"Pilot," "Heat," "Flushed," "C.R.E.A.M.," "411 on the DL," "Prodigy," "Cold Comfort," "Blah Blah Woof Woof," "Out," "Red," "Art Attack," "Rising," "The Kidz Are Aiight," "Female Trouble," "Haven," "Shorties in Love," "Pollo Loco," "I and I Am a Camera," "Hit a Sista Back," "Meow," "...And Jesus Brought a Casserole"
by Walter Chaw Ah, the Apocalypse. Terrorists set off a nuclear bomb in orbit and the resultant electro-magnetic pulse cripples the mighty United States' information highway, plunging Seattle 2019 into what the morose voiceover introduction proclaims is the Third World. The mean streets of the Emerald City are teeming with grungy, coffee-addled youth culture, aggressive panhandlers, and Russian gangsters milling beneath a constant drizzle while bike messengers zip around with insouciant wet flying off their natty dreadlocks--and then the catastrophic energy pulse, after which we meet Max (Jessica Alba). With a beauty-mark bespecked-chin, a pouting leer, and a penchant for delivering every line with a head wobbling "oh no you did-ent" undead inner-city spunk (which not only gets tired, but also dates the piece almost instantly--recall the airless jingo-ese of "What's Happenin'"), Alba struts into and out of her fifteen minutes as lead terminator in the James Cameron-conceived (and occasionally scripted) series "Dark Angel".
The show's dedication to the kick-ass school of obliterating feminism (as popularized by Nancy Sinatra first, Drew Barrymore's Charlie's Angels again) is undermined by its blend of go-go boot motorcycle chic and stripper sensibility, which equates a bellicose invitation to objectification with gender equality. One of the "Heathers" in Drew Barrymore's unforgivable pedophilia opera Never Been Kissed, Alba is a "Melrose Place" outtake in leather catsuit atop an omnipresent motorcycle who, though reasonably hot in a still-has-baby-fat sort of way, has virtually no presence as a lead and no hint of charm in her delivery. When Alba's mother (grandmother?) was burning her bra, it wasn't so that a bad guy (and America, or at least the fraction of America surfing past this mess) could catch a good eyeful and maybe a grope of Alba--but on her terms, damnit--in a navel-cut strapless red number, her undercover-hooker outfit.
It seems Max is a genetically-engineered super-soldier interested in finding the benefactor in her escape, her mother, and various other people. The little dramas in the series are essentially geared towards Max acting like she's in a trance all the time, riding around on her bike, spouting ghetto-ese with the greatest of unease, and indulging in hyper-edited kick-fu. The problem with the conceit is that Max--unlike "The Greatest American Hero"'s Ralph, or "Jake 2.0"'s Jake, folks who are struck firm with the Almighty's dork stick--is one of the beautiful people, making her ascension into the weenie superhero pantheon another example of The Man having its way with the proles rather than the downtrodden rising up, Bruce Banner-like (or Seabiscuit-like), to take their measure of the American Dream. Worse is the idea that Max has done nothing for her gifts, her fabbo bod and lightning reflexes a result of some feline DNA--and though she appears to be entirely witless and a terrible thief besides (an impediment, one would suppose, as thievery is her chosen vocation), who of the privileged breed has ever had to suffer the indignity of ostracism or homelessness for their vapidity and inability to do their job with aptitude?
"Dark Angel" is the celebration of the jock-class--the bullies and cheerleaders living charmed lives who may suffer from the occasional bout of repentant promiscuity and drug addiction (and parental abandonment), but no more so than the rest of us not similarly gifted with Max's bounty of advantages. So the pilot, with its flashbacks to the evil military's evil training facility, doesn't offer up much sympathy for the little super-kids, while its tomorrow-day-just-like-any-day Seattle doesn't offer up much in the way of a post-apocalyptic feel. Even television and the Internet have been restored in this wasteland so that a perfunctory love story between Max and a soon-to-be crippled love interest, Che Guevera-lite Max Headroom video activist Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly), can strike up a tedious, series-long flirtation. The conjoined ideas of our capitalist wonderland in serious peril and the heroes charter members of the bold and beautiful don't coexist very easily, smacking suspiciously of having cake and eating it, too: Let's comment on the decline of society, and let's do it with the ruling class responsible so as not to alienate the demographic of folks with money to which we hope to sell things during the commercial breaks.
