Crash: Series Premiere

The television version of Crash begins in a car. A big car. Superrich Los Angeles record producer Ben Chenders (Dennis Hopper) rides in the backseat of his stretch limo, mumbling about his aging body as his driver keeps watch through her rearview mirror. Within seconds, his prattle has tipped over an edge; following a few jaggedy close-ups (his agitated face, her horrified face), she pulls over and exits the car in an outrage. He’s “exposed himself,” she reports to her boss by phone. She needs to be picked up. Zipped up, he steps to the pavement, suggesting she needs to calm down. “You fucking perv,” she huffs, “Don’t show me a shriveled up dick, then blame me.”

It’s a lively start for the series, showcasing that despite his recent meandering through Ameriprise commercials on the beach, Hopper can still pull out an audacious Frank Booth-like performance when so moved. Alas, he’s the only good reason to keep watching Crash, and he’s only on screen intermittently. The series premiere cuts pretty much immediately to the next of its several drearily instructive storylines, following the pattern of the movie that writer-director Paul Haggis originally conceived as a TV series. (He, along with Don Cheadle and others, is executive producing.) With each dramatic element exposes some facet of the seeming raw underside of class-race-sex relations in L.A. (a.k.a., “America”), the series is long on potential subject matter, but short on inspiration.

At a reported cost of $2.3 million per episode, Crash looks fabulous, all evocative shadows and meticulous interiors. But that doesn’t make Ben’s middle-aged crisis gallivanting — eloquent as it may be — any less stale. In need of a new driver, he interviews Anthony (Jocko Sims), a songwriter with aspirations. Ben warns him right off not to expect favors, then spews in pursuit of a rise from his applicant. Admiring the young man’s “rims,” he wonders how he could afford them, then burbles the phrase, “gorillas in the mist.” Seeing Anthony’s shocked face, Ben explains (plainly more for short-term-memory afflicted viewers than for Anthony), “That’s what the LAPD said when the riots broke out at Florence and Normandy.” This canard fails to alarm Anthony, who identifies the tactic and essentially yawns at it (“All you need to know,” he says, “is I got my license, I keep my mouth shut, and I got my mapquest here,” as he points to his head). And so Ben has a new best friend, much to the consternation of his manservant, a freakydeaky designated queer who keeps collections of prescription pills in his bedroom and threatens Anthony to stay in his place.

Ben — alarmed about again — is most obviously fond of Anthony because he has an uncle who’s not only a barber, but also sells top-notch weed “You can feel your brain cells pop”) and because, of course, he’s so authentic, being black and all. If his racist fantasies are predictably premised on his own fundamental superiority, he does seek stimulation amid The Others. The show supports this fantasy, portraying Ben’s white wealthy world as bankrupt, while the barbershop looks vibrant and earnest (you know, like it does in movies).

Other Others, less invigorating, include the “hot” Inez (Moran Atias), whose first encounter with cop Kenny (Ross McCall) occurs via a literal car crash. When his cruiser rams her car, he treats her like a perp and so she acts like one, striking poses and throwing attitude (“You, Officer Calvin Klein! You’re gonna end up selling peanuts in Dodgers Stadium!” she yells, adding, “You’ve got a small dick!” Oooh, snap!). Their unconvincing animal attraction escalates in exactly the ways you expect, as he arrests her, then shows up at her door that night, hoping to apologize,” especially after he sees that her husband is old enough to be her father. How desperate must she be, this new-moneyed, mini-skirted housewife, that she embarks on this illicit business with this utterly banal object of desire? Someone named Kenny?

It’s not like Kenny has an abundance of positive role models. His lieutenant, Axel (Nick E. Tarabay) is not only having an unexciting though stereotypically “steamy” affair with Kenny’s partner Bebe (Arlene Tur), but he’s also being paid off to keep order (read: commit crimes) by a boss in Koreatown. This leads Axel into a series of compromises during the series’ first hour, including threats against former gang member and current EMT Eddie Choi (Brian Tee). Resentful and earnest, Eddie apparently has a history with Axel that allows the cop to identify his emergency medical techniques precisely and very conveniently, when a K-town gangster shows up dead. Axel drearily plays his “race card” right up front, during an informal interrogation about the murder: “How’s mom and dad gonna feel,” he hisses, leaning close to Eddie, “When they find out they gave up rice digging to come to this country and see their only son throw away 10 years of his life? For what?”

Indeed, this question persists throughout the Crash premiere. At once schematic and preachy, it never indicates the stakes — either for its “diverse” players or for you.

RATING 4 / 10