[11 October 2006]
In the week when ABC premiered The Nine, an ensemble drama about a bank robbery turned deadly, a disturbed young man walked into a rural school, lined up 10 girls and shot each one before killing himself. In major cities across the U.S., the nightly news rarely ends without at least one report of a fatal shooting and a grieving family. Despite ABC’s claim on the series’ website that The Nine intends to explore how the experience “impacted our key characters in their present day lives,” it is less an indictment of American social breakdowns than pabulum for suburban narcissists.
In opting for reassurance rather than disturbance, The Nine takes a cue from the primetime audience pullers like CSI, which make up for a lack of conceptual originality with a shrewd, formulaic professionalism in construction and execution. The premiere of the The Nine illuminated the pitfalls of this approach. With cursory, broad-brush scenes, the show introduced five customers, put them in a bank with a manager and two tellers (and the manager’s schoolgirl daughter, for added angst), and launched two jumpy bank robbers, determined on a five-minute heist, into their midst. The episode then cut directly to a SWAT team yelling and threatening as it stormed the bank more than two days later, roughly pulling out the nine survivors of the siege.
The rescue scenes, with handheld camerawork, crisp editing, and a chilly blue palette, were momentarily compelling. But the episode quickly collapsed into melodrama, seeding storylines for the rest of the season: uncomprehending and excluded partners, sexual tension and dissension among the hostages, an alienated daughter, and a baffled, reluctant bad guy. All hostages referred obliquely to “what happened in there,” so often that even the most obtuse viewer would know something bad happened inside the bank and that no would explain what it was for a very, very long time.
The show is painstakingly constructed to appeal to a broad demographic and offend no one, much like creators’ most well-known shows, K.J. Steinberg’s Judging Amy and Hank Steinberg’s Without a Trace. All the characters, except ADA Kathryn (Kim Raver) and heart surgeon Jeremy (Scott
Wolf), are middle class by aspiration and hard work, not by inheritance, emphasizing their unthreatening ordinariness. They exemplify a kind of America-by-numbers roll call of ethnic groups and social “issues.” Along with the African-American bank manager Malcolm Jones (Chi McBride), two bank tellers caught in the raid are Hispanic sisters, single mom Eva (Lourdes Benedicto) and Franny (Camille Gautry).
In casting such stereotypes, the Steinbergs display some creativity. Tim Daly, as cop Nick Cavanaugh, squared up in defense of his fellow hostages, with the spare, unexpressed anger of a man who had almost forgotten how to notice other people. When his wife berated him for his single heroic act during the siege, suicidal cubicle-rat Egan’s (John Billingsley) entire face and body expressed, without a single word, the shock of realizing that he was not solely responsible for the terminal paucity of his life. In the end, though, such moments were functions of good acting, not gripping drama.
By spending so much time hinting at the unseen depths masked by each character’s neighbor-next-door demeanor and status, The Nine exploited the vain presumption that, if only others could see us as we “really are,” we might all be heroes. In so studiously lauding the complexity of the ordinary, the episode called out the closet narcissist in every audience member.
Only the closing scene shifted the focus from making the audience feel good about itself to a suggestion that the siege might have inflicted real damage. It brought together the two youngest, most vulnerable characters, the bank manager’s daughter Felicia (Dana Davis) and failed bank robber Lucas (Owain Yeoman), across the impenetrable, but wholly transparent, communication wall of a prison visiting room. It provided the one moment of tension in the whole show, beginning and ending in total silence. In the question of what they have to say to each other, and what might have happened between them, lies the fate of The Nine. Will it unfold as grownup drama or remain reassuring therapy?