Love lost, such a cost,
Give me things
that don’t get lost.
— Neil Young, “Old Man”
“Not a fun ride, this one.” Akani (Grace Park) is muttering as she half-drags, half-carries an unconscious girl from her car. The girl’s a tweaker, Akani’s a helper, and she’s pulled into the driveway of her mentor and employer, William Banks (Benjamin Bratt). He takes one look at the situation — the girl’s eyes rolled back, her skin pale gray, and especially, Akani’s audacious decision to deliver this problem to his home — and takes charge.
First, Will does what all good guys in TV series do: he barks orders at Akani and a second mentee, Swenton (Esteban Powell), who has also rolls up, having been summoned by a panicky Akani. And then, as Will treats the girl, he also starts instructing his team members. “Fun?” he starts. “You guys act like you’re pulling shifts at Kinko’s. You think it’s fun for me to have to watch out for you self-indulgent little shits, huh?” The self-indulgent ones exchange worried glances. Here comes the lecture — over the near-dead body of their latest project, no less. “We’re not listed! We don’t advertise. People find us because they need us. We have a 75% relapse rate, a 27% rate of mortality.” He pauses to check the patient. “Those are shit odds. You make a mistake here and people die. You call that ‘fun’?”
Er, no. and also, please stop, we give in. No more narrative explication. Please.
Like too many premieres, the first episode of The Cleaner takes its self-appointed contextualizing very seriously. Will, a recovering addict, repeatedly conveys his earnest belief in his mission, commenced, he tells his kids, when he found himself “slamming dope” while wife Melissa (Amy Price-Francis) was down the hallway giving birth to Lula (Liliana Mumy). At the same time, he struggles to underscore this import to the kids he’s rescued who are now “paying it forward” by saving others, one un-fun step at a time. Aside from conducting stakeouts, sticking people with knock-out darts, and braving assaults by pimps, skinheads, and drug-dealing thugs, they’re a lot like other supporting cast members on other yay-team shows, providing ethnic, gender, and class diversity along with the occasional episode-long subplot.
More unfortunately, they’re awfully tedious types: Akani’s fond of tight tops and perfect makeup; Swenton is bedraggled, mistake-prone, and just cocky enough to keep wheedling his way back into Will’s good graces; and Darnell (Kevin Michael Richardson), now a used car salesman, has a record of breaking and entering. And just so you know the extent of Will’s loyalty and commitment, he has a mostly unspoken history with an addict close to his own age, Mickey (Gil Bellows), as vulnerable a recovering addict as any who ever appeared on TV. Here they embody a fundamental tension for the show, as it works to make fictional drama out the subject matter that has proved so successful on the network’s reality show, Intervention: the clichés are hard to beat.
All that said, Will is not un-compelling. Based on the real-life Warren Boyd, an addict now working as an interventionist and consultant for the show, he’s full of contradictions, testy, anxious, and fond of talking to God (a habit that worries his teenaged son Ben [Brett DelBuono]: “I just want to make sure you’re not banking this family’s future on the idea of someone that doesn’t even exist”). While Will isn’t interacting with flash-and-blood angels, he’s got a bit of Grace Hanadarko/Holly Hunter’s scrappy moral complexity, mixed with a little of Chris Gardner/Will Smith’s sensitivity and self-doubt. Being a resolute team leader, however, he takes literal hits for the team (punches from a villain who keeps confederate flags near his drug stashes). He also shows concern when Melissa makes her case, that he has to spend time with his kids. Frustrated, he tells her, “You don’t get it.” But she’s ready wit the comeback, “I get it. Your children get it: you help a lot of people. All you did was replace one fix for another.”
Will gets this part too. And in this, The Cleaner allows not only for quirky insights and heartfelt passions, but also for the ways that addicts are only versions of the rest of us, not freaks and not monsters. As the show makes a case for addicts to be forgiven and understood, it doesn’t consistently offer complex responses or the ways that fears and desires shape experience. It’s not supposed to be fun, but it can be provocative.