The Handler

Lesley Smith

Offers the traditional CBS fantasy that nothing really bad happens to people who work on the side of the angels.

The Handler

Airtime: Fridays, 10pm ET
Cast: Joe Pantoliano, Anna Belknap, Lola Glaudini, Hill Harper, Tanya Wright
Network: CBS
Creator: Chris Haddock

In a season where new (and old) TV dramas strive to squeeze significance from the thinnest pretexts (such as Las Vegas or ER), CBS' The Handler offers marginal respite. No one stares meaningfully into the middle distance for embarrassingly long seconds of camera time. No one talks directly to God, dead parents, or faded photographs. If the characters are roiling in unbearable existential angst, it remains mercifully off-screen, as do noble aspiration, throbbing sentiment, and the life-consuming quest for love.

That doesn't mean that The Handler is compelling, or even passable, viewing, or that it escapes consistent absurdity. But its ticks of insufficiency don't directly insult viewers' intelligence, even if its slender virtues don't attempt to stimulate it either. Chief among those virtues is the casting of the protean Joe Pantoliano as undercover impresario FBI agent, Joe Renato.

While CBS leads off its profile of Pantoliano with his 2003 Emmy-winning role as Ralph Cifaretto in the sagging Sopranos, movie aficionados might remember him best for his ur-version of that role, when he played the ruthless bail bondsman Eddie Moscone in 1988's Midnight Run. In two other landmark roles, as Cypher in The Matrix (1999) and Teddy Gammell in Memento (2000), he honed his onscreen ambiguity and emotional depth. It's not that one wants to like the characters Pantoliano plays: it's that his intellectual and sensual vitality compels admiration and tempts us, had we law-abiding citizens the courage, to indulge in such cruel amorality. However, even the immediate pleasures of watching such a fine actor display his craft pall when he's shadowboxing with cardboard companions and coping with inconsequential scripts.

Renato is set up as ringmaster, nanny, psychiatrist, and baiter of a very small circus of undercover FBI agents who manage stings, infiltrate criminal gangs, run surveillance, and catch the bad guys no other law enforcement agency can. On the CBS website, both creator and producer Chris Haddock and Pantoliano emphasize the ambiguity of the undercover agent's life. The actor, in an articulate, if slightly arrogant interview, notes that on a visit to the FBI's Quantico training and research center, he learned that the ideal undercover agent required two abilities. First, he has to build empathetic relationships quickly (while at the same deceive the objects of those relationships). Second, he must inhabit a character without reservation (while simultaneously constructing a legal case that will stand up in court). Thus, Pantoliano relates with obvious relish, according to the FBI's behavioral assessment unit, the ideal profile for an undercover agent is that of a psychopath.

Only Pantoliano's character, Joe, constantly in motion, constantly sniping at his team, offers even a hint of this deadly indistinctness. The young agents who actually go undercover -- Heather (Lola Glaudini), Lily (Anna Belknap), and Darnell (Hill Harper) -- are about as dangerous as the trio of leads in a small-town Christmas play, and so wholesome they look as if they have strayed onto the set from another, much more typical CBS Friday night offering. They overact when undercover, offering such a caricature of a waitress, drug dealer, or wheel man, that their marks would be tripping over themselves to flee the scene long before any operation succeeded.

Nor do they convey their relationship with their "handler" any more subtly. They listen to his instructions with naïve earnestness, calling to mind high school students eager to please a favorite teacher, and flounder to earn his grudging, acerbic praise (delivered in Pantoliano's trademark scathing style), and a bigger, better "role" in the next sting.

It is unfair, though, to load all the blame on the actors. The direction and the scripts so far shoulder much of the responsibility for the clumsy overacting, for they offer this trio of agents little scope for any nuance. In the second episode, "It's Only Rock and Roll," for example, Darnell is infiltrated into a gang of armed robbers as the person who will steal the getaway cars for the next job. But his street cred costume turns out to be such an embarrassing rendition of the Afro, trailing scarf, and shirt split to the navel '70s cliché of the "cool" African American that he looks like a refugee from a costume party (and has to deliver lines that match the banality of his costume). When Lily goes undercover as a waitress to spy on a corrupt politician, she is spends so much of the busy lunch hour staring significantly at her prey that any self-respecting owner would have fired her before her first shift ended.

The scripts do not offer hope for character or storyline development. Each agent finishes his or her mission in the allotted TV hour, which inevitably keeps the action superficial and uncomplicated. There's no opportunity to develop the kind of moral ambiguity that characterized the movies Serpico (1973) or Donnie Brasco (1997), the last perhaps the most successful exploration of undercover police work to hit the screen. Hints of the risks of undercover work do appear, in the agent who falls for a prostitute and is killed in the pilot episode, or the exposed agent who cons the FBI into giving new identities to his children and former wife in the second episode. But these are tangential incidents, over in a few moments and involving characters who appear so briefly the audience has no chance to develop any relationship with them. The main characters remain reassuringly uncorrupted and always triumphant at the end of each episode.

Thus The Handler turns into schizophrenic TV. Its conception is obviously part of the CBS trend to tackle grittier subjects in primetime that the success of CSI launched. Its palette is naturalistic, rather like that of Without a Trace, and its pace fast-moving. But it's as if the production team and the network lost their nerve after casting Pantoliano, and rushed off to find unthreatening actors to enact simplistic stories set in an anodyne version of a treacherously murky world. Pantoliano offers some grit, but the rest of the show offers the traditional CBS fantasy that nothing really bad happens to people who work on the side of the angels.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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