series, which launches with a special two-hour episode Sunday at 9 p.m., is done in dead earnest. Thus, it feels a little odd.

The series centers on decent cop Vincent Faraday (played by the bland but appropriately square-jawed David Lyons of "ER") who stumbles on corruption and is framed for being the malevolent Chess. He fakes his own death, takes up with an underground crew of circus folk and assumes the identity of his son's favorite superhero, The Cape.
The Cape, in a somewhat refreshing twist, doesn't have actual powers. Instead, the circus folk train Faraday to use an illusionist's cape to do impressive things, like pull a gun out of a villain's hand and make himself disappear. He also learns other tricks of the sideshow trade, like escaping from chains. This stuff is kind of fun, and it helps that the leader of the circus gang is played by the fine character actor Keith David -- he of the Cheshire cat smile and plummy voice. David lends humor and zest to his scenes, and manages not to seem ridiculous while mouthing pearls of dialogue like "You just walked into the lion's den and got eaten."
But the rest of "The Cape" is a bit dull and Lyons in one of the less charismatic TV leading men I've seen in a while. He has so little presence, I was actually tempted to root for the villains (one of whom at least has the advantage of being played by the silky-voiced James Frain).
The rest of the show seems patched together from other superhero sagas. The Cape himself seems a little like a Batman rip-off and, indeed, the circus gang he ends up with reminded of The Penguin's crew in "Batman Returns." There's even a role for sci-fi sweetheart Summer Glau as a plucky geek whose sole purpose seems to be pouting at computer screens and appeasing the fanboys who stumble onto this otherwise unexceptional enterprise.
And who had the idea of making the villain a freakin' chess enthusiast? There is nothing menacing about a guy who snarls "It's your move" and "Checkmate" at his enemies.
Again, this might be fun if all the puns, silly costumes and cliches were played for laughs. But it's all so straight-faced. There are only a few jokes about The Cape's thuddingly obvious name, almost none about his costume and NO ONE makes fun of Chess or asks if the circus folk ever wear normal street clothes.
As a result, "The Cape" just feels kind of flat and I doubt it will find an audience. It's too silly to appease fans of serious superhero fiction and not silly enough to satisfy those who aren't crazy about the genre. Plus the freakin' villain is named Chess! Have I mentioned that? Seriously, have we run out of good names for villains, people?
"The Cape" debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC before moving to its regular time period at 8 p.m. Mondays on Jan. 17.

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