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Two new action-packed summer dramas debut this weekend. One is pretty much what a viewer might have expected, while the other veers off suddenly and becomes quite interesting.
Surprise, surprise: This time CBS produces the unusual, while HBO delivers the tried and true.
Taking them in chronological order, CBS' "Flashpoint" debuts at 9 p.m. Friday on WBBM Channel 2. At first glance it seems a fairly run-of-the-mill SWAT-team drama, starring Enrico Colantoni, a reassuring presence from his days playing father to "Veronica Mars," as Sgt. Gregory Parker, the head of the Strategic Response Unit in an (unnamed) Toronto.
It's clearly Canada, because all the cops call each other "constable."
The pilot focuses on a predictable hostage standoff. A Croatian man (the show makes him seem Muslim by throwing in some Arabian musical flourishes) holds a gun to the head of a blond woman, and they wind up in the center of a city square. A police negotiator says, "This is going nowhere," when Parker's SWAT team shows up.
"Here comes the cavalry," says another cop.
Despite the language barrier, Sgt. Parker tries to talk the guy down, while the rest of his team follows their individual assignments. Hugh Dillon's sniper Ed Lane carries his shotgun into a crowded elevator and calmly requests, "Ten, please," to get to the top of a nearby building.
Director David Frazee throws in some nice touches, for instance shooting the team in one take as they deploy to emphasize its unity. The show also has a keen sense of detail, as Lane attaches a lifeline to a stair railing before crawling out on the edge of the roof.
The shooting, when it comes, is tense and deliberately ambiguous, but that's when "Flash point" veers off the obvious course. Instead of treating Lane as a hero, it plunges into the procedural matters following any police shooting. It finds its true drama in the boring bits U.S. cop shows tend to ignore. It captures Lane's stoic guilt and his tangled obligations to colleagues and family. At the end of the pilot, he seems a compelling figure.
I'm not sure where "Flash point" goes from there. Amy Jo Johnson's Jules Callaghan gives Lane a capable partner in sniping, but David Paetkau's Sam Braddock seems more clichéd when he shows up as the brash newcomer. What I do know is I want to find out what happens to Lane - and in the meantime watch how this team does its demanding work.
Debuting at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO, "Generation Kill" is also obsessed with co-workers in a demanding environment: in this case, U.S. soldiers in the opening days of the "shock and awe" Iraqi invasion. Yet where "Flash point" opens with the familiar cop premise and then narrows its focus, "Kill" is more scattershot - and less successful. It's so determined to be "gritty" and "uncompromising," it gives a viewer nothing to latch on to, certainly nothing in the way of sympathetic characters.
David Simon and Ed Burns, the screenwriters behind "The Wire," execute the script from the book by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone writer who was embedded with a unit of highly trained Recon Marines when the blitzkrieg raged. It tries to be as "realistic" as possible, to the point where some of the names haven't even been changed. Like "The Wire," "Kill" throws a viewer into the deep end, with no standard background exposition or character development. After all, this isn't TV, it's HBO.
Yet there's an important difference. A viewer always had the impression that Simon and Burns sympathized with their characters in "The Wire": certainly with the cops, while admiring the craft and ingenuity of the drug dealers they were trying to nab. "Generation Kill," by contrast, seems to look down on its characters. They're foul-mouthed, callus and crass, more obsessed with rumors that Jennifer Lopez is dead than with any scuttlebutt about the impending war.
During training maneuvers in Kuwait, one Marine moans, "These people still haven't picked up the (detritus) from the last war."
It lingers on obvious ironies such as a minority Marine explaining, "White man's gotta rule the world," and in military bureaucracy such as mustache protocol, as depicted by Neal Jones' stereotypically screechy Sgt. Maj. Sixta. The insanity and inanity of war is captured when Iraqis surrender - only to be "unsurrendered" and left to their own devices in the desert so the unit doesn't get slowed down on its race to Baghdad.
The only character who really establishes himself is James Ransone's Cpl. Josh Ray Person, with cynical pronouncements like: "You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps? You get your brains back."
I have no doubt that much of this rings true with actual Marines, who can be as self-deprecating and dismissive of their duties as journalists. But I also believe there's a lot more to it than that, a lot more complexity and intelligence. By taking the "real" and cramming it into an hourlong drama as if it were an Iraq war garbage sack, "Generation Kill" makes its character seem less rather than more than what they are. Take away the character development, and even Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" would just be a boring middle story tying together two hellacious battle scenes. "Generation Kill" doesn't have even that to fall back on.