TV Review: NBC’s ‘The Cape’

We like to rub this in, but NBC is in the midst of an impressive string of failure. While a few of the network’s fall shows got full-season orders, they were almost pity pick-ups. There’s no way to spin the numbers for “Chase” or “The Event” as “successful,” even if they’ll both return in the spring. The network is practically rolling out an entirely new schedule in the spring, complete with a slew of new shows, none of which feel like inevitable hits to me.

But not all failures are created equal. 
As much as I dislike “The Event,” I can see why the gamble was worth the effort. I can’t say as much for “Outlaw” or for “Chase” or for the upcoming “Harry’s Law,” all shows that were built from a desire to work with a powerful producer or a powerful leading man and all of which arrived half-baked (I’ve heard “Chase” got better, but I stopped after two episodes). 
There are noble failures and ignoble failures.
I’m inclined to view “The Cape” as a failure, but it’s the kind of failure that feels worth the effort to me. There’s a passion to the story that series creator Tom Wheeler is trying to tell and there are fits of whimsy and inspiration that pop up all too sporadically through the two hours that premiere on Sunday (Jan. 9) night. 
As a whole? “The Cape” didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get past a bland central performance and a slew of tonal inconsistencies that undermined intended earnestness with unintentional comedy.
More on “The Cape” after the break…
“The Cape” is Wheeler’s attempt to use the traditional tropes of the costumed hero genre to create what I’d almost call a post-ironic hero for a post-modern age.
David Lyons plays Vince Faraday, the lone good cop in Palm City. With nefarious masked villain Chess running amuck, Palm City is facing a tough choice: Either continue to flounder at Chess’ mercy, or transfer control of the city’s police force over to the Ark Corporation, a massive private security concern fronted by James Frain’s Peter Fleming. But Faraday has issues with the idea of a privatized police force and he ruffles the wrong feathers.
Next thing you know, the media has become convinced that Faraday is Chess and he’s forced to go underground, leaving his reputation in shambles and abandoning his wife and young son.
Underground literally, Faraday runs into a group of carnival performers who also rob banks, or possibly bank robbers who also serve as a carnival sideshow? It’s exactly as goofy as it sounds. In any case, they’re fronted by charismatic MC Max Malini (Keith David), who agrees to train Faraday and help him restore his name. I don’t quite remember why. Faraday stumbles upon a versatile, well-designed cape, a serendipitous costuming choice, since his son’s favorite comic hero is also named The Cape. The new Cape gets assistance from Summer Glau, as a crusading blogger, though he doesn’t get around to that alliance for a while, so if you’re a “Firefly” or “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” fan, prepare to get antsy.
The tendency in comic adaptations on the big or small screen is to try to ground things in dark, gritty reality, from the locations to the character psychology. The two “Iron Man” films get to be an exception due to Robert Downey Jr.’s snarky, showboating Tony Stark, but when Bryan Singer attempts to put on a Richard Donner suit for “Superman Returns,” audience revolt, or at least response with confusion.
NBC had a dark, grounded-in-reality superhero hit with “Heroes,” though that show’s ability to maintain momentum lasted for slightly less than a season. 
With “The Cape,” Wheeler is world-building. Palm City is far Gotham City or Metropolis and director Simon West goes for a Miami-meets-LA vibe. It isn’t a heightened urban environment. It’s a real and plausibly mounted city with what seems to be a shipping economy, but it’s apparently also the kind of city that doesn’t blink at being terrorized by a masked villain and his henchman, like Vinnie Jones’ monstrous Scales. Does that mean that Palm City exists in an America that also has costumed heroes? Is Faraday’s son’s comic based on an existing hero? I have no idea. We haven’t gotten that deep into the world yet, but I was intrigued that “The Cape” was making me ponder rules. [One thing I’m certain of: Real-world pop culture references in Palm City are a bad idea. The first episode drops a dated, meta “Borat” reference and it’s jarring.]
Faraday’s Cape comes from a tradition of comic figures who thrive on training and technology, rather than extraordinary ability. Faraday’s working with carnival folk, so he’s trained in sleight of hand, in hypnosis, in certain fighting styles and in magic. The cape itself is a rather silly hero prop and keeping much of the cape’s “behavior” computer-generated only adds to the silliness, but it probably isn’t all that much sillier than the things a Batman has done with his cape over the years. Given the training background, a lot of what The Cape does is about flamboyant showmanship, which is how you can tell this series apart from “Heroes,” where characters rarely embellished their powers with more than a grimace, a cosmetically applied scar and a dusting of mud. Wheeler dispatches with the entire backstory and preparation in very little time, because he’d just as soon get down to his clearly delineated battle between good and evil.
