Hack has a hopeful premise. Philadelphia cop Michael Olshansky (David Morse) lifts cash from drug bust, gets caught, doesn’t roll over on his partner Marcellus Washington (Andre Braugher), and is pitched from the force. He and his wife (Donna Murphy) split up, his furious son (Matthew Borish) changes his name from Michael, Jr. to David, and his drinking buddy, Father Grzelak (George Dzundza) turns every conversation into a sermon. Olshansky signs on as a cabbie with a chiseling Chechen, and works double shifts to make minimum wage. He’s a man who has earned his place in the gutter, where he can soak in self-pity with eye drops, caffeine, and anger.
Within the first half hour, a pissed-off Olshansky pounds Grzelak with the “I’m a fall guy for a corrupt department” line by claiming that he wasn’t the only corrupt cop in his family of cops. He was just the one who was caught. But this is CBS, and bad guys simply cannot be protagonists on CBS. So, by the end of the season opener, Olshansky has shown nobility of soul à la Robin Hood, by saving a drunken and abusive yuppie from a beating and finding the daughter of a hypocritical Lutheran pastor.
As an added bonus, Olshansky self-righteously browbeats the pastor into confessing that his own uncontrollable rage drove his daughter from home. It’s life-changing redemption all the way, at the hands of a flawed saint who can instruct us all. At this point, one can only ask, “Why did such skilled actors sign up for such mush? Were they really so desperate for cash?”
This sorry storyline (partly lifted from Paul Schrader’s Hardcore) is just one of Hack‘s troubles, as it shares the slew of creative problems afflicting CBS’ primetime drama debuts this season. First, they lack originality, snagging ideas and characters from movies and other TV series (for example, C.S.I. is following the Law & Order franchise route). Second, they rely on a stylized anomie: both Robbery Homicide Division and Without a Trace seek Bochco/Milch “credibility,” with elliptical dialogue and rainbowish casting.
Hack‘s heavy borrowing results in a jigsaw protagonist. Take a twist of Travis Bickle (also a Schrader character, and famously borrowed from several sources), reduced to a most obvious sign of alienation: the cabbie’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. Add a strong shot of David Dunne, M. Night Shyamalan’s reluctant avenger in Unbreakable (for the citizen vigilante). Morse even copies that character’s affectless stance, arms slightly lifted from the sides, legs slightly apart. Thread through The Guardian‘s “redeeming himself by redeeming others” sanctimony, and resurrect the humorless earnestness of Morse’s original TV name-maker, Boomer on St. Elsewhere, and there appears that modern-day Frankenstein, the 2002 fall drama protagonist.
The cultural cannibalism doesn’t stop there. Hack‘s debut episode strains mightily to recapture the menace Martin Scorsese infused into the tawdry city-at-night streets reflected so fleetingly on the cab’s glistening sides, and fails. Olshansky wears baggy, worn-out jackets like Willis did, to achieve a beaten-down mien, and appears in low angle shots so intensely backlit (in this case, from the cab’s full frontal brights, or an illuminated doorway) that only a silhouette appears on the screen.
This image should be intimidating, or maybe awe-inspiring, the sign of an avenging angel touching earth. But here it’s just banal, an example of the second problem linking these new shows, the triumph of style over substance, usually actualized via a misplaced belief that as long as lighting isn’t naturalistic, it will convey the passion, tension, angst, and tenderness the script and characters cannot.
During the premiere’s climactic sequence, Olshansky and the Lutheran pastor, armed with an illegal gun and a ragged plank of wood, attack the missing daughter’s abductor at home. At first, the actors’ faces run the gamut from over-saturated bronze and brick-red, to gold and green, to the old standby, blue. As if to compensate for this surfeit of colors, the abductor’s apartment lacks any ambient lighting at all. This results in a gloom so extreme that anything might be transpiring among the incoherent bangs, crashes, and swirling bodies. When it’s all over, Olshansky instructs the pastor and his daughter that, as far as the police are concerned, “I was never here.” At this point, it’s hard not to wish he were telling the truth.
Hack‘s fragments of character and situation feel like they are flung haphazardly at the viewer, as if in the desperate hope that constant bombardment will dull discernment. No such luck. Such flinging, however, does induce pity for the actors, whose best efforts are to no avail. If this is the best a major network can offer for 9pm on a Friday night, the cable channels deserve every viewer they can poach.