To the series' credit, and affecting a certain uncontainable mirth, there seems a fanatical dedication to having every possible minority represented in the cast, complete with an incomprehensible Jamaican dude, a guy who looks like Stephen Dorff in a wheelchair, and a black lesbian best friend branded with the cringe-worthy drag-queen moniker Original Cin-dy (Valarie Rae Miller). Any good feeling engendered by the casting, however, is swiftly defeated by its self-conscious self-satisfaction with it, and the series' unfortunate habit of having Max or Cindy or both pretend to be hookers at least once per episode. Having a tough Latina heroine for a weekly adventure show is revolutionary, maybe; having her be a bimbo whore (the second episode, "Heat," refers to oestrous, not Michael Mann) is reprehensible. So, with a fair measure of resignation, here's a brief blow-by-blow of the first of two memorably bad seasons of "Dark Angel".
1:1 Pilot - Take it as a clue that the clever title of the pilot episode is "Pilot." A blue-lit flashback to a miniature Max (Geneva Locke, looking more like a miniature Lou Diamond Philips) in generic scrubs with a barcode on the back of her neck breaking out of some pillbox in the middle of a forest with a gaggle of other little bald kids. The action--a mix of slow-mo and flutter-edits--is bad, and it lands with something like dread that we'll be coming back to this flashback and this bad action a lot. In present-day 2019, Max is a bike messenger-cum-terrible-thief who appears to have some sort of problem with her neck, as her head is held at a permanent forty-five degree angle. The quest, as it were, is for the nice lady who helped mini-Max escape her test tube--the proximate quest is for the wrongdoers targeted by Logan's alter ego "Eyes Only," a cable hacker who targets one evil captain of industry per episode. He's the brains, she's the muscle; oh, the delirious topsy-turvy otherworld of "Dark Angel".
1:2 Heat - Because Max is a little bit cat at the genetic level, three times a year, she goes into heat. Whether this is accompanied by engorged genitalia and a distinctively foul, musky odour is one of those things that one can't stop thinking about while wishing that one hadn't started. Whatever the case, it's not addressed in an episode that bothers itself resolving Max's search for the nice lady who helped her out and introduces another storyline in which Max searches for her mother. A good time to observe that about half of every episode is obsessed with Max zooming around to bad techno/hip-hop hybrids on her motorcycle and that nearly every episode ends with Max sitting on top of a bad process shot of a decrepit space needle, pouting with her gigantic lips and combing over the episode in the Doogie Howser tradition. Padding, thy name is Max. Now, watching her clean herself with her tongue--that's something I can get behind.
1:3 Flushed - Max needs Tryptophan for the amino acids left out of her genetic make-up, her flaw a means to control her as a genetically engineered super-freak. The idea of forced addiction to control a young woman enlisted to do evil men's evil raises the spectre of prostitution and so on, a thread of outrage undermined when Max and Cindy are repeatedly shoehorned into hot-pants and merry widows. I'm not exactly complaining, but I'm also old enough to rent actual porn, so consider me neither awfully titillated nor edified. The misogyny of "Dark Angel" is particularly infernal in that it's clothed in a certain reductive feminism that seeks to castrate and denigrate men while giving men exactly what they want in a fantasy of the baby-faced, ethnic dominatrix. All this is beside the point as Max's pals stage an intervention, forcing Max to hit the streets for her amino fix, her weakened state landing her in the pokey. Cindy comes to the rescue disguised as a--wait for it--hooker, and Jessica Alba demonstrates exactly how one manages to be wholly unconvincing whilst simulating palsy. Meanwhile, Max is still in search of mommy and, also meanwhile, manages to rescue an abused moppet and place her in a loving home.
1:4 C.R.E.A.M. - Mmmmm...innuendo. The first four titles taken together read as some sort of PENTHOUSE FORUM haiku written by an Air Force Academy cadet, while the fourth episode itself sets about establishing some back story for Logan/Eyes Only in the tale of a daughter looking for her long lost father--said father being a freedom-loving journalist missing and presumed dead. But he's not dead, she's not a faithful daughter, Max learns a hard lesson about the mean streets, and some sub-plot about roulette and Russian gangsters finds Max and Cindy disguised as--could it be?--hookers. New powers revealed: The ability to predict where a roulette ball will stop (in addition to great leaping ability, retarded quipping ability, and telescopic vision). "C.R.E.A.M." by the way, stands for "Cash Rules Everything Around Me"--not a bad axiom for a hooker to live by.
