[This is the second installment in what should, ideally, be a running series, in which I watch a couple episodes of a show I'd mostly stopped watching to see how the series has evolved since last time I checked it out and if reevaluation is required. The first time I did it was with "Rules of Engagement," when my re-view confirmed why I don't watch the show in the first place... I'd be happy to do more of this in the future, assuming time allows.]
"The Cleaner," the show at the vanguard of A&E's recent attempts to reestablish a foothold in scripted drama, returns for its second season on Tuesday (June 23) night. I watched the first few episodes of the series, which features Benjamin Bratt as addict-turned-interventionist William Banks.
Mostly, I watched enough episodes to feel comfortable in the thesis of my original review: "The Cleaner" is a solidly made, seriously conceived drama with a decent cast. Put it on CBS and give it a time period paired with "The Mentalist" or "NCIS" or something "CSI"-related and it has all of the makings of a breakout network hit. You don't reckon "The Cleaner" pulls in more viewers than "Eleventh Hour" given the same time slot? I sure do.
But it's not a show that I need to watch, though I've said it before and I'll say it again: If the writers would give Grace Park and Amy Price-Francis more to do on a regular basis, I would find it within myself to watch on a more regular basis. Seems fair, right?
But with "The Cleaner" returning, I watched the season's first two episodes and my revised thoughts are after the break...
Some positives first:
I understand why "The Cleaner" is on-brand for A&E, the "Intervention" network, and why viewers tune in. The week-to-week catharsis is pretty intense and consistently well-played and Bratt is a strong leading man. It's a great tribute to A&E and to this project that they were able to get Bratt and it should be a mark of shame to the major networks and the bigger cable networks that they let him get away. And I say that as somebody who watched multiple episodes of "E-Ring." [Shudder.]
I also understand why "The Cleaner" is able to pile up the top-notch guest stars. You show up for 10 days and perform your way through painful detox and then go on your way? Bingo. Again, if this were a network show, the roles on "The Cleaner" would be like kibble to Emmy voters and everybody who's anybody would be signing on, the same way that B-listers flock to "Criminal Minds" or "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" to play serial killers and sexual predators.
In the first two episodes, we get Gary Cole, Michael Beach and Joe Don Baker going through different forms of withdrawal, Whoopi Goldberg as Banks' old sponsor, Raymond J. Barry as Banks' dad and "Everybody Hates Chris" star Tyler James Williams. Perhaps because of A&E's lower profile, the guest stars aren't quite huge enough to be a distraction (even Whoopi) and they all just get to do good work. In the season premiere, Cole is excellent, as a news anchor who blows 20 years of sobriety, as is ubiquitous character actress Jayne Brook, as his patient and sympathetic wife.
Thought I don't quite get why "The Cleaner" is determined to be the brownest show on TV -- the use of filters to suggest a burnt-out urban underbelly is excessive -- it's a proficiently shot series. You aren't necessarily going to hear many people talking about this, but the production design is superior. Banks and his gang keep entering the lives of people who exist in different stages of disrepair and the art directors make every setting have its own unique squalor.
What still turns me off about the series?
Banks' conversations with his High Power are dismally contrived and they always seem to have been written by somebody from outside of the show's staff. I appreciate that Banks' God isn't a Christian God or a Jewish God or even a Religious God, it's just the concept of somebody or something bigger than himself. That's a tricky tightrope and "The Cleaner" never makes me feel like I'm being preached at, just condescended to. Over time, I'd have expected that to be a plot element that got phased out, but I was disappointed to see it remains.
I was also disappointed to see that, if anything, the supporting players have become even less central to the storytelling. Or at least that's the case in the first two episodes of the season, one which gives limited screentime to Park and Esteban Powell and the other that leaves them out entirely in favor of a Three Generations of Banks Boys roadtrip, also featuring Brett DelBuono's Ben.
As I mentioned earlier, Bratt's a great star centerpiece for the show, but he's never been quite compelling enough to be a stand-alone leading man. Yes, I know many people find him dreamy, but still. He needs the contrast of his team and loved ones every bit as much as Simon Baker does on "The Mentalist" or any of the "CSI" leading men do. Banks begins the season estranged from his wife -- without seeing the second half of last season, I don't know the exact cause of the estrangement, but it isn't hard to guess -- and Price-Francis' absence is noticeable. I don't remember liking her so much last season, but it's possible that her wonderfully evil turn on "24" this season just moved me into her camp. Either way, the show needs Price-Francis to give the show heart. It needs Park for a little edge and naughtiness. It needs Powell for humor. Starting the new season with multiple episodes lacking those elements is a miscalculation.
All that being said, "The Cleaner" will still remain on solid footing for its core audience and for its network. The season premiere uses Banks' in-laws as a vehicle for discussing whether or not he's making money off his kidnap-and-rescue operations, especially in this economy.
"Addiction isn't going anywhere," Banks announces.
A&E certainly hopes not.
Will I be back for the season's third episode? Maybe not, but I still may tune in for guest stars I like, or if somebody tells me there's an upcoming episode in which Bratt decides to sit out a case and leaves things to Price-Francis and Park.
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