Speaking of critically disdained mindless entertainments, hey look, it’s The Cape. Now, the chief criticism of The Cape is that it’s AWFUL, which, well, yeah, it really is. The acting is awful, the writing is awful, the direction is awful, and the premise is just INSANE. But I kind of like it anyway.
Part of the reason I like it is that, as I thought was the case with Off the Map, The Cape knows it’s awful and leans into the curve, which is pretty much the only way a show like this could work. If it tried to be self-serious, it would be unbearable. This is a show about a guy who wears a magic cape, after all. He lives with a circus. The circus is also a crime syndicate. For a network television series, this is just crazy, crazy shit.
Instead of shirking from the crazy, the writers have decided to amplify it. This week’s episode, for example, featured a giant radio-controlled robot bug thing that a pair of assassins tried to use to murder The Cape (Ben Lyons). The Cape, for his part, escaped by smashing it with his magic cape. Because that’s how The Cape escapes from every situation.
The writers’ acceptance of ridiculousness extends beyond plot points and into the dialog, which is almost always bizarre and frequently incomprehensible. Consider the following exchange, from the final scene in “Scales”:
The Cape: I just got Scales on tape outing Chess … and no one cared. They just laughed. I got nothing.
Orwell: You got scales and Fleming at war, the secretary of prisons wants to be your Tonto, and you saved hundreds of lives. It may not get you home, but that’s not nothing. [short pause] Everything we just went through, here you are wrapping a birthday gift for your son. Why do parents love their kids like that?
The Cape: They just do.
Orwell: Do you think anything could ever make that love go away?
The Cape: No.
Orwell: Your kid’s birthday next year, you’ll be home.
The Cape: Yeah. And where are you gonna be?
On the one hand, it’s not hard to see what’s going on here: Orwell (Summer Glau) is reaffirming The Cape’s hope. On the other hand, huh? The general point is understandable, but the specifics are just weird and whatever subtext the scene is supposed to be carrying is entirely impenetrable. It’s as though the characters are speaking in a secret language only they can entirely understand.
For the most part, the actors play all this stuff straight, which given the lunacy of the material may not be the best option. Glau and Lyons don’t come off particularly well, which is a problem, since they’re the leads. Lyons, in particular, appears to be something of a charisma vacuum, though running around in a thoroughly unimpressive looking superhero outfit probably does him no favors.
The Cape’s family, meanwhile, seems as though it’s been transported in from another show, which I’m sure is by design. The family is there to remind the viewer of all The Cape has lost. Unfortunately, the family is mostly just annoying, which somewhat undermines its purpose. Jennifer Ferrin is mostly fine as The Cape’s grieving widow (she’s unaware that her husband is still alive and fighting crime with the help of a magic cape), but Ryan Wynott as The Cape’s son is, well, I feel bad criticizing child actors. Suffice to say, Wynott receives far more screen time than he’s capable of handling.
Keith David, as the circus’ ringleader and The Cape’s mentor, and James Frain, as The Cape’s nemesis Chess, come out the best here, taking every ridiculous line thrown at them and spitting it out in an even more ridiculous way. In general, the circus characters* and the villains are the best part of the show, reveling in all the comic book wackiness the others seem trying ever so slightly to keep at a distance.
(*Also known as the Carnival of Crime. No, seriously.)
And it’s that comic book wackiness that appeals to me. The trend in modern super hero stories these days, regardless of the media in which they appear, is toward genre deconstruction. Sometimes this works (Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise) and sometimes it doesn’t (Heroes), but either way it sometimes gets tiresome.
The Cape has none of this deconstruction. The Cape is a guy in a silly costume and a magic cape who goes around fighting crime. Chess is a guy in a silly costume who goes around causing mayhem. Scales is a guy with whose skin is covered in scales. The Carnival of Crime is a circus that robs banks. That’s just the way things are. Nobody really questions it.* Sure, The Cape was a little confused for a minute or two in the pilot, but he got over it quickly and now he’s just concerned with doing a montage every now and then so he can use his magic cape more effectively. This is the world of the show. The good guys fight the bad guys, and we have no doubt that the good guys will eventually prevail. It is a straightforward spectacle of good vs. evil, in which the guys in magic capes and silly costumes act as larger-than-life stand-ins for the good and evil we see in the world and in ourselves. It is, in other words, an old-school comic book.
(*The only hint of deconstruction comes from The Cape’s family, where grieving widow Dana refuses to believe her son is actually being visited by the superhero from his The Cape comic books. Not coincidentally, this is also the part of the show that works the least. But even here, the very tame deconstruction is used mostly for the very straightforward sentimentality of a father-son relationship.)
If anything, The Cape is too faithful to its comic book heritage for its own good. The premise, after all, wouldn’t really be that crazy for a comic. But as a weekly drama, it just seems like the most insane thing ever. Likewise, the bizarre dialog full of feverishly mixed metaphors and direction full of quick cuts and skewed shots feel very comic booky. But this sort of campy, candy-colored spectacle feels out of place in a network television landscape composed mostly of dark, putatively realistic crime dramas.
Which is, well, it’s not too bad, exactly. The Cape really is terrible. But given that it’s terrible in a fun way, I’d sort of prefer it stuck around.