The Cleaner

•28 June 2009 • Leave a Comment

Like its protagonist, A&E’s The Cleaner has a mission. It aspires to teach its audience about the ghastly experience of the addict and the torture of kicking the habit, even as it provides an entertaining and inspiring hour of television. This is no small task, but it succeeds. And this is not an insignificant achievement, particularly in light of its deliberate avoidance of the tactics of competing “reality television” programming that deals with similar issues.

The program’s official website describes the show as follows:

Inspired by the true story of real life “extreme interventionist” Warren Boyd, who also co-executive produces the series, “The Cleaner” stars Benjamin Bratt as William Banks, a recovering addict who must balance his unwavering dedication to helping others get clean with an increasingly rocky personal life and the ghosts of his addictions. … With every success and failure, William wrestles with his commitment to his work and his love for his wife Melissa (Amy Price-Francis) and their children through an unusual relationship with God.

The opening frames of each episode declares that William Banks’ crusade does not make him a “cop”; neither does it make him a “superhero.” Instead, we’re told, “He’s just a man with a Calling.” This commitment, as we learn during the pilot episode, is a consequence of the depths to which he had sunk when he found himself “slamming dope” even as his wife was giving birth to their second child. While not a religious man, he made a pact with God: get him and his family through that day – and the addiction – and he would become his “avenging angel.”

In a sense, this “calling” is the fervor of the convert: an attempt at expiation or atonement, seeking to make things right. Ironically, it also threatens to destroy the very family he hoped to save in the first place.

It is precisely this tension between his role as “avenging angel” and his standing as husband and father that provides much of the drama of The Cleaner, leaving us to wonder which of these two domains is the appropriate measure of the man. Or any man, for that matter. Is it the heroic measures he employs in his public life in service to others or is it the length to which he is willing to go in order to understand and care for the ones he loves?

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Dollhouse (Season One Finale)

•22 May 2009 • Leave a Comment

For my original reflections on Dollhouse, go here.

In the final two episodes of this season, Dollhouse has provided us with a brilliant proclamation of the program’s aspirations, what it intends to convey in serving up the bizarre (yet fascinating) world of the Dollhouse and the characters that inhabit it.

It’s nothing short of revolutionary.

The Dollhouse Dilemma

In the season finale – Omega – we are presented with the Dollhouse version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Like the version many of us have learned about as students, it revolves around the conundrum of dealing with a less-than-complete pack of cards: what decision can a prisoner make when crucial pieces of information are missing, particularly if one’s partner is being held and questioned separately?

In the case of the Dollhouse, the enigma revolves around three features of the Doll’s captivity that constitute the knot of their existence: the empty “lives” they are expected to live during their term of indentured servitude, the unreality of the “personalities” that are imprinted upon them for their assignments, and their Original Selves – the ones responsible for their captivity in the first place – of whom they have absolutely no knowledge.

In this fictional universe, we may call this the Dollhouse Dilemma.

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Lie to Me

•11 May 2009 • 2 Comments

This new show from Fox is an ambitious project and may even have bitten off more than it can handle. But its ambition should be applauded, as there are few programs emerging from the Hollywood machine that even attempt to achieve what Lie to Me seeks to address. For it uses the character of Cal Lightman and his company, The Lightman Group, to help us understand the nature of truth in today’s world, whether it concern contemporary politics, the world of business, or the intimacies of our relations with others … and ourselves.

The Story: The Science of Microexpressions

As anyone who has seen the publicity for Lie to Me knows, the program’s “hook” is the science of reading the body, specifically, the body’s relation to truth and deception. As described on its official web site:

LIE TO ME, the compelling new drama from the producers of 24, stars Tim Roth (“The Incredible Hulk,” “Reservoir Dogs”) as DR. CAL LIGHTMAN, the world’s leading deception expert who studies facial expressions and involuntary body language to discover not only if someone is lying, but why. When someone shrugs one shoulder, rotates a hand or raises the lower lip, Lightman knows he’s lying.

Based on the real-life scientific discoveries of Paul Ekman, the series follows Lightman and his team of deception experts as they assist law enforcement and government agencies to expose the truth behind the lies.

As such, the program is clearly situated in the “crime show” genre, in which Dr. Lightman and his colleagues are regularly recruited to assist in various investigations, both official and unofficial, to identify the hidden truth. The difference from conventional television dramas involving police detectives and private eyes, however, is the science touted by the Lightman Group, which regularly confronts those that doubt the veracity of its claim to read the signs of truth unavailable to those not trained in its secrets. At it’s core is the assertion that “microexpressions” – fleeting and involuntary facial expressions – communicate one of seven universal emotions that their owners seek to hide or otherwise suppress: anger, fear, contempt, disgust, sadness, happiness, or surprise.

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•10 April 2009 • Leave a Comment

For my reflections on the Season Finale, go here.

Dollhouse LogoIf you’re not already watching Dollhouse (currently showing on Fox on Friday nights), you should be. It provides a brilliant meditation on how memory – as well as its loss – haunts the living, particularly in the face of the absurdities and imperatives that so often shape the rhythm and tempo of our lives. I use this word (“our”) deliberately. For while Dollhouse is organized around a fictional world peopled by imaginary characters, the story is also about us: the nightmare of absent memories, as well as the yearning for liberation from the demands of a mindless existence.

The Story: Fool’s Paradise

At the center of this world is the Dollhouse, a facility that erases the memories of its inmates who are then used as blank slates upon which to write or “upload” other personalities. When reprogrammed in this way, the inmates become a highly prized commodity for the benefit of a secret roster of wealthy clients.

The official site describes the show’s premise in this way:

ECHO (Dushku) is an “Active,” a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don’t just perform their hired roles, they wholly become — with mind, personality and physiology — whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time. … After each scenario, Echo … returns to the mysterious Dollhouse where her thoughts, feelings, experiences and knowledge are erased.

These Actives, manufactured and recycled for the benefit of others, have no memories. They have no recollection of their lives before entering the Dollhouse, and neither are they allowed to accumulate new memories of experiences they acquire while in residence there. Continue reading ‘Dollhouse’