Reviews

Dark Angel: The Complete First Season

Cynthia Fuchs

Max was like, queen of the one-liners; what you wish you could think of, she would say.

Dark Angel

Cast: Jessica Alba, Michael Weatherly, Valarie Rae Miller, John Savage, Jennifer Blanc, Alimi Ballard, Richard Gunn, J.C. MacKenzie
Subtitle: The Complete First Season
Network: Fox TV
Display Artist: James Cameron and Charles Eglee
Creator: Charles Eglee
First date: 2000
US Release Date: 2003-05-20
Last date: 2001
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Mostly Human

Jessica Alba: Oh, I'm passed out.
Michael Weatherly: You're kind of beautiful too.

"I'm Jessica Alba, and I play Max. And I really hated this scene." So begins Alba's commentary for Fox's Dark Angel: The Complete First Season DVD. She's talking about the final episode of the season, "And Jesus Brought a Casserole," which does indeed begin with an overhead pan of a grimly science-fictionish lab. "It was so cold in there," she recalls of the Vancouver set, an old silo. "And it smelled like sulfur outside."

As Alba so fondly recalls the physical difficulties of making James Cameron's famously expensive futuristic tv series, she's watching with Michael Weatherly, her costar as Logan Cale, and her offscreen partner. Their observations convey a pleasant intimacy and shared sense of humor (particularly as they recall how hard they tried to keep straight faces during long hours of shooting some rather talky scenes). Less technical than conversational, they chat about actors who impressed them (Nana Visitor as the invidious Madame X, Geneva Locke as young Max) and their own favorite moments, while also evincing the commitment that characterizes most everyone involved with the show. Many of these moments involve Logan's signature intensity: "What's with the sweater?" Alba asks Weatherly as he atypically appears in a red pullover; Weatherly notes of his spiky hairstyle, "It's all about Logan's hair," and of his role, "There I am, Gadget-Boy, over in the corner." Or again, regarding a black crow's ominous appearance during the good guys' strategy session, he offers, "This is what they call a harbinger..."

While they're having fun, Alba and Weatherly provide smart, amusing appreciation of their experience on Dark Angel (as Alba says, happily, "I had pretty cool lines. [Max] was like, queen of the one-liners; what you wish you could think of, she would say"). They're so good together, you might wish they were available for more than one episode's commentary track (even if, as they squirm, it's "strange" to watch the love scene that forms this episode's dream sequence). The rest of the DVD set includes mostly regular extras: three intro-style documentaries and, in addition to Alba and Weatherly on the finale, three other episode commentary tracks. These are provided by writer/creator/producer Chick Eglee and director David Nutter on the pilot; on "Rising" by Eglee and writer René Echevarria; and on "I and I am a Camera" by Eglee, Echevarria, and director Charles Woolnaugh.

As the writers in particular point out, the series tended to deal with a variety of complex political and social themes, from stem cell science to prison-military-industrial intersections, from terrorism to government surveillance. And of course, race -- the show posited as its protagonist a girl who wasn't defined as "human," but as a race designed to serve humans, a slave race.

The DVD's documentaries won't tell fans anything they don't already know. Rather, they seem geared for first-timers who might need to be informed that the show is set in 2019; that 19-year-old Max is a genetically engineered (with cat DNA) super-soldier called an X5; that she's seeking her fellow transgenics, with whom she escaped the Manticore lab 10 years before; that her name is, more or less, short for "maximum girl, the nth degree of human potential" (though she insists, it's "not short of anything"); that Max is a squatter, working at a bike messenger service called JamPony; that vision was a "hiphop youth ensemble thing"; or that the Seattle of the series is exceedingly post-Microsoft -- untidy, decrepit, scary. Max describes it this way in the first episode,

This was supposed to be the financial district back in the day. America thought they had it really dialed in, money hanging out the butt. But it was all just a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer someplace. So when that bomb went ka-blooey, and the electromagnetic pulse turned all the ones and zeroes into plain old zeroes, everyone's like, "No way." Now, America's just another broke ex-superpower looking for a handout.