1:5 411 on the D.L. - If I pretended to know what the title here meant I'd sound as stupid as the people who decided to name it in that in the first place. (I'm thinking it has something to do with information getting, but Christ, I'm Chinese and over sixteen so what do I know?) Whatever the case, "411 on the D.L." seems to be about Max needing a lot of money to get her bike un-impounded and information on her fellow-Manticore kids. Because Max can win countless amounts of money at roulette, I'm not buying this as much of a plot--nor am I buying the subplot concerning Logan's ex-wife causing strife with Logan and Max, who, after all, haven't even sealed the deal in any meaningful way. The episode is boring. New powers revealed: Max can see in the dark, but only in monochrome green.
1:6 Prodigy - Having nothing to do with the late, lamented band and a lot to do with a wooden actor pretending, and brilliantly, to be a metronome dressed like a hooker, "Prodigy" follows the plight of a crack baby genetically re-engineered into a metronome dressed like a waiter. The hope represented by captain gimpy and his creator, dashing Dr. Tanaka, is that maybe Max can be re-engineered so that she can keep her advantages with none of those nasty amino acid deficiency disadvantages. While they're at it, they should try to fix whatever it is that impels Max to hold her head at that forty-five degree angle at all times. New powers revealed: Max knows a lot about whatever plot contrivance this week's edition revolves around so that she might superhumanly provide boring exposition in as snotty a way as possible. The episode is again boring, and it should be assumed from here on out that all episodes are boring unless otherwise indicated.
1:7 Cold Comfort - Having forgotten to mention that Max gets her motorcycle back a couple of episodes ago after not being an attractive target to a junkyard dog despite her feline DNA (she must not have been in season), episode 7 features a lot of padding wherein Max rides around the city on her motorcycle. "Cold Comfort" tackles the tragedy of alcoholism, suggesting to me that all of "Dark Angel" is a little like that "special" episode of "The Facts of Life" where one of the girls learns something about addiction, child abuse, addiction, being in heat, and addiction--amazing to say that Alba makes Charlotte Rae look like the pinnacle of the medium. The episode also introduces another Manticore freak on the loose ("Brinn"), reveals James Cameron as a closet George W. Bush supporter, and features a running laxative joke. Now that's quality!
1:8 Blah Blah Woof Woof - Brevity being the soul of wit, the title says all there needs to be said about this episode and the series as a whole to this point. New powers revealed: Max can kiss Logan and somehow make it not look like a kiss, and though she knows a lot about the restorative powers of her super blood, she is unaware that a massive blood loss will actually make her pass out.
1:9 Out - It's as good a time as any to mention how stupid this show is, now, a little over a third of the way through the first season: It's post-apocalyptic Seattle, 2019, which means that the police have some areas cordoned off and that, presumably, the crash of the information grid has plunged the United States into the dark ages. Unimaginative premise aside, this doesn't explain the cell phones, beepers, Internet, electricity, running water, plentiful food, plentiful clothing, industry, automobiles (and, by extension, fuel and fuel refineries), fully functioning police force, fully functioning cultural structure, cable television, and so on--and yet, periodically, the characters have to, as they do in this episode, break into the Italian embassy for a bottle of olive oil, or genuflect before a grapefruit. Last episode, Max and Cindy get undressed in front of a voyeur who is promptly punished with a knee to the jewels (see above, re: baby-faced ethnic dominatrix); this episode, Max wanders around for a while in a towel--we've graduated from hookers to peeping tomism: the show's in retrograde. This episode deals with a white slavery ring and another opportunity for Max and Logan to relocate a bunch of sadsack kids to farms with dogs. The instinct to pander to the lowest common denominator doesn't stop with the leering at Max and the fetishistic regard for motorcycles--it bleeds into the treatment of children as puppies created exclusively for the aggrandizement of the ostensible heroes. New powers revealed: Max is able to refer to Camille Paglia in a sentence and can do so without irony. Wish I could.
