This fall, Slate presents reviews of new fall TV shows by people with real-life knowledge of the experiences the shows depict. Our second installment is from "The Earthling" columnist Robert Wright on the Fox show Dark Angel, premiering Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (click here for the first "Dispatch," on NBC's Deadline).
It is the year 2019, and the party is over. An electromagnetic pulse unleashed by terrorists a decade earlier vaporized cyberspace, plunging America into a depression and ushering in oppressive government and rampant corruption. That's the bad news. The good news is that Max (Jessica Alba), the heroine of Dark Angel, is the product of a Frankensteinian biotechnology project run by Nazi-type creeps. That means she has superhuman strength and agility and—now that she has escaped from the creeps—can use this genetic superiority to help save the world. As a bonus, she's better-looking than many products of biotech experiments. On the other hand (more bad news), the creeps are still trying to find her—and in this they may eventually be assisted by the indelible bar code they put on the back of her neck.
Dark Angel (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox) is co-produced and co-written by Titanic director James Cameron. I watched Titanic on an airplane without the headphones, and I'm pretty sure I didn't miss anything. Dark Angel is different. Though it takes a while for the plot to get in gear, by the end of the two-hour premiere things are unfolding fast enough so that you should keep the volume up—assuming you can stomach Cameron's conception of clever banter, a question I leave to you. (Time-saving tip: The younger you are, the better the chances, although at some point—age 11, say—comprehension would become a problem.)
This series of Slate TV reviews, as noted above, is written by people "with real-life knowledge of the experiences the shows depict." I am not a superhuman product of a covert eugenics program, so there's some question as to why I'm writing this review. Maybe, as someone who has written about genes, I am supposed to evaluate the premise that future gene-splicers could give a woman superhuman strength, super-acute eyesight, and so on. Um, sure, I guess. But as for whether future scientists could keep a woman's hair looking great even as she swoops across the cityscape Spiderman-style and engages in brawls: I'm skeptical. (And as for why hairstyles—and fashion generally—wouldn't change appreciably between now and 2019: Futurists are baffled.)
On the other hand, maybe I was selected for this review because of my affinity with Dark Angel's leading man, Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly), described in Fox's press release as "an idealistic cyber-journalist" who "battles corruption and the oppressive establishment." (OK, OK—but I am a cyberjournalist.) Logan, when he's not being hunted down by the oppressive establishment, anonymously beams subversive video reports about it. By the end of the first episode, it seems clear that he and Max will be an evil-fighting team, though what seemed clear earlier in the episode—that they would become an item—is severely complicated by … oh, well, I won't spoil it. (Besides, I suspect that technology may eventually overcome this particular obstacle to romance.)
Dark Angel has two basic modes: X-Men mode—or X-Woman mode—and a kind of post-apocalyptic-Melrose-Place mode. The blending of science fiction and soap opera seems designed to overcome the gender barrier that has made sci-fi a largely male pastime. A key asset in this crossover strategy is that the X-Woman in question often doles out gender-based justice. Repeatedly Max finds men acting like typical male assholes and then either grabs them by the collar and berates them or skips the berating and just beats the hell out of them. In case any female viewers are slow on the uptake, Max spells things out: "Girls kick ass—says so on the T-shirt," she notes.
Maybe the strategy will work. By the end of the first episode, there were signs that the plot could become engrossing. Still, the sci-fi part of the formula is a bit malnourished. The show tries to replicate The Matrix's spirit of anarchic rebellion against futuristic repression, but it lacks the metaphysical depth that made that movie more than an adolescent fantasy. Nor does it have Bladerunner's authentic air of dystopian ruin.
Then again, this is just TV. Moreover, it's Fox TV, and Cameron has faithfully conveyed the network's tabloid sensibility. Among the scenes in the first episode: a bevy of call girls at a rich thug's private party; Max posing as a call girl (after decking one of the real call girls and stealing her slinky dress); Max roughing up a chesty, slutty blonde who is cheating on her husband by sleeping with a friend of Max's who is thus cheating on his girlfriend (and who, according to the blonde, likes his sex rough, by the way). Plus, there's a fair amount of gunplay and the aforementioned mano-a-mano butt kicking. All told, I'm optimistic about this show's commercial prospects.
Photograph of Dark Angel cast members © Fox Broadcasting Co. All rights reserved.