Bar Karma

Major stars may inspire thick biographies and critical think pieces, but when it comes to certain character actors, scene-stealers, and (to steal a term that Anthony Lane once applied to Laurie Metcalf) sidekicks extraordinaire, the main thing they're likely to inspire is something like love. Once you've discovered how good they are, you start to become excited whenever you see them in something, and then, after awhile, you may start to become excited when you see them in something high profile and relatively classy because you've come to like them so much that you actually worry a little about the health of their careers. That's my roundabout way of saying that I'd walk into enemy fire for William Sanderson. With his creaky drawl and creased face, Sanderson started out seriously typecast as an unsavory cracker (Fight for Your Life, Coal Miner's Daughter, Raggedy Man). In his big chance at a stretch, Blade Runner, he was cast as a man suffering from premature aging disease, though he probably left his biggest mark on popular culture on Newhart, where he got to demonstrate his rare talent for making unsavory crackerdom strangely endearing. 

In the geeky, cheap-looking fantasy series Bar Karma, Sanderson plays an ageless mystery man who alludes to having lived through "500 lifetimes" and now pours drinks and talks gibberish in the title locale, a bar that exists between worlds or outside time or something, a "karmic rest stop" where people from all different periods of history can take a break at some critical juncture in their lives and receive counseling on their options before proceeding. It's not much of a role, and Sanderson doesn't get much help from the other two regulars, Cassie Howarth as a bar maid and Matthew Humphries as the new "owner" of the establishment, who acts more like a confused but game intern. But Sanderson is a good fit for the part, and he looks as if he were more comfortable here than he did in his last regular part on a TV series, as the sheriff in True Blood, who was too normal or unimaginative to notice that half of the population of the farthest corner of Hell was having a gang bang with the other half on his front lawn. True Blood never seemed to have any idea what to do with him, and he looked more ridiculous and undignified in his oversized cowboy hat than he ever did on Newhart, in Larry's bumpkin ensembles from the Ed Gein collection. However little he has to do on Bar Karma, he does at least look at home.

Bar Karma airs on Current TV, the channel co-founded by Al Gore that prides itself on its use of "viewer-generated" content. Part of the idea behind the show is that it offers viewers the chance to shape future episodes; at the website, you can pitch story ideas and make suggestions about plot and character developments and other details ("What should go on the Bar Karma chalkboard in Episode 7?"). This may be a brave new advance in storytelling in the multimedia age. It may also mark the second coming of William Castle, except that I'm pretty sure that he's already been back more than a few times. It would be easy to lament the squishiness of personal vision that can lead to a creative team turning the keys over to the audience and trying to build a series by committee. But the makers of Bar Karma are just being direct about taking Internet feedback into account in shaping their shows, something that people like Joss Whedon and J. J. Abrams have been doing for more than a decade now. And anyway, it's not as if their show doesn't need all the help it can get.

Explaining himself to the new recruit in the pilot episode, Sanderson says, "We're like a startup. We broke off to do out own thing from a much larger conglomerate we had a disagreement with regarding tactics. ...We help you with the hand you were dealt." Whatever the hell all that's supposed to mean, it doesn't mean that the gang at Bar Karma is omniscient. People in trouble come hurtling in, and while Sanderson and company can pinpoint where they were and tell them what the outcome would have been if they don't change course, they have no idea what to tell them about what they should do instead or how to fix their lives. As with the guy on Quantum Leap, the fun is supposed to come from watching them figure it out. Tonight's visitor was a movie star played by Sonja Sohn of The Wire, who threw herself into her role with the glowing intensity of an actress who knows that a new and better agent could be seeing her for the first time at any minute. 

After a tour of "every self-help clinic" and "phony guru" on the map, the star had decided to have a hole drilled in her forehead so that she could achieve enlightenment. After a quick check-in with the bar's TV screen, which seems able to tune into CNN for any era necessary, Sohn learned that she would not survive the procedure, but that didn't seem to bother her until she learned that, after she died, her estranged son would also come to a premature end. Matthew Humphreys was angry and disgusted with her for being so selfish as to want to get her face ventilated in her quest for wisdom when she should have been focusing on keeping an eye on her kid so that he wouldn't go down the wrong path. I confess to having found his logic a little convoluted; I don't want to come across as a passionate supporter of forehead drilling, but the kid looked old enough to take full credit or blame for whatever was going to happen to him, raising questions of whose karma is it, anyway? 

On a previous episode, a poor starving writer who was on the verge of lifting himself out of poverty with a successful superhero book was dragged in and informed that he should throw his meal ticket in the garbage, because if he didn't, the evil conglomerate that bought the rights would adapt it into a violent computer game that turned his intended meanings inside out, and that people would be inspired by the video game to blow up the Statue of Liberty, and somehow all this would be his fault. From the sound of it, you might get the idea that the biggest problem with Bar Karma is that it's talky and preachy, but what really bends your brain into balloon animal shapes while you're watching it is that the scripts have tended to take the farthest possible view of personal responsibility, which probably has less to do with any kind of thought-out philosophy on the writers' part than with their cooking up a wild karmic punch line and then working backwards to connect it to a sympathetic character who'll need redeeming. 

Mind you, this is not to say that it isn't talky and preachy. Talky, for damn sure: At one point in tonight's episode, Humphreys leaves the bar to connect with the movie star's kid, then returns, twitchy and exhausted, to report that the two of them have been "elevator surfing." A little later, he leaves again so that he can return to announce that the kid was just shot in front of his eyes. If your budgetary and directorial limitations are so great that you can't actually stage and shoot a scene of two guys jumping around on the roofs of elevators, it's probably better to not even have them talk about all the cool stuff they've been doing out of camera range. Most of Bar Karma is stuck inside the bar itself, which has the off-putting, unreal look of a set in a '90s computer game; meanwhile, the scripts suggest installments of "Munden's Bar", the backup strip from the old comic book Grimjack, that have been adapted from old episodes of Insight. I'd love to root for it to get better, if only for Sanderson's sake. At a minimum, it needs more humor and playfulness and imagination, things that the set-up could actually support a lot of. But for now, most of that's been plowed directly into the website.