Sunday, October 18, 2015

Watching TV: The Player

I grew up on Wesley Snipes action movies and there really has been no one else like him in Hollywood. So, even though the commercials signaled me that this show may be lame, I'd at least show up for the premiere for Snipes.

A funny thing happened, though. I actually really enjoyed it with the exception of the cliché death at the end of the episode, plus the obligatory long-arc mystery about who the deceased really was. And are they even dead?! Dun dun dun.

Flashback to CBS's Intelligence, RIP.

But then came episode two and three, and I was still enjoying myself but also wondering: Why the heck is this so entertaining? Simply put, it doesn't try too hard to be something it's not. But here are some more reasons.

The gimmick. It is usually a mysterious conspiracy with some sort of thematic imagery, and can sometimes just be a macguffin, paired with some procedural challenge to tackle each week. On Blindspot it's the tattoos, which was Prison Break's gimmick before that. On Blacklist it was the list. Here it is the Game, which is reminiscent of the movies The Game and Hard Target. So, it's not even an original gimmick.

Despite that, I find I can better tolerate this gimmick because it is not so open ended as to suggest almost anything. Unlike Lost. Unlike Blindspot. The reason she tattooed herself and wiped her memory could be damn near anything, so you just have to accept whatever they throw at you as a possibility. That's not engaging to me.

Here we have a group of shadowy elite gambling on crime, betting on whether or not The Player, (Kane, our protagonist,) can stop the criminal of the week. The House provides the Player with a Dealer (Cass, his techie), and is supervised by a Pit Boss, (Mr. Johnson) who ensures the game remains a secret, unimpeded by prying detectives--like Kane's friend.

The game has been going on a long time and our current iteration is not the first. In fact, the show starts with the last Player dead. So our protagonist is fairly expendable. I like those parameters.

The game exists as a form of entertainment. There's no open ended mystery in this gimmick, unless you care why a bunch of elites get their jollies from betting on human lives and to what end. I'm only as interested as maybe getting to see one of these twisted gamblers in a future installment. The focus is how Kane will navigate this seedy underworld.

Next, the cast of characters. Wesley Snipes is just a natural badass who is fun to watch. As the Pit Boss he doesn't get up to much action (yet) but you just know he can kick anyone's ass if they mess with him. Kane learned that in the first episode. And it's that undercurrent of dangerousness that makes his character effective as a calm, calculated cleaner. The keeper of the secrets. You don't know whether he's totally nefarious or just out of necessity, as cold as the faceless gamblers or forced to compartmentalize how he really feels about all this. I mean, for a second there I really thought he was going to kill that hacker guy.

As for our protagonist, I was duly surprised how likeable he is, given the potential for the Action Hero to be growly, angsty cardboard. I've never heard of the actor before now. Now, I hear he was in a previous show with the lead dude from Blindspot. Say what? Neither are great actors but Winchester is leagues better than the other guy, IMHO! Maybe it's because he gets to be funny, serious, aggrieved, heroic, and smart in this role that he doesn't feel like he is on autopilot. So far, I'm rooting for this guy.

Evil Felicity. That's what I thought as soon as I saw Cass. Thankfully, I was wrong. Episode 3 especially gave her major points from me. She's not just the pretty techie with the cute accent. She'll snipe a mofo. All we know so far is that she trained in special forces in the UK and the US (no I don't recall the organizations. Sue me!),  she has a boyfriend, and she was pals with Kane's "dead" girlfriend, unbeknownst to Kane. Since she's the one working closest with the Player, Kane is often trying to pry info out of her about herself, Mr. Johnson, and the Game overall. Their banter is pretty agile and sometimes witty when it could easily have been lead-footed and eye-rollingly clunky.

The weakest link is Kane's friend Detective Brown. The actor is usually pretty good but here he seemed over the top in his frustration and anger with the secrets Kane is keeping. This might turn around now that he is getting an assist from another agent  investigating profiles similar to Kane's. He's got somewhere to channel the emotions. But that way lies danger and I won't be surprised if Brown gets killed.

The action. At first I thought the music was odd. Then I thought it oddly fitting. It sounds almost like video game tracks which, yeah, this is a "game" after all, and Kane is often racing somewhere or other. The fast pace works wonders for a show like this that doesn't purport to be deep or too realistic. Before you can think too hard about why X happened instead of just doing Y, the ride is over.

The action scenes themselves are not outstanding but I've not yet been so offended by any sequence that I was thrown out of the watch. You'd be surprised how easily that happens nowadays--what with nonsense like a radio going all static for no reason, or the protagonist taking her eyes off the road and crashing her car, or saying hi to a suspect and spooking him instead of cornering or restraining him first (Yeah, I'm talking about you Blindspot!)

There was one major forehead slap on The Player. I straight up laughed at Kane and Cass jumping off a building, hanging onto a crane hook, shooting off a helicopter, and then getting back onto the roof within a minute. Are you kidding? LOL! It helps when the show isn't too serious to begin with.

The dialogue. This may as well be a review of Blindspot too, because I cannot tell you how robotic the dialogue on Blindspot gets sometimes. "What if you got hurt? What if I lost you?!" Ugh. "What if I was a bad person?" "Bad people do bad things and good people stop them." Ugh!

But we're talking about The Player. Like I said, Snipes is a natural at delivery, and the banter between the Player and the Dealer highlights an interesting dynamic ("You speak of yourself in the third person? " "The Dealer will get the jet ready." *walks away* "Where do you stay?" "Are you asking if I'm homeless?") Heh.

Given the race-against-the-clock nature of the show, it is often easy to slip into heavy exposition. Even the best of them, like 24, did that. But these writers seem to manage it in the same way, by timing it right, multitasking, and keeping it moving. People are rarely ever just standing around talking, or taking time out to discuss inanities or their feelings. There are some action-oriented shows where that is beneficial and integral, like Agents of Shield. This is not that type of show and thankfully it seems the writers are aware of that.

And how about the criminals and crimes? Nothing special here--heists, murder, kidnapping. They've all been serviceable with the last assassin being on the cheesy side.

I'm also not too invested in the mystery of Kane's "dead" girlfriend. My money is on her being an agent for the game, in some capacity, and that's enough intrigue for me for now. (I mean, sure, if you think about it, she could be way more complicit than that.) They are dropping indirect clues, with Cass knowing her and the Pit Boss doing what he can to sabotage Kane looking into it, but it is unobtrusive to the rest of the plot. As it should be.

All that said, I know The Player, like other NBC shows I actually found entertaining, will be cancelled. Hopefully not abruptly before the season is over. Until then I'm looking forward to the next episode.

What are you watching?

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