1:10 Red - At midpoint of this episode, Max gets really wroth at being mistaken for a whore by a sleazy hotel proprietor. The sarcasm and tired irony sort of writes itself, doesn't it? Anyhow: Someone dead turns out not to be dead again, pointing to a running theme in this series of second chances, miraculous resurrections, and prodigal daughters. Not interesting, but at least coherent to a degree that merits mention, if only as a pointed indictment of Cameron's persecution complex and personality flaw that allows the man to screech "I'm king of the world" while accepting an award for one of the most jejune films in modern memory. Now, in episode 10, "Dark Angel" vilifies South Africans while suggesting that, somehow, their salvation lies in the harvesting of a Latina girl's ovum--something not entirely right about that. Oh yeah, it's called racism.
1:11 Art Attack - Marrying a stolen painting mis-delivered with Max learning about holy matrimony, episode 11 finds our favourite non-Kinski cat person weeping kitty-tears at somebody else's blessed day right before she rummages around, starkers, in a dumpster. Since there's only one slo-mo leer-session at Alba strutting around, I wondered if the series was growing up, but alas, and thank goodness, no--it was just saving up to make vainglorious gestures toward the institution before baptizing the poor dear in garbage. Damned if I'm not starting to respect the thing for being such an amazing broadcast simulacrum of an asshole. There are, by the way, three naked hookers in a hot tub later on (a parallel tale of a stolen locket, another jab at South Africans, and Max saying "Me love you long time" to a Korean guy--oh yeah, it's racism)--none of which are Alba. Progress? New powers revealed: Max can roll around in alleys and garbage without getting wet or dirty. Stinky? Probably already.
1:12 Rising - So the evil South Africans return, the diction-challenged faux Rastafarian works on his phonics, and it seems as though there's absolutely no trace any longer of that whole tricky post-apocalyptic thing. Max gives Logan another transfusion in the hopes of regenerating his crushed spine (result: Max passes out again), the pair visit Hawking-but-handsome dude for the boring plot exposition that Max usually provides, and Alba reminds again that she really can't act. Note: Max's make-up this time around sort of looks like Brandon Lee's from The Crow. On the bright side, the sight of Alba getting her head defibrillated is almost worth the price of the box set; on the dark side, a conversation at the end where Original Cindy expresses chagrin that Max is a genetic super freak loses some poignancy when one recalls that this revelation has already been made at least a half-dozen times. I hear that ginseng is good for that sort of thing. And by "that sort of thing," I mean being a moron. P.S.: Logan does the Strangelove tango--"Mein fuehrer, it's und miracle!" DVD: What new hell is this? A commentary track is provided featuring producer/creator Charles Eglee and co-executive producer René Echevarria that is essentially a lacklustre blow-by-blow of plot and chuckling at stuff like what people are wearing and how cool Max looks whilst riding her motorcycle. "What wonderful actors on this show," they preen--I'd say the same thing but add a question mark. Waste of time just got wastier. What a surprise that the insipid producers of this insipid show would be so inarticulate.
1:13 The Kidz Are Aiight - Fellow Manticore brat Zach returns in this episode--I know I haven't mentioned him before, but there you have it, he's back. Dr. Mengele, head of the Manticore project and evil father figure, is torturing him in much the same way that "Dark Angel" is torturing us. The parallel action in this episode, and it bears mentioning that there is always a parallel action on this show, involves Max taking in Cindy (freshly unemployed and homeless) and Zach coming home--prodigal sons/daughters, resurrections (super-Zach digs himself out of the grave), and so forth identify the series as still "Dark Angel". Stroke material in this episode includes Max shaving her legs while in bathrobe. It bears mentioning that Logan's alter-ego, cable hacker Eyes Only, spends a good deal of his limited hack time telling people how limited his hack time is. Not smart. Also introduced this episode is Manticore gal Tinga and the post-apocalyptic requirement that one provide an 8"x10" glossy when applying for a job at a bakery. Oh, this topsy-turvy tomorrow-orrow land--so familiar, yet so, so alien.
