Cable's 'Original' Summer Programming Not Original Enough for Dobrow

Media Reviews for Media People: 'Law and Order: Criminal Intent,' 'The Cleaner'

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I'm currently in the throes of a charged flirtation with the neighborhood Fed Ex gal. Every morning, she brings me boxes, envelopes, pouches, canisters ... and yet so much more. She's the Bacall to my Bogey, the Janet to my Tupac -- but with less suggestive repartee and more uncomfortable banter about the weather.
'The Cleaner' packs too much extraneous noise into its 50 or so minutes.
'The Cleaner' packs too much extraneous noise into its 50 or so minutes. Credit: Danny Feld/CBS

When my delivery dove bids me farewell, I'm left with but a whiff of her funky musk and the mounds of crap she deposits on my doorstep. You see, we K-list media-reviewer types receive all sorts of goodies: "Farmer Needs a Wife" screeners, post-it notes adorned with the "Men in Trees" logo, etc. We base much of our self-worth on this privileged treatment.

Programming circus
The pipeline tends to dry up in the summer because the broadcast networks aren't eager to unleash fare like "Celebrity Circus" a moment sooner than they have to. Happily, in recent years the cable networks have stepped up to fill the warm months' programming void. And so it is that I find my to-view pile teetering precariously with imaginative, quirky fare from Spike TV ("Factory") Sci-Fi ("Scare Tactics") and IFC ("Heavy Load"). Watch all three, won't you?

However, feel free to pass on just-arrived, mainstream-minded summer offerings such as USA Network's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and A&E's "The Cleaner" While the two shows have little in common -- one's a for-dunces procedural, the other's a valiant stab at gritty, FX Network-ish drama -- both might as well come with a "watch us because we're not reruns!" tag affixed.

At least "The Cleaner," which debuts on July 15, boasts an original premise: a reformed screw-up makes a deal with the Big Fella/Gal upstairs to help others dealing with similar addictions. But as the screw-up's crack squad of extreme interventionists "cleans" hard cases by whisking them off the street and plopping them into treatment (is this legal?), he finds himself struggling to be a good dad and husband. See, he can help others but he can't necessarily help himself, which makes him all conflicted and whatnot.

Character issues
The problem lies in the strained characterizations. Benjamin Bratt underplays the title role admirably, resisting what must be a powerful urge to broadcast the script's shouty interludes with goes-to-11 gusto. We know he's cool because his shades rest upon the bridge of his nose just so and we know he's decent because he tousles his son's hair and makes goo-goo eyes at his half-estranged wife. What makes the character so interesting is that we're only told so much about his past issues.

If only "The Cleaner" had invested similar thought into its other characters. The cocky, flirty babe (Grace Park) seems to have wandered in off the set of "Las Vegas"; the dude clean-team members are characterized via their scruffy facial hair. Factor in the show's strained attempts to be stylized -- split screens, quick cuts -- and "The Cleaner" packs too much extraneous noise into its 50 or so minutes. For the show to stick around, it'll have to ditch its crime-action-drama aspirations and reorient itself around Bratt's character.

The problem with 'L&O'
As for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," I should state right up front that I consider the "L&O" franchise the pinnacle of lazy programming. Without the "Law & Order" imprimatur, "Criminal Intent" and its siblings would attract six viewers and a merciless critical rump-kicking for their lack of imagination. With it, the shows survive for years and receive lots of "not as good as the original, but still kinda okay, if you're into that sort of thing" notices. Score one for smart branding.

I understand why the franchise has proven such a wild success: It demands no intellectual effort or emotional investment from its viewers. At one point during the "Criminal Intent" episode that debuts on Sunday night, the jaded detective guy takes a moment out of his interrogations-n-wisecracks routine to summarize the show's first 25 minutes to his winsome partner. The two-sentence wrap-up doesn't commence with "we don't trust you morons not to confuse the four unfamiliar individuals to whom you've just been introduced," but it might as well.
'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' overstuffs every show with a gaggle of fine actors, but gives them little to do beyond recite their stilted tough-guy talk.
'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' overstuffs every show with a gaggle of fine actors, but gives them little to do beyond recite their stilted tough-guy talk. Credit: Eric Ogden/USA Network

Everything about "Criminal Intent" is by-the-numbers. The characters are interchangeable. The pacing is predictable. The plots are borrowed (excuse me, "torn from the headlines"). It overstuffs every show with a gaggle of fine actors --the one I saw featured Illeana Douglas, Jeff Garlin, the guy who played Furio on "The Sopranos" and a quickie cameo of the protagonist from USA's far-more-interesting "In Plain Sight" -- but gives them little to do beyond recite their stilted tough-guy talk.

In short, I loathe "Criminal Intent." It will likely be a huge success and live on in syndication until the continents crumble into the sea. This makes me sad.

Potential advertisers
Since neither the "Criminal Intent" nor the "Cleaner" episodes I watched have aired yet, I can only venture a guess as to potential advertisers. "Criminal Intent" should be embraced by any number of straight-down-the-middle marketers -- Ford/Chevy/GM, Applebee's/T.G.I. Fridays/Olive Garden, makers of lemony-fresh floor wax, etc. "The Cleaner" is a bit less sunny and, as a result, might appeal to slightly edgier brands (Volkswagen instead of the American automakers, upscale travel/lodging/dining instead of the family restaurants/troughs). Neither show dabbles too extensively in product placement, outside of Bratt's stated lust for a "classic Ford" to replace his dilapidated truck. At least that's what the press booklet thingie says, anyway -- my show notes read, "Big honkin' Chevy logo visible on grille." So somebody's not paying attention.

Don't get me wrong. Basic-cable nets like USA, A&E and TNT deserve kudos for taking advantage of broadcast-network indifference during the summer by introducing character-based original series like "Burn Notice" and "Saving Grace." But with 7,200 reality offerings clogging the airwaves and any number of ballgames to divert the groin-scratching set, shows like "Criminal Intent" and "The Cleaner" can't thrive on novelty alone. A&E and USA, the cable homes of "The Sopranos" and "House," should know better than most that a solid rerun always trumps a soggy original.
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