The Cape debuts tonight on NBC at 9 p.m. Eastern. It will begin airing new episodes in its regular timeslot next week, which is Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern.
The Cape is awful. It just might be the worst TV series you see all year, and the year is only nine days old. It’s bad enough that you can watch it, proclaim it that, then feel fairly confident in saying so, even with the other 356 days to go. And yet something about it is so watchably terrible that I can’t wholly pan it. I can see why some critics I really respect kind of liked it, almost in spite of themselves. Somewhere, buried deep within itself where it’s almost afraid to even admit it exists, The Cape rather knows that it’s this bad, and it’s having fun with the fact that it exists and made it to network television at all. We’re adding it to the TV Club roster not because it’s terribly promising or because it’s good right out of the box or anything like that. We’re adding it because making fun of this show could become a new national nerd pastime. And unlike Heroes, it’s not going to get all defensive about being made fun of. It’ll wink right along with us.
Vince Faraday (David Lyons) is the one good man in a rotten town, run by crooks. As it turns out, this is literally true, as the masked villain Chess turns out to have his hand far more in the affairs of the city than it would seem at first glance (without spoiling too much). Vince has, of course, a loving son and wife, and he spends evenings reading the comic book exploits of a hero named The Cape to his son. He’s such a warm, loving family man that he seems almost too good to be true, and, indeed, when a shocking act of violence opens the pilot, Vince is the only guy who seems very much bothered by it at all. Chess sees that Vince is somehow an otherworldly paragon of virtue, and he conspires to frame Vince for being Chess and being responsible for that act of violence. Vince goes on the run from the police, but he appears to die in the process of doing this. Naturally, his wife and son are upset that his name has been besmirched (they BOTH know he could NEVER do such AWFUL things) and, uh, that he’s dead. So that’s that.
Anyway, Vince ends up hanging out at a circus full of criminals who talk entirely in insane, purple dialogue. What is this circus of crime doing in the middle of the city, rather than trying to make its criminal exploits slightly less obvious? Who knows! But it’s populated by the gruff, genius Max Malini (Keith David), a little person named Rollo (Martin Klebba), and a host of other people. It’s less a setting than a collection of toys from the bin at Pamida, and the show glosses over just how Vince comes to be a part of this company by pretty much saying, “He has to for the show to work!” Anyway, Vince finds a cape, and it turns out that the cape is awesome, and then Max teaches him a bunch of illusions he can do with the cape to seem supernatural. And that’s how he becomes The Cape and the show gets a title.
Here’s the thing: All of the above might have made an OK premise pilot, an episode of television devoted entirely to telling us how the situation for the show came to be. Premise pilots aren’t preferable, but sometimes, you need to have that origin story, need to get the backstory out of the way up front. But The Cape rushes all of that, cramming it largely into the first half of the first hour of tonight’s two-hour premiere (the second hour is episode two and is mostly about things not dealt with in the pilot, including some sort of super-villainous super-conspiracy or something). The second half is distinctly less impressive, focused as it is on bargain bin variety superhero exploits. The Cape heads out into the night to confront criminals. He does a fine job of this, of course, and Chess realizes he’s out there and he becomes a folk hero (or we can assume he does, given the final beats of the pilot) and blah, blah, blah. This creates a pilot that is cluttered but is hilariously cluttered. Just as soon as one thing’s done, the show is on to the next, with little sense of pacing or creating believable character motivations.
What this means is that The Cape plays like someone gave a 7-year-old action figures from Dick Tracy, Batman, Now And Again, and Carnivale, then encouraged him to come up with a storyline to somehow unite them. The crazy, comical villains are all Dick Tracy (there’s literally someone named Scales who appears to be covered in same). The dark, brooding voice Vince affects as The Cape is all Batman. The idea that this man can’t tell his wife and child he’s still around is from a variety of things, but most reminded me of the much stronger treatment of the same idea in Now And Again. And the circus of criminal freaks is all Carnivale (and much more that than the final season of Heroes, thank God). The intersections between these items provide most of the humor that comes from laughing at how overwrought and clumsy this thing is.
The cast doesn’t help either. Lyons isn’t bad, not necessarily, but he doesn’t have the natural charisma to pull off such a fine, upstanding guy. Vince needs an all-American, chiseled jaw type you can’t stop thinking of as the best man to ever live to really work as a character, but Lyons mostly just makes him seem like a regular guy who somehow becomes a superhero. Granted, this kind of hyper-earnest hero is out of favor right now, often because it IS so hard to make such a thing work cinematically, but Lyons was the wrong choice here. David and Klebba are kind of fun, and both seem more aware of how ridiculous the material they’re handed is than anybody else. (The scenes in the circus are bad, sure, but they’re also the ones that skew most closely toward actually being entertaining, largely due to the actors’ efforts.) The other major actor here is Summer Glau, playing a blogger named Orwell, hiding behind a secret identity of her own (and this might have been a cool twist on the superhero idea if it were deployed well at all). Sadly, this project makes me sad I ever defended Glau as an actor, simply because she barks every line in roughly the same monotone. On the other hand, she’s the character least-served by the script, arguably pointless in the grand scheme of things, just another mentor for a man who seems to have far too many of them.
The point, though, remains: The Cape is genuinely, truly atrocious. There’s no way you can watch this and walk away saying, “Well, hey, I have my new favorite TV show.” But at the same time, there’s something entertaining about a TV show that’s so bad but also so entertainingly stupid. The dialogue here is overwrought. The performances are wooden. The storyline is needlessly convoluted. The characters are toys come to life. For a very specific subset of the viewing populace, this is going to be like candy. Chances are, you already know if you’re in that group. I can’t exactly recommend The Cape, but I had more fun watching it (and laughing at it) than I did watching many other, much better shows.
- You may have noticed we’re adding this show week-to-week. Rowan Kaiser will be doing the honors, since his No Ordinary Family reviews prove he has an aptitude for making fun of bad superhero shows.