CHAOS debuts tonight on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Television networks these days function much in the way that record companies used to do. When you bought a Motown record, you didn’t expect something that sounded like Cream to blast from your stereo. The major networks don’t have quite the specific “sound” that basic cable and cable networks do, but CBS comes close in terms of having an in-house style that pervasively spreads through its hour-long programming. You’re going to get something procedural, you’re going to get something with a heavy body count, and you’re going to get something that resists change on any fundamental level.
CHAOS (a not-quite-accurate acronym for “Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services”) is an interesting addition to the line-up, something that bucks the network’s trend to only let Scott Caan have any modicum of fun during its crime dramas. The press materials for this show call it a “comedic drama” as a way to explain its tone, which tries to evoke laughs as well as serious international espionage all within a single hour. It's a show that feels like it should be on the USA Network but got lost on the way to air and landed on CBS' Friday night line-up by accident. Imagine if Ocean’s 11 had a baby with Spy Game, and you might get the gist here. The tonal dissonance makes sense when you realize Brett Ratner directed the pilot: He’s essentially ripping off his previous attempts at marrying high action and side-splitting laughs in the Rush Hour franchise on the small-screen.
While Ratner’s involvement will surely spark more than a few comments below, by and large he’s an invisible presence. There are a few shots, especially in what is supposed to be the arid deserts of Sudan, that look serviceably cinematic. But by and large, the hour centers around dropping us into this particular iteration of the CIA via Rick Martinez (Freddy Rodriguez), who is tasked by a Bureau chief played by Kurtwood Smith to take down what the latter feels is an odious, leftover remnant of the agency. Rather than be a spy in the field, Martinez has to be an inter-department mole.
The show’s essential theme boils down to one that links it thematically, if not tonally, to a large cross-section of CBS’s programming: While governmental/crime fighting organizations have a noble goal, it usually falls to a few heroic individuals to actually get things done within them. Bureaucracy is often the Big Bad, with quotes such as “Inaction has become the battle cry of the agency!” setting the show’s tone. The ODS isn’t a live-action ISIS by any stretch of the imagination, but their desire to actually do something versus sending it onto another committee for deliberation marks them as an unusual and possibly dangerous element within the CIA.
The three members of ODS spend the hour hazing and then embracing their new member. Eric Close plays the tactical leader, James Murray plays a wily ex-British Secret Service Agent (is there any other kind?), and Tim Blake Nelson plays what his character describes as a “human weapon.” Not a human target, mind you; that’s another show. But if you were to draw comparisons between Nelson’s Casey Malick and Jackie Earle Haley’s Guerrero… well, let’s just say you wouldn’t be the only one. Casual references are made throughout the hour to their precarious position within the agency, as well as their surprisingly deep and well-connected backers. But at least in this first hour, it’s simply lip service in favor of throwing us in with this would-be Fab Four.
CBS wants to sell you on this group as being a real wild-card within the CIA, but really, the only thing that makes them stand out is their desire to buck the system and actually do more than push paper. Rodriguez is often asked to act shocked at the latest WACKY thing his new team does, but a lot of CHAOS is telling us how wild these guys are but not actually backing them up with what transpires onscreen. But that’s not necessarily a negative: The ODS excels largely at misdirection, allowing people to underestimate them all while luring their victims into a trap. That’s a far better tactic upon which to hang what will undoubtedly be a series of missions of the week.
Does this all work perfectly? No, but it works more than perfunctorily. The activation of the “human weapon” takes place largely in the dark to conceal Nelson’s stunt double, but it’s a pretty fun piece of fighting choreography all the same. Rodriguez gets to show some surprising skills in Sudan, leaving him as the newbie in the group but still a worthy member of their elite squad. And Collins/Dorset perform a fun double-team persuasion act to lift counterfeit funds for a hostage negotiation from Margo Martindale, taking a break from Justified to play a small part in this pilot. Unfortunately, there’s a would-be love interest/work complication in the form of Carmen Ejogo’s CIA liaison Fay that rings far more hollow than anything else within the actual group.
The question is: Will this show survive in a timeslot that once featured Ghost Whisperer, a show about a pair of breasts so majestic that spirits actually crossed over from the afterlife in order to spend some time around them? It’s followed by CSI: NY and Blue Bloods, two shows not exactly known for their nimble tone. To carry through the musical analogy from the outset, CHAOS is like a fun, lightweight pop band opening up Ozzfest. It shouldn’t be a crime for a show to be tonally different from anything else on its network, but apparently, it didn’t help shows like Terriers in the recent past. People who tune into CBS are used to a certain frequency. And while CHAOS is far from the out-there fare on the upper channels of your dial, it’s still singular enough that I worry it won’t find an audience on a network that resists anything outside its narrow spectrum.
That’s too bad: I’d much rather see this show fill an hour of primetime CBS programming than the potentially inevitable spin-off Criminal Minds: Killin’ Kids and Clubbin’ Baby Seals. It’s a fairly nimble start to something that ratings-wise I fear might stumble out of the gate.
- At more than one point in the pilot, I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching a clean-shaven Freddie Rodriguez and not Kevin Connolly with a newly dyed ‘do.
- You’ll need to wade through a lot of exposition in order to get to the good stuff. Collins, in particular, is saddled with a lot of explanation posing as dialogue in early scenes.
- The show calls ODS “the last of the old-school spooks.” This, coupled with an early montage set to “Mas Que Nada,” suggests a potential way for the show to introduce colorful characters from the CIA’s past as well as a way to help explain the shadowy connections that kept them afloat at all.
- Points to the show for introducing an all-too-quick romance and then having an onscreen character ask EXACTLY the question most people at home will be asking less than a minute later.
- The way in which the CIA neutralizes an entire camp of terrorists is very cool. I have no idea if it’s actually something employed in the field, but I will say that the “don’t taze me, bro” guy will not enjoy at ALL.
- “This accent is a siren’s call to reckless fornication!”
- “I like a lap-sized man!”
- “Highlight of the mission, right there!”
- “Yesterday was a travel day, so I mostly hated the airline food.”