1:14 Female Trouble - Yes, the title is misogynistic. Enter Manticore drone Jase, an X5 (fifth generation prototype like Max) who decided way back when to be a simpering toady. Jase and Max fight while, in a parallel story, Logan loses the ability to walk and then gets it back again, sort of. Shrug. New powers revealed: Max can withstand a fatal dose of sentiment with a complete lack of expression. She is indeed powerful.
1:15 Haven - Aspirant screenwriters should understand that if they can't write dialogue and they can't write narrative, attempting nuance in interpersonal relationship for an entire hour-long episode of a television show populated by actors who can't deliver dialogue, move narrative, or exhibit nuance is a bad idea. A really bad idea. With that: episode 15, wherein Max and Logan go to a B&B. Seriously. Hilljacks are butchered and another little kid is saved by St. Max and the Gimp Wonder.
1:16 Shorties in Love - Original Cindy's ex-girlfriend Diamond comes back to town and, y'know, I hardly understand a word she says either. What's a "boo" in this context? Why is everything in the third person? A new hot water heater deposits Max in a robe again, causing me to realize that it's been a while since she pretended to be a hooker or taken a garbage bath. Logan decides to try his hand at writing poetry, and can it be that Diamond isn't what she appears to be? Eh.
1:17 Pollo Loco - Enter another Manticore alum, cute, glassy-eyed Ben, who used to be the mythmaker storyteller of the group, scaring all the sideshow geeks with bedtime frights about the "Nomalies"--previous prototypes of the X-project who didn't turn out so hot. Alba in a bathrobe again (perhaps the wardrobe department is as bankrupt as the braintrust that insists on introducing a new biological hobgoblin each episode) and something about a cult that's fond of pulling teeth and killing other Manticore kids. There's a problem embedded in all superhero melodramas, and that problem is that if you make your hero too powerful, you eventually have to introduce a bunch of contrived villains that are more powerful, sort of. Dreary and ever in danger of spiralling out of control--hey, there it goes.
1:18 I and I Am a Camera - The running subplot of Max as the object of voyeur obsession (ours, Cameron's) comes to a head in a tale of a paparazzi-gone-bad stalking our beloved jiggle-bunny. This much credit is due, that the creators of this show apparently heard the criticisms in the earlygoing and phased out a lot of the hooker stuff while addressing, head-on, issues like the indecipherability of the Jamaican pastiche and now the peep-show thing. Still a lot of motorcycle riding, though, and a flash of a pair of dominatrices in a warehouse just to show us they still care. This one's about evil hoverbots and the loss of Logan's trust-fund fortune. Rain punctuates great emotional turmoil and discussions about Destiny--and a bionic exoskeleton gives Logan's dream of walking new hope. DVD: A commentary track with Executive Producer Charles Eglee, Co-Executive Producer Echevarria, and Director Jeff Woolnough spends some time fawning over the post-apocalyptic sets, causing me to wonder if for them "post-apocalyptic" means "warehouse." Their appreciation for Alba's performance seems untinged by irony (instant cause for distrust), and a late revelation that one of their fathers passed on during or soon after the filming of this episode is curious mainly because it suggests some issues that need to be worked through that have nothing at all to do with the television show. "Here's where Max breaks into an apartment, my father never loved me."
1:19 Hit a Sista Back - So again I find myself in the unenviable position of not having the first clue of what the episode title means: the tragedy of middle class fogey-ism. Max saves another of her curiously always-in-need-of-saving-by-Max fellow bio-freaks--Tinga of episode 13 has a starring role on the back of a milk carton this time around, and we have another prodigy à la episode 6. Broken families, fixed families, blah blah woof woof. See? I'm old but I'm teachable.
1:20 Meow - Because "Dark Angel" was dangerously close to becoming not terribly offensive, Max finds herself in heat again--stripping, having naughty dreams, engaging in cheap sex, taking showers, and being so pathologically afraid of sex that there's got to be something here to analyze. And I'm just the man not to do it. This is one of those lore episodes that destroyed "The X Files"--lots of conversations by MIB's meant to explain backstory and manufacture story cohesion where there is none. Logan, meanwhile, tries to fix the bionic exoskeleton from episode 18. I still wonder, by the way, if she smells like a wet muskrat on a hot plate--and, if so, how does one broach such a thing in polite conversation. This episode is to be continued--the first two-parter, huzzah--though I have my doubts if my pressing question will be answered.