For the most part, the documentaries -- "Dark Angel: Genesis," "Making an X5," and "Seattle Ain't What It Used to Be" (how they made their Vancouver locations look, instead, dystopic, or what Eglee calls "Dark-Angelized") -- rehearse these fundamental notions. They also sketch out the computer technology, physical and martial arts training, and production work that went into creating Max's "world," with testimony from Cameron, Eglee, and members of the production crew (including Gary G-Wiz, who worked with Chuck D on the theme song: he recalls with particular enjoyment that the producers kept telling him to jack it up more and more, to make it expressly not like a tv theme song).

Eglee and Nutter are particularly helpful in this regard, as they point out where an effect is CGI or a stunt is "real," or how impressed they are by Cameron's inventiveness (in particular on the Avid editing software) and sincere delight in the project. They take their characters and their situations seriously, and knew early on that they would have to "torture the relationship between" Max and Logan, even as everyone on set could see their "chemistry" from the day they auditioned (a few "blooper" scenes and audition tapes show the cast's less polished moments).

The writers and directors wax sweetly nostalgic about all the hard work on the cool stunts, the short shooting schedules, the Steadicam shots, the local construction site they used for establishing shots, and their consummate respect for their crew and cast. Eglee and Nutter profess genuine affection for everyone, especially Alba, whom they call "just a beautiful specimen of a person." Quite. As he watches Max pose as a prostitute in the pilot, Eglee recalls that Cameron once advised him, "Sometimes you just have to write the things you want to see: Max in a red dress."

She does look magnificent, but Max is so one-two-punchy, so tough and vulnerable, that how she looks is only part of her wide-ranging appeal. Just so, the DVD set will please Dark Angel's fans, who remain committed even after the series' cancellation after just two seasons (to make room for what one fansite calls the "cheasy [sic] series Firefly," since cancelled as well). Indeed, several fans maintain up-to-date websites to this day, and at least one site continues the campaign to get the series re-jumped, perhaps as a feature film: "The fight is not yet over! Let's show them that we aren't going away. It's time to tell FOX how much DA means to us, even seven months later."

Their abiding devotion is understandable, especially for this first season, which probes some dark ideas with nuance and purpose, as ambitious SF tends to do. All the commentary tracks remark that during these first months, the crew felt left alone by the studio. As Nutter says to Eglee, their "problems" started after the show was picked up for a second season: "They started telling you guys how to drive that car that you just created." Alba elaborates, "It's such a passion project. It's just a lot different than being part of something that's manufactured by a studio. The network and the studio really didn't understand the show in the beginning. And either the studio caught on but the network didn't, or the network caught on but the studio didn't."

According to Alba, the first season's thematic innovation was its focus on a girl who "wasn't trying to find her identity through men," a point enhanced by sharp writing (often by by Eglee and Cameron), as well as rich visual textures and lighting schemes, decent character development, and fierce fight scenes (as between Max and he clone of her young self, which Alba describes so: "This is definitely not a wet t-shirt contest").

As these 22 episodes (on six discs) demonstrate, the first season of Dark Angel was dense, provocative, and occasionally daring. It crossed a few generic boundaries -- part soapy romance, part urban action drama, part SF thriller with ironic edges; and part idealistic political theory on wheels -- even as it offered up a standard superhero with identity "issues." Echevarria says that Max spends the season "realizing her humanity."

Each of the episodes takes its own step toward this end, but it is especially good to see Max cultivate a complicated relationship with her Manticore-designed brother Zack (William Gregory Lee), beginning in "411 on the DL" (1-6); come out to Original Cindy (Valarie Rae Miller) in "Rising" (1-13); and grapple with her own "feline" sexuality in " Meow" (1-21). As Alba asserts, "The first season was definitely the show. It was hardcore and people didn't run away from it. People got it."

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