January 14, 2011

NBC's The Cape presents an (un)intentionally campy crusader

First, I’d like it to be clear that The Cape, NBC’s midseason superhero drama that premiered last Sunday, is really, really terrible. The first 15 minutes of the pilot are almost unbearable, as protagonist Vince Faraday (David Lyons) strides nobly around the screen, being an Honest Cop and a Good Family Man during his simpler, pre-superhero days. His struggle to Serve The City He Loves and Do His Father Proud, despite the Corrupt Police Force, alternates with tender moments where we’re shown how much he Loves His Son and just wants to Keep His Family Safe.

When the police chief is murdered by a masked, British-accented menace named Chess), Vince leaves the police to work for a private security force run by the (totally coincidental) British billionaire Peter Fleming (James Frain). Then, for unclear reasons, Chess—who, holy crap, is Peter Fleming!—frames Vince for his crimes, staple-guns his super villain mask to Vince’s head, and sends him out to be chased down by helicopters. One well-placed explosion later, and most people think that Vince is evil, and everyone thinks that he’s dead.

These first 15 minutes are pretty standard awful television. And the show could easily have continued in that vein, with Vince wandering around being noble and loving and generally having a lot of feelings, but now wearing a cape. But eventually it becomes apparent that this show can be at least a little aware of its own absurdity, turning into a sort of strange hybrid, both ironic and earnest in equal measure.

This shift happens roughly around the time that Vince evades capture and takes up with a band of circus-themed bank robbers in an underground Carnival of Crime. Yes, a Carnival of Crime.

But this is an origin story, and so at some point Vince must resist becoming a carnie bank robber and become a superhero. And he does, about halfway through the pilot. As it turns out, all superhero skills can be learned from circus folk! With the help of a cloak that, seems to defy the laws of physics, Vince becomes The Cape.

Being The Cape seems mostly to involve stalking Peter Fleming and being a mediocre superhero, but hey, trying new things is hard. But then he meets Orwell (Summer Glau), who is some kind of hacker-vigilante-blogger (though the main idea is that she’s Summer Glau), and together they must stop Peter Fleming from exploding something!

Many people think that near-painfully terrible things are supposed to be entertaining precisely because of how bad they are, but in my experience, it’s much more likely that they’ll just be unpleasant. If something is bad, it’s usually just bad, end of story. But every once in a while, something is bad in just the right way. This show kind of knows that it’s possible to be so bad it’s, you know, kind of good. Well, good-ish.

The Cape walks the line between unintentional and intentional absurdity with such precision that it’s almost completely impossible to know whether it’s supposed to be taken seriously. The people writing The Cape can’t seem to decide either, which gives me hope that perhaps it will waver to the side of tongue-in-cheek, cheerful camp, instead of trying to pull emotional resonance out of a story about a guy who names himself after an article of clothing. All we can do is hope.