Black Sash

Poor WB. Once known as the place where the cool kids hung out — Buffy, Felicity, Popular, even Roswell on its good nights — it’s lately become dullsville. Charmed is boring, Smallville is too repressed, and Dawson’s is… jeez, does anyone even watch it anymore?

And yet, Froggy keeps on. The network’s latest effort to reclaim glory days is the midseason replacement show, Black Sash. The very cool Russell Wong plays Tom Chang, ex-undercover narcotics officer whose ex-partner framed him for dealing heroin. For this, Tom did five years “hard time, Hong Kong hard time,” during which his wife Beth (Ona Grauer) left him for a snooty white guy, who believes that Tom shouldn’t have access to his own daughter, the adorable, ice-skating Claire. In order to make money for the upcoming legal battle, Tom does part time work as a bounty hunter in San Francisco. But his primary work at the moment, close to his heart and the series’ structuring device, is teaching martial arts.

This martial-arts-meets-kids angle surely sounds high concept, a point pounded home by the list of the guys who produce it, each bringing his own useful bit of experience: creator Robert Mark Kamen wrote most of the Karate Kids, Kiss of the Dragon, and The Transporter; executive producer Carlton Cuse worked on Martial Law; and Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins, and Joe Davola executive produce Smallville.

As per the patterns of the tv shows (and some of the movies) that precede it, Tom not only advises, but has someone to advise him as well. He appreciates the counsel, what with all the balls he has in the air: trying to get access to Claire, have a conversation with his ex-wife, even go out on a date (he clearly needs help dressing, unaware until he’s told that he’s not a “tie sort of guy”). His mentor is Master Li (Mako), resembling the frisky sage played by Pat Morita in the Karate Kid movies, and given to fortune-cookieish observations like, “Everything unfolds as it should; patience is always rewarded.” Master Li generously retires as his martial arts school’s primary teacher so Tom can take over, and on top of that, Sifu invites him to move in to his apartment, pleasantly located on the wharf.

Tom’s got charisma and skills, but he’s really too old for the WB. And so, it’s no surprise that that his new life involves looking after some kids whom the show’s website calls “alone” and, indeed, “troubled.” Like all the network’s young stars, these have excellent wardrobes and, most obvious in the girls’ cases, makeup that never musses, and remarkable fighting skills — even the supposed beginners.

Yeah, they have taut bodies and perfectly coiffed hair. And they have a slightly alternative soundtrack to which they orchestrate their moves. But what makes these kids primo WB material is their emotional intensity and, no small thing, their incessant desire to talk about same. Oddly, though, the show’s format has them discussing their “issues” in little bites: where Joey and Pacey or Paige and Piper often take long minutes to confer, the Black Sash crew are constrained to 30 or 40-second scenes, during martial arts class, on the treadmill, in the locker room, sipping lattes at a local café (once or twice, they appear in a high school hallway, but it doesn’t appear they actually go to classes).

It’s clear enough that they love Mr. C, but if the first couple of episodes are any indication, the students will also be working out their “rebellion” issues with (and against) him, since their parents tend to be absent or predictably unhelpful. The double layering of the mentor relationships leave Tom in a little bit of a lurch: even as he seeks guidance from Master Li, Tom has to pass on his earnest Eastern wisdom to the self-involved and generally silly Westerners who worry about whether cute fellow students might “like” them or not.

While such concerns might seem to make the students look trivial, they’re only fulfilling their destiny as tv versions of high schoolers, if less assorted than usual. Perky blond Allie (Sarah Carter) is a latchkey kid, her mother too rich and too distracted by her serial dating to pay attention to how her daughter spends her time.

This sense of abandonment seemingly makes Allie extra smart, because of all the kiddies, she is the most likely to say the right thing at the right time, even conjuring her own sort of ancient wisdom, as when it appears that Tom will be dating her mom (not his fault: he didn’t know who she was when he met her). Allie doesn’t spaz out, but instead, just sighs, “I’ll just wait it out like some horrible virus.” Or again, advising a fellow student on the difficulties of romance: “When you first meet someone, there’s always a bit of deception.” I have to confess, I like this girl.

The other girl with a speaking part is pouty Tory (Missy Peregrym, who gets the prize for coldest performance, especially when she has to dry), doesn’t waste much time blurting out just why she’s so angry: her policeman father was murdered by a pink-haired Chinese gangster who’s still roaming the streets; in fact, he’s about to leave the country before the SFPD can make a case, or find him, or something.

Teacher Tom puts on his bounty hunter hat to help Tory with her terrible weight of anger. And how convenient that when he does, and pulls some PD strings to get info on Pink Hair’s whereabouts, that Tory walks by his office just as Tom repeats, for no good reason except so she can hear him intone ominously: “Pier six.” The showdown is what you’d expect: lots of low angle shots showing kicks, chops, and smacks, initiated when Tom busts up a crowd of thugs about to beat down Tory (who has snuck up on them and then given herself away when her cell phone — girlfriend is definitely not the sharpest stick in the bundle). Tom arrives in the nick of time, slides his motorcycle perfectly, lands catlike on his feet and takes out one bad guy after another. Even if it is derivative, the move announces that Tom prefers to save the day in style.

He actually has to do this repeatedly in the first couple of episodes. (Let’s hope that some other plot lines occur to the series writers.) Almost against his better judgment, Tom rescues a couple of other students when they get into a bar fight in the course of hustling bikers. While one of these hustling kids, rich and crabby Nick (Drew Fuller), is, as he says himself, “a troublemaker,” the other is amiable Bryan (Ray J Norwood, whose appearances on his sister’s show, Moesha, have paid off: he’s the one youngster on Black Sash who seems to understand and have a predilection for acting, as opposed to posing). Nick talks Bryan into the scam a little too easily, and the rationale is as stereotypical as can be: Bryan needs cash to fix his car so he can take his little sister to school because their parents both work (and in that one sentence, you get all the background you’re going to get on Bryan, for now).

And, in one of the series’ more pedestrian gambits, Tom has to save the very nice, very scruffy, very sincere Trip (Corey Sevier, who played Timmy in 1997’s resurrected Lassie: The Series) from his brutally abusive dad. (Admittedly, this is one gnarly scene, despite or because of the ease with which Tom takes out bad dad; and Siefer, good for him, looks appropriately torn: at once horrified, amazed, relieved, and guilty.) In return for a place to stay and martial arts lessons (and even a snippet of legal advice), Trip agrees to paint the school’s exterior. Apparently, this makes him Black Sash‘s underclass (or maybe, foundling) representative. Thank goodness he’s found a gig waiting tables at a local restaurant so he can afford hair gel.

Way back in 1994 and ’95, Wong worked on another series, Vanishing Son, which, in its own conflicted, occasionally awkward way, critiqued the very racial stereotypes and cultural clichés that Black Sash embraces all too willingly. Weekly television is, of course, rarely a site for innovation or insight. Still, stitching together discarded formulas doesn’t appear the most effective way to appeal to a next generation of viewers, especially when all the seams are showing.