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.