“How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?”
— Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), The Producers
The press release for Abandoned states that it’s “[p]art travel log, part epic skate vid, and part in-depth documentary series”. Take old pro skateboarder Rick McCrank and have him travel around North America to abandoned places. “What could go right?” seems the appropriate question to ask.
The first show’s incoherence dazzled. The first segment actually included some intriguing minutia about the creation of American malls. The show asserts that there’s an organic relationship between skateboarding and abandoned places; skateboarders often find empty lots and gutted buildings repurposing them into playgrounds.
Yet McCrank doesn’t make it out of the first episode before undermining this predication. He goes to northeast Ohio and visits three abandoned malls, and talks about how completely inappropriate any of these spaces would be for a skate park: enclosed, remote, covered in mold, dirt and broken glass; most abandoned malls are one of the last places you would want to skateboard.
When he does visit a repurposed space, it’s a former diaper factory. The only connection made in the show between skateboarding and mall is when he’s skating with some locals and tells them he’s doing a documentary on abandoned malls. A young kid says, “Yeah, people used to hang out there.”
At the beginning of the episode, McCrank interviews Seph Lawless, a photographer and activist who published Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall, a book of photographs of abandoned malls. The book was dedicated to Victor Gruen, the architect who designed the prototype for the American mall. Lawless discussed how the inventor of the mall came to despise what malls had become; what was intended to be a social space became a consumerist space. At that moment, some mention of the difference between being a consumer and citizen would’ve been perfect. McCrank did a great job of setting up a tie into a thoughtful examination, but then he just lets it go.
They head to Randal Park Mall, in a segment that contains the first glimpse of the most tedious elements of the show. As they’re walking through the parking lot, McCrank starts explaining things, pointing out, for instance, an abandoned motel nearby, and rhapsodizing on just how vast the space is. This is one of several times in the episode in which McCrank appears to distrust the power of the images and tries to direct the viewer. These are uniformly the weakest segments of the show.
He meets up with Greg Torre and Damon Moore, who loves Rolling Acres’ Mall in Akron, Ohio. He shows clips of a homemade zombie movie they filmed at the mall: Dawn of the Outbreak. As the trio walk through the mall, the scene seemingly mirrors the first segment, except in this instance, there’s a touching moment when Damon talks about why he feels a connection to the mall. It’s one of the show’s better moments: equally bewildering, sentimental, and a bit sad. It works. Unfortunately, McCrank immediately follows it up with a gross-out segment where he pokes a hairy bloated object in a pool of brown water with a stick.
After a tedious segment on skateboarding, McCrank visits the Euclid Square Mall. Churches comprise most of the mall’s current residents. He meets up with Pastor Martha Forest and attends one of the church services. The services take place in a nail solon Pastor Forest used to patronize. At one point, she talks about how anyone is welcome in the church including prostitutes, rapist and murderers. McCrank hits a nice balance in this segment. While he’s clearly out of place, he’s genuinely curious and respectful.
There was another moment when McCrank seems to blindly stumble onto a surreal crescendo of entertainment. Greg Torre and Damon Moore call him up and tell them they want him to go ghost hunting with them. All three play the scene completely straight. The men have outfitted all their paranormal activity sensors onto a radio-controlled car, which they precede to place on the ground in a grassy field. The car goes less than an inch; it hits grass and the guys just leave it on the ground a few feet in front of them.
The result was a moment that combined the exploitative elements of a really awful American Idol audition, a Spinal Tap parody, and an overly sincere Charlie Rose interview, which all created a kind of headspace vortex. The following minutes of two guys wearing headphones and sitting in a field with a third guy jumping around and swatting mosquitoes was actually kind of entertaining. I still have no idea how earnest the guys were, or whether they were just pranking McCrank, an ambiguity that adds an extra level of enjoyment to the segment.
All in all, the first episode of Abandoned ended up as a slightly maddening rollercoaster. McCrank comes off as an earnest and affable guy, although he seems to want to be the subject far too often. The show really needed some authoritative discussion on the causes and implications of the collapse of the American mall and other abandoned spaces. Further, the show’s pacing and editing seems to be all over the place. The worst parts of the show seem less than deliberately bad, rather than just mistakes, and the best parts of the show feel like accidents.
There wasn’t enough in episode one for Abandoned to become must-see TV but, in fairness, there’s enough here to merit at least a second viewing.