Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dark Angel, Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

In 2009 Max and her siblings, then children escaped from a secret facility in Wyoming, in the depths of winter; fighting their way free from Project Mantecore that would rather kill them than let them escape. They trained these kids to be perfect super-soldiers, moulding them genetically from embryos to have super-human abilities, then training and conditioning them to be the ultimate killing machines. They also engaged in several, cruel experiments on the children

Max made it out and made it to Seattle – where she is now an adult. But she doesn’t know where any of her fellows are, or whether they survived at all. She now lives with her room-mate, Kendra (who laments most sadly that while she is tried and hung over, Max stayed out later, got up earlier and is still bright and awake – which is most unfair) in a semi-derelict building with several other squatters.

And semi-derelict is the way of the world – after the Pulse. A terrorist made huge EMP air burst that fried all the electronics in the US, leaving a ruinous depression behind, reducing the country to third world status and the people to getting by. It’s an extremely repressive police state; controlled by check points and hover drones – hovering cameras that cover the whole city, though there are massive crime and corruption levels. In protest of that, we have Eyes Only, an anonymous activist who hacks into the television signals to broadcast his own, subversive journalism; exposing corruption and the untouchable crime bosses that rule the city.

Max gets by as a bike messenger working for her boss (nicknamed “Normal”) a repressive, petty little autocrat they love to annoy and her co-workers: the awesome Original Cindy (a black lesbian with the best lines ever), Sketch (the often foolish white guy who gets into far too much trouble) and Herbal (the wise and clam Black, Jamaican Rastafarian).

That all introduced (really well) we get to the issues of the day – Max’s friend and co-worker Theo being sick and another day at the Jam Pony bike messengers, and Sketch, her co-workers is cheating on his girlfriend with a woman called Lydia (Pam from True Blood!) We get an Eyes Only broadcast exposing Edgar Sonrisa, a drugs and gun runner with big political ties who silences critics; though Max is cynical about the whole idea of Eyes Only.

Max, meanwhile, uses her genetically enhanced super-senses to case places for stealing – and to win bets in their bar with Original Cindy by reciting 14 digit phone number from the dial tones – on speed dial. She has a run in with her ex who complains about how secretive Max is (to hide her past and abilities) – but Original Cindy is there to shoot him down and reassure Max as the best friend she is.

Max also goes to see a private investigator she has hired to try and find some clues about her siblings – fellow escapees from Mantecore with barcodes on their neck. He has information on a car that was owned by a Hannah who helped her escape – though the car was traded and all records were wiped out during the pulse.

Of course such investigation isn’t cheap – and to pay for it, Max resorts to burglary – and during her messenger job she managed to see a gold statue using her super-senses that looks just perfect. Not needing to sleep and having incredible agility, she’s a perfect cat burglar. Unfortunately, the penthouse she chose to burgle is the home of Eyes Only who is currently concerned with protecting a witness who is exposing Sonrisa of stealing a drug that is essential for curing Balkan war syndrome that afflicts many veterans and replacing them with placebos, while selling the real drug on the black market.

Max runs into the witness, Lauren, the witness’s child, Sophie and the armed guard Peter who she easily takes down. Eyes Only himself holds her at gun point, but is relieved she’s just a thief – and not one of Sonrisa’s men out to kill Lauren. Peter tries to handcuff her – but she’s not having that, locks him up and is out of the window and gone.

At home we see the downside to Max’s superskills – the seizures she suffers that requires her to take pills to control – and more of her life with Kendra, her motorcycle and Walter – the local policeman who extorts the whole building for bribes so they don’t get evicted as squatters – just part of the corruption and exploitation in dystopian Seattle. And Theo, Max’s friend and co-worker is sick; he’s a Balkan War veteran who needs the pills Sonrisa is doctoring – his wife and him are both worried.

Logan Cale, Mr. Eyes Only himself, uses his connections, computers and knowledge to track Max down for a talk. His parents are extremely rich and he is appalled at how, after the pulse, so much corruption and the police state arose as scared people gave up their freedoms. Max isn’t impressed – apart from anything else, she makes it clear that all of these problems were still in place before the pulse and the gap between the haves and the have nots was always obscene. Logan Cale tries to give her a recruitment drive, but she’s already vanished the minute his back is turned.

Sketch needs help (this is standard from the series). Lydia, the woman he is cheating on Natalie with, has threatened to reveal all to Natalie unless he breaks it off with her. Despite misgivings, Max agrees to step in and pretend to be Natalie, so when Lydia shows up to try and scare her off and reveal all, she finds not the sweet innocent Natalie – but Max, super soldier. And after being dangled from her ankle out of a window, she agrees to leave Sketch alone. Refreshingly, neither Max nor Original Cindy are willing to let Sketch cast himself as the victim nor will they tolerate him casting Lydia as the villain – they both make it clear that Sketch is the cheater, he is the bad one.

Not to be put off, Logan leaves the statue of Bast Max tried to steal in her room. Annoyed at his breaking and entering, she goes to his penthouse to confront him – pointing out the different level of ickiness between breaking and entering to steal things (which she calls commerce) and breaking and entering to stalk someone. He flirts with her – half in pretend – to see the barcode at the back of her neck. He then drops the bombshell – he knows Mantecore, he knows they were creating superhuman soldiers with genetic testing – and he knows that 12 of the kids escaped. Knowing that others made it is enough for Max to thaw and tell him about Mantecore and being transgenic.

