Poking at Scorpions
Freddy Rodriguez, Eric Close, James Murray Tim Blake Nelson, Carmen Ejogo, Christina Cole, Kurtwood Smith
Regular airtime: Fridays, 8pm ET
Good comedy is drama rescued from tragedy by wit, self-deprecation, and the disjunction between the hubris of the characters and the audience’s much greater awareness of those characters’ delusions. Still, tragedy is never absent from the best comedies, which still arouse pity, discomfort, and even pain in their audiences.
CHAOS shows no trace of tragedy, and no wit or self-deprecation either. The new CBS show begins as the Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services drops neophyte CIA agent Rick Martinez (Freddy Rodriguez) into the Office of Disruptive Services, a cell of rogue back ops agents, as a mole. What follows doesn’t so much satirize the cannibalistic incompetence of America’s intelligence agencies as it cobbles together the collective paranoias of the American male, and so unleashes an avalanche of clichés.
The show’s recyclings have a nasty edge, as when its parody turns xenophobic. When the team meets the supposed Sudanese warlord holding a group of hostages, he is idling his time away, poking at scorpions trapped in a box. His band of desperadoes look like extras from a very old version of Aladdin, weighted down by exaggerated turbans the size of a family’s dirty laundry. The team of purportedly crack agents rides into the desert, strung across the landscape like the Magnificent Seven (after budget cuts), swathed in dirty khaki and CIA shades. Such pop cultural references may be intended as ironic intertextuality in an age of pastiche, but they only demonstrate a miserable lack of invention.
Slow pans across the faces of the hostages reveal a veritable United Nations of nationalities, all transfixed by these black terrorists, contemptible yet deadly, a threat to the whole world. This crass reliance on stereotypes afflicts scenes back at the office, too. The only two women in the cast are simultaneously objects of sexual attraction and causes of sexual fear. The Deputy-Director of CHAOS, Adele Ferrer (Christina Cole), reincarnates the icy Grace Kelly, toying with Rick, while fellow agent Fay Carson (Carmen Ejego) overwhelms him with a voracious (or perhaps duplicitous) sexuality, for she is inter alia, the ex-wife of his immediate boss, most ruthless of the rogue agents, Michael Dorset (Eric Close).
The show’s acting offers no respite. Scenes unfold very slowly, as characters talk quickly but pause at the end of each speech, often holding a self-satisfied smirk as if listening to an inaudible laugh track. While this triumph of wishful thinking over thoughtful acting is touching, it effectively kills the pace. The actors also stare a lot: at each other, the camera, or at something only they can see, as if infected by the no-affect intensity of low-budget indies. Finally, the Scottish accent of ex-British agent Billy Collins (James Murray) is possibly the worst linguistic desecration recently committed on any screen anywhere, a tangled mass of bloated vowels and glottal stops. If the production needed a British accent, why not let Murray, a talented British actor, use his own?
The script is occasionally literate, featuring polysyllables and esoteric cultural references. An Aeron office chair, for example, slides into view as a “Herman Miller.” But quips are overshadowed by basic errors a quick internet search could fix. Commercial flights to Cairo don’t leave from Reagan National. And no native of Edinburgh would ever claim “north Edinburgh” as a place of origin.
Such errors are hardly explained by the “Behind the Scenes” video on the official CHAOS website. Here Freddy Rodriguez says, “A lot of what you see on our show is real, and has really happened.” Right afterwards, Eric Close helps the audience make sense of this claim by describing the series’ vision of reality: “It’s sort of Ocean’s 11 meets James Bond.” Yes, it is, if one stripped both franchises of their humor, quirky casting, and ironic appreciation of human fallibility. Once, CHAOS might have furnished a running gag on Saturday Night Live. Now its delusional self-satisfaction hogs a primetime half hour. Oh, wait, look at the premiere date. Maybe it won’t.