Day Break

Collective guilt is borne by what is conventionally called the scapegoat. Now the scapegoat for white society — which is based on myths of progress, civilization, liberalism, education, enlightenment, refinement — will be precisely the force that opposes the expansion and the triumph of these myths. This brutal opposing force is supplied by the Negro.

–Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

You really need to get over this tough guy persona. It’s not going to help you here.

–Shadow Man (Jonathan Banks), “Pilot”

“Somebody’s tense,” observed Rita (Moon Bloodgood), waking with her man, L.A. Detective Brett Hopper (Taye Diggs). During the first few moments of ABC’s smart, time-scrambling series, Day Break, she thought she was only observing typical stress. She’s a nurse and he’s a cop: they live with it. “You’ve been working too hard,” she soothed, admiring his hard body in the shower. She had no idea of just how tense he would get.

Brett was about to run head-on into his condition, namely, he’s waking up on the same day, again and again. He doesn’t know how or why, and the show hasn’t explained its seeming science-fictiony twist. It might be in his mind, it might be some nefarious plot by the “Shadow Man” (Jonathan Banks), it might be that time is out of joint. In his head and not, the day looks awfully conspiratorial (executive producers Jeffrey Bell and Rob Bowman are X-Files alumni), especially as his efforts to understand and redress are thwarted anew. The Shadow Man is as good a metaphor as any: he tends to appear at the end of Brett’s day, a dark figure in a rock quarry, standing over the detective’s bruised, shot, bloody, broken, kicked, and/or smacked down body, schooling him in what may or may not be the series’ principal tenet: “For every decision, there is a consequence: decision, consequence, decision, consequence.”

The trouble is that the relationship between these two terms is not fixed. Over three episodes so far, Brett has awakened on his day repeatedly, knowing what happened on previous versions and determined to correct what went wrong. As he struggles to correct seeming errors, however, he makes other sorts of decisions. His memory rendered in skritchily frantic bits of flashbacks, Brett recalls a note he wrote himself, an encounter he had, an act of violence he might avoid or confront. The basic problem repeats: he’s accused of murdering Assistant District Attorney Garza (who thus far has appeared as a headline/plot point only), and he’s pursued by two sets of authorities, head of Internal Affairs Chad Shelton (Adam Baldwin), who also happens to be Rita’s ex-husband and Brett’s ex-partner; and Detectives Spivak (Mitch Pileggi) and Choi (Ian Anthony Dale), whose favorite mode is to press in on suspects inside a wide-angled interrogation room.

Brett’s options are limited from multiple angles. The Shadow Man shows him a video recording of Rita’s murder; he might not be able to trust his partner of two years, Andrea Battle (Victoria Pratt), who is herself under investigation by IA; and he’s not yet solved a case involving the Latin Disciples, a gang apparently headed by Damien Ortiz (Ramon Rodriguez). Each time the day starts, Brett tries again to reshuffle the many pieces: will he save Margo (Bahar Soomekh), a woman hit by a bus outside a coffee shop? Will he take a precious minute to set straight his sister Jen’s (Meta Golding) abusive husband Randall (Don Franklin)? Will he break the palm-tree-painted plate, a memento Rita keeps in her bathroom? Will he watch smarmy Baxter (Michael B. Silver) be shot dead?

Whether any of these events happens or not — and it may be that Brett needs to find the perfect Rubik’s cube arrangement of this day in order to move on to the next — he confronts each time his limited capacity to control or change even his own behavior. “I’m a cop with a clean record and an alibi,” he insisted from the start of the series, but this means next to nothing in his system of time, place, and power. The series doesn’t need to underscore the fact of his blackness: it informs every frame and incident, every decision and consequence.

On one level, he’s a classic hero, determined to protect a series of women — Rita, Jen, Andrea, Margo — each injured or killed in one or more versions of his day. On another, Brett himself is the primary victim, resembling an updated Sweetback, wrongly charged, insidiously set up, relentlessly pursued. But because he is so utterly alone, so without community, Brett is not encouraged in his resistance to the day’s machinations. As he’s reliving his day, he comes to realize it is indeed his day, at least thus far. He can’t engage anyone else in the process, because everyone else wakes up like Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates, not knowing the day has happened already for him. When, in the second episode, Brett half-convinced Rita of his reality, her comprehension was necessarily limited. “This is gonna sound like it’s impossible,” he began, “These past three days I’ve woken up, and it’s the same day. It’s the same time, it’s the same place, it’s the same damn traffic report. I am living today over and over again.”

As Brett tried to explain what he didn’t understand but felt acutely, the scene cut repeatedly — creating a series of harrowing fragments — from his speaking to his groaning. This as Rita was cutting into his shoulder to remove a bullet. (They’d been shot at by a couple of thugs apparently employed by the Shadow Man.) Psychic pain intertwined with physical pain, Brett sought to make order out of illogic and frustration. His day does break, again and again.

You might say this day is refigured in his own body, frequently bloodied — cut, beaten, shot — and something of an objective corollary for his psychic state, which is to say, his political and cultural states as well. Much like Doug, the Denzel Washington character in Déjà Vu (also a Disney product and not coincidentally released the same week that Day Break premiered), Brett’s decisions are calculated and intelligent, and informed by his blackness. While his status as a “decorated 12-year veteran” surely served him well before this day began, he’s now spinning inside a cycle where he’s judged by his appearance. “I’m just trying to get control of this day,” he told Andrea, who looked back wearily: “This day’s over. You’ve gotta worry about tomorrow.”

For Brett, for now, time is only present. That’s not to say he isn’t acutely aware of his accumulating pasts, even as these are inexorably twisted back into his present. “Yesterday was today,” he told Rita. “Yesterday is today.” When she suggested maybe he’d been drugged or hit his head, he pondered for an instant. “Maybe,” he offered, “I’ve stepped in a damn time machine, I don’t know.” Or maybe time is a machine. As it produces seeming “second chances,” memories or historical lessons, even opportunities to do a right thing, it is also premised on repetition and recollection, fearfulness and familiarity. He’s the opposing force.

RATING 8 / 10