Logan is willing to help Max find the others if she will help him protect Lauren so she can testify against Sonrisa. Max is utterly against it – she’s spent her life hiding and the last thing she wants to do is be that high profile. She leaves – but finds things are not quite elsewhere. Someone has beaten up her private detective and bugged his office – and he refuses to work for her because she’s the only case that could possibly have access to such high level hardware. And returning home she meets Theo’s wife and child – Theo, on the fake drugs Sonrisa has tampered with – has died. Going to work she sees the news, there has been a shooting – the footage shows Logan trying to move Lauren to safety – she escapes, Peter is killed, Sophie is kidnapped and Logan is shot.

While there’s a many splendored level of guilt for Max. With all these pressures on her, she goes to see Logan, unconscious in hospital. She tells him, rather unconvincingly, that she feels no guilt for not helping Lauren – and that’s Logan’s fault for being a “bored rich kid”. Her super senses also see someone on the rooftop opposite, preparing to finish off Logan and calmly wheels him out of the line of fire. Going to Logan’s penthouse, she runs into Lauren and agrees to help her get Sophie back; using Logan’s computers she finds the identity of Bruno Anselmo – the man who tried to finish off Logan and one of Sonrisa’s cronies.

Her super Mantecore skills allow her to infiltrate Sonrisa’s home during a party extremely easily, and a chance encounter with a prostitute and madam (who is painted highly sympathetically) allows her to knock her out and steal her dress. She then wanders around the party looking extremely sex – apparently enough that she gets invited into Sonrisa’s private room. When there she says she has Lauren and is willing to hand her over for $50,000. Which catches Sonrisa’s attention – she agrees to set up a meeting but first they need proof that Sophie is alive. Which involves a conference call (using speed dial – which, of course, as we’ve seen Max can hear the numbers of) to the people holding Sophie.

As a compromise, Max gets to leave with the money to get Lauren, but Bruno goes with her. Then she messes with Bruno – tells him she’s not there to kill Lauren, she’s an assassin Sonrisa called in to kill Bruno because he was so incompetent killing Logan that he was caught on camera. Sonrisa is removing a liability – and Max has the fighting skills to pass as an assassin. In the struggle during which Max sets him up to have died “by accident” he manages to get his gun and shoot at her – causing her to fall face down in the pool. Furious that Sonrisa turned on him – Bruno goes hunting for his boss.

And Max, with her massive lung capacity, finally surfaces once he’s gone – and gets her detective to trace the number where Sophie is being held. Donald Lydecker, the big bad from all of Max’s flashbacks, is behind the bugs on her detective’s office. He’s convinced he’s looking for the Mantecore kids. And now they have an address where she will be. They completely cover the perimeter with a massive troop of men.

There’s a face off between Lydecker’s men and Sonrisa’s goons – and in the tension Max takes down one of Lydecker’s soldiers in full, face covering armour and Haz Mat suit – and leaves with Sophie who she returns to Lauren. Happily Ever after.

At Jampony, the news reports that Sonrisa has been shot by Bruno Anselmo. And a courier arrives with Theo’s ashes – Normal refuses to pay the fee, but the bikers of Jampony get together to pay it – as Herbal says “they can look after their own.”

Logan is back as Eyes Only talking about people trying to escape to Canada being killed by their couriers. He took a bullet in the spine and is now paralysed from the waist down and in a wheel chair – but takes time to praise her for taking down Sonrisa. He also gives her the Bast statue, that he’d already given her and she’d stolen and he’d bought to give back. He tries to pull her into his big campaign, saying everyone living is involved, while she throws back that Logan has the luxury of not having to earn a living. But he has a much better hook – far more information than his detective; and proof that Zack, the leader of her siblings, got out alive.

This pilot primarily existed to introduce the people, who they are, the dystopian world and who Max is, what she is and what she can do. That’s a lot of information to cram into one episode. But it’s extremely well done, every character is established with just a few short interactions that really set the tone as to who they are, their attitudes and their relationship with Max. The world is amazingly displayed with just the buildings in the background and some short, succinct voice overs from Max. Max’s powers are shown easily in her daily life, her burglary, dealing with Lydia, even the bet in the bar – lots of little instances to show what she can do without having to say “Max is a genetically enhanced super-soldier, she can do X, Y, Z). I think this show is the best I’ve seen for quickly and neatly establishing world, character and setting.

This programme is very diverse – the main cast has Max (Latina), Original Cindy, (Black, Lesbian) and Herbal (Black); but also in background characters as well – all crowd scenes are very diverse, Theo is Asian, his wife is Black. It’s one of the few shows out there where you can probably see as many POC on the screen as you will see white people.

There are some pretty major stereotypes, but also a lot of carried culture as well – like Herbal and Original Cindy (who is, probably, the quintessential sassy Black friend with a side dish of angry Black Woman – and a whole lot of awesome) but as far as stereotyped portrayals go, they carry it well and don’t seem jarring.

There’s a lot of excellent commentary on class. As the country has collapsed after the pulse, most of the people Max sees – and she herself – live under heavy police scrutiny, in abandoned buildings and in shanty towns. People struggle to make ends meet, there are food riots. Yet at the same time, there are still wealthy people clinging to their exclusive penthouses and their glass sky scrapers, dressed in designer clothes and business suits. The gap between rich and poor is extreme and clearly displayed. I especially like that Max points out the class disparities before the pulse – and isn’t willing to let Logan

In a twist on so many “homewrecker” storylines, while Lydia is not a pleasant person by any means –both Max and Original Cindy reject Sketch as a victim and make it clear he’s the villain even as Max helps him. She overtly says – Sketch is the villain in this. I’m less pleased with Original Cindy’s motives of “maybe she’ll come to the all-girl team,” unnecessary and undermining both.

All in all, there is such a lot of good here. I’m impressed and doubly so for a dystopian – which is one of the most erased genres out there.