When you log on to u-r-connected.com, you are led directly into an interactive game. After answering a series of five multiple choice questions (e.g., Who are you? What are you looking for? How do you make a change?), you can find out to which of the leads on Six Degrees you are “connected.” Apparently I’m simpatico with Steven (Campbell Scott, playing a variation on the smug-but-tortured-prick role he’s been honing for years), a once renowned photographer struggling with artist’s block and drug addiction. What can I say? I am looking for inspiration and make changes “one day at a time.”
After watching the pilot, I can see why ABC felt compelled to supplement the series with this rather elaborate online exercise. Although Six Degrees is ostensibly about human connection, its contrived scenarios and implausible characterizations get in the way of its making the most essential connection of all, with the viewer.
Set in New York City, Six Degrees follows the fated relationships among Steven and five other characters: free-spirited Mae (Erika Christensen), on the run from a troubled past (you can hear the pitch meeting now); Damian (Dorian Missick), a limo driver with a gambling problem; Laura (Hope Davis), whose journalist husband was killed in Iraq; Whitney (Bridget Moynahan), a successful executive at a chi-chi public relations firm; and Carlos (Jay Hernandez), possibly the most naïve public defender to ever grace a Manhattan courtroom.
Carlos served as the voiceover narrator for the pilot’s opening images, and as the camera swoops over the city’s skyscrapers and between its brownstones, he outlines major themes in clichés. In New York, he said, “We’re all forced to live together every day, and the only thing that separates us is chance, fate maybe… Eight million people in this city, and any one of them — any one at any time — can walk into your life and change it forever.” The person who sparked his Existentialism 101 musings is recent arrestee Mae, whom he was assigned to defend on public indecency charges.
Carlos’ connection with Mae framed the first episode, but unfortunately they are the show’s weakest links. When Carlos asked her why she decided to disrobe that morning and climb atop a garbage truck, she explained, “It was one of those moments when the city comes alive around you. It had just rained, you know? I just wanted to be a part of it… I wanted to be a statue, one of those ladies on the front of a ship.” Their exchange gestured toward star-crossed love, but Carlos came off as schoolboyish, Mae like a sorority girl blissed out on one too many Ny-Quil shots.
Carlos eventually had the charges against Mae dropped, and once out of jail, she dyed her hair and assumed a new identity (she’s “on the run,” you see, with a mysterious box in tow). Carlos spent the rest of the episode trying to locate her, and although she gave him a phony telephone number and a defunct address, he was actually surprised when a P.I. informed him that her Social Security number was a fake too.
“Man, how did I not see that coming?” he said, sighing with frustration. Um, yeah. You’re a public defender in New York City: watch a few episodes of Law & Order, for Pete’s sake. Between Carlos’ romanticism and Mae’s ominous past, it’s as if creator J.J. Abrams was attempting to wed two of his other efforts, Felicity and Lost. Suffice it to say, it’s not a marriage made in television heaven. Whereas wide-eyed optimism worked for a college freshman new to Manhattan in Felicity, it cutens Carlos to the point of implausibility, and Mae’s back story seems like a warmed-over plotline from Lost’s cutting room floor.
More problematic, the consummation of puppy love is too slight a conceit to bear the show’s thematic onus of fate. The handling of more topical, consequential situations is equally clumsy and trite. Laura’s plight is amplified by the fact that her dead husband was a journalist embedded with troops in Iraq. The choice allows the series to evoke the war without directly referring to it, which has the whiff of sensationalism and timidity at the same time. David’s death was rather conveniently captured on video (he was killed while broadcasting in the field), represented in a shaky handheld image that suddenly flashed to static, a cheap dramatic ploy.
Laura’s most climactic moment was also botched. After giving David’s possessions to a local charity, she broke down in the street as she watched the donation truck drive away. The scene was scored with loud and intrusive music, suggesting that Laura’s pain alone wasn’t poignant enough; it had to be punched up, music-video style. If handled with depth and sensitivity, Laura’s grief — and the circumstances behind David’s death — could be quite moving, but the show is repeatedly heavy-handed.
Part of the problem is that in the universe of Six Degrees, New York is a place where people are either “on top of the world… or scraping rock bottom.” Though that sentiment can certainly be true of the city (or anywhere else, for that matter), most of New York’s inhabitants aren’t runaways with mysterious boxes or world-famous photographers down on their luck or even wives of daring television journalists. In a city of eight million people, I’d bet you could find at least 7.9 million everyday dramas that are more engaging and genuine than the ones assembled here. In one scene, Steven begged an art world colleague for the chance to mount a gallery exhibition, but he’s denied because he has no new photographs to show. Steven cried, “There’s nothing I see, nothing I can recognize, anywhere I look.” Viewers might feel the same way watching Six Degrees.