1:21 ...And Jesus Brought a Casserole - So here it is, the season finale. Evil Lydecker (I called him Mengele before, which is a little something I call "a bad joke") shares some of his dark places with a captive Max. She's not so super now, is she? An evil woman doctor who's been hanging around for a few episodes (and looks a lot like Frenchie from Grease) threatens to be the new Dr. Mengele in Season Two (the fact of which is a little like a Sword of Damocles made entirely of horse shit); the tension of the cliffhanger comes from Max's death and resurrection. I seem to remember saying something about how all of this show seems to be a massive working-out of a few of James Cameron's trickier persecution complex issues as they manifest in this martyr complex--megalomania, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, arrested emotional development, and so on and so forth. New powers revealed: Magna-nepotism, as this episode features Alba's also-unable-to-act brother. DVD: Because there's a tenth circle of Hell reserved for film critics and I'm in it, there's a commentary track here with Alba and Weatherly that offers new definitions for terms like "vapid" and "self-satisfied." That these two have married or something causes one to hope that at least one of them has been neutered. The yakker is basically a plot summary that sounds a lot like clumsy flirting (bad attempts at jokes, bad fake giggling at bad attempts at jokes)--if you can actually listen to more than a few minutes of this thing at a time, you're a scary person. Truly. This track ranks high among the stupidest things ever captured on tape.
Because torture isn't generally a mercifully brief thing, this special six-disc collection includes a boatload of special features on its last disc in lieu of a 22nd episode, which makes it, of course, a double-edged situation. A "making of" doc called Dark Angel: Genesis features interviews with principal cast and crew, including Cameron, explaining the premise of the same series we've just spent about twenty-one hours watching. (I'm not saying that it's not helpful. Except I am.) Not completely a waste of time, however, listening to Alba describe her character as "confused, scared, strong, um...dark" is almost worth fast-forwarding to. I do wonder what the "dark" in "Dark Angel" refers to if not Alba's non-Caucasian origins--curiouser and curiouser, and oh yeah, it's racism. A discussion of the electronic hip-hop score is a knee-slapper in the revelation that they wanted to avoid a "hit song" because that would date the piece--would that the same philosophy were applied to the hep lingo. My affection for poor James Cameron that had been rekindled a little with his Solaris commentary track is strained anew.
Another documentary, "Seattle Ain't What It Used To Be," talks about the production design of "post-pulse" Seattle while prompting the answer: "Maybe Not, But It Sure Looks Like It Used to Be or, At Least, Vancouver With Graffiti." Some of the trickery is interesting, for sure, but the success of the results is in question. A few explanations of CGI modeling are by now familiar to anyone with the slightest bit of interest in such things. "Creating An X5" is a big chunk of Alba talking about Max that, I'll be honest here, makes me want to kill myself. The bit that goes, "She's part feline as well so she can see farther, she can see at night, she can hear things, and her senses are heightened as well," is particularly self-destruction-inspiring--no less so Alba's description of the fight choreography as, "Basically, it's choreography."
A comparison between audition tapes and finished episodes (well transferred across the board, I should say, at their original fullscreen 1.33:1 aspect ratio and presented with more-than-adequate Dolby Surround soundtracks) is provided for six of the actors, poorly-synched picture-in-picture things that are almost completely baffling to me not merely for their existence, but for the fact that there's no appreciable improvement between the audition sessions and the final product. I don't know how these things work, admittedly, but I confess that I was always under the impression that rehearsals, editors, and directors were meant to improve performances. Count this as my first harsh lesson learned in these special features. A blooper reel is introduced by a fake Eyes Only intro that makes fun of the dumb ghetto-ese of the series and followed by the nominal actors of the piece flubbing their lines, making groany noises, and getting the giggles. Alba saying, "You're stupid!" a lot and getting set on fire is sort of amusing, I admit, in a way her emetic laughter isn't. The reel, like the audio comparison, just goes on forever. A trailer for the "James Cameron's Dark Angel" video game is better than the series while still looking like one of those ported game licenses that's unspeakably awful. If it sucks, at least it's faithful to its source. Originally published: November 4, 2003.