The origin is dispatched in the same speedy manner an old-style comic would only spend a couple pages showing how Steve Rogers became Captain America or how Bruce Banner became The Hulk. It’s counter-logical in a world where superhero origins usually require a two-hour movie. Things are clear for Wheeler and for The Cape: Stop Chess. Get family back. So if the carnies are bank robbers, he doesn’t trifle with the morality of their actions for long. They’re quirky potential allies. If a pretty blogger approaches him? No time to check her credentials. She’s a sexy potential ally, occasional damsel-in-distress and occasional butt-kicking sidekick. 
But if Wheeler was practicing comic book economy and narrative flourishes, West isn’t quite on the same page. There’s no attempt at going for a comic book aesthetic either in framing or use of light and color. The above-ground stuff is action-drama-standard and the scenes below-ground with the carnival have a stylization that feels more akin to a perfume commercial or a David LaChapelle/Hype Williams music video knock-off. There are occasional flourishes that might work on a comic page or in a script — when Chess’ identity is revealed, we flash back to when we met the character, five minutes earlier — don’t work without a full visual commitment. In fact, without a fully realized and consistent aesthetic, “The Cape” plays as scattershot and erratic and it becomes harder and harder to tell how individual moments are supposed to play. Bear McCreary has delivered a pumped up score, full of swelling more-Elfman-than-Elfman themes, but the music is consistently bombastic, perfectly matching some of West’s choices, but turning into parody in others. [West and McCreary meshed much more successfully on the “Human Target” pilot.] The episode and segment titles are another comic vestige that conjure up “Heroes” flashbacks in all the wrong ways.
A good leading performance can help anchor a show’s tone, but Lyons offers nothing other than a sturdy chin protruding beneath a hood. I guess bland nobility may be The Cape’s dominant trait, but it would be nice if Lyons had any charisma to contribute beyond that. The Aussie actor’s difficulties with an American accent render every line-reading affectless, so if Faraday speaks with any personality — humor, determination, intelligence — you’d never know it. If Palm City is imagined, why not imagine an international community where an Australian could be a police officer and then a hero? Otherwise, find an unknown American actor with a strong chin.
It’s not uncommon for colorful supporting characters to overshadow the White Hat hero, but you need the hero not to get acted off the screen. When Lyons is performing with Keith David, you only see Keith David, having a tremendous time here. When Lyons is performing with James Frain, you only see James Frain, chewing scenery and showcasing his ears here. When Lyons is performing with Summer Glau, I only noticed Summer Glau, who looks great, but hasn’t been given enough to do in these first two episodes. I can’t tell you what happens when Lyons performs with the actors playing his wife and kid, because they might be even less memorable.
Lyons isn’t the only thing wrong with “The Cape” and it’s possible that the West-Wheeler/writer-director disconnect is a bigger problem, but he’s not an unfair scapegoat. If The Cape doesn’t work, how can “The Cape” work?
Through my viewing of “The Cape,” I kept making the oddest comparison. I kept thinking of “Kings,” a short-lived series that I consider the ultimate noble failure of the current NBC creative administration. NBC couldn’t sell “Kings” to viewers and the viewers who sampled “Kings” didn’t come back, but in many ways, I think Michael Green’s Biblical alt-world epic was a remarkable series. It was an attempt to fabricate a top-to-bottom mythology that walked a tightrope and could have crashed down if any piece proved too unsteady. Instead, “Kings” was often a creative triumph, a show I miss even if scarcely anybody else does. I watched “The Cape” and thought that what Wheeler was attempting was, in some ways at least, a similarly precarious tightrope trick, only in this instance, practically every piece was unsteady and the two episodes I’ve seen don’t come anywhere near maintaining balance. And yet I sense that “The Cape” is reaching for something, even in what I see as failure. For that reason, I’ll keep an eye on “The Cape” long after I’ve consigned wasted duds like “Harry’s Law” to the scrap-heap.
“The Cape” premieres on Sunday (Jan. 9) at 9 p.m. on NBC, before moving to Monday nights.