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Fall 2000: "Dark Angel"

It has been noted that there's a fine line between clever and stupid, and nowhere is that line finer than in science fiction. The same material used by a visionary to produce something as wonderful as "Star Wars" can be used by a third-rate hack to create "The Phantom Menace." And though Dark Angel, the latest in post-apocalyptic SF, treads awfully close to the line sometimes, at least it comes at it from the clever side.

But down to business: Max (Jessica Alba) is the omni-ethnic, post-moral, bio-engineered woman of the future. Spawned in a secret government lab, she and a dozen of her tube-born brethren escape to freedom in 2009 and spend the next decade blending into a society thrown into chaos by a terrorist nuclear bomb. Accidentally teamed up with do-gooding journalist Logan (Michael Weatherly), she has all sorts of adventures -- a significant number of which involve getting wet -- while searching for her siblings and being pursued by the evil Lydecker (John Savage), head of the project that developed her.

Dark Angel's creator, James Cameron, is well known as the worst husband of the century and the demon auteur behind such geek classics at "The Terminator," "Aliens," and "Piranha II: The Spawning." As the first project following the weepy, money-manufacturing "Titanic," Dark Angel returns him to his roots, taking nearly every SF cliché in the book -- a future police-state, genetic engineering, ruthless government agents, underground rebels -- and managing to assemble them in a way that turns out to be a surprising amount of fun. For a series so riddled with Science Fiction 101 formula rejects, Dark Angel does its job remarkably well.

A good part of Cameron's success in the past has come from the worlds he builds. His best movies are heavy with unmentioned history and culture, common threads binding the characters and events together. Dark Angel is built on one of these worlds, and the larger canvas of television is either going to allow it to grow, or show it for the tissue-thin invention most science fiction tries to get away with. For all of Dark Angel's potential, the series' fate rests heavily on its universe and how much time viewers are willing to spend in it.

Equally important is Alba, who I would like to have sex with. Ah. Um. I mean, who is the human center around whom that universe turns. Telegenic and self-assured, she's a find. Though underserved by scripts that leave her either hard-core cynical or belly-soft sentimental -- occasionally in the same scene -- Alba manages to go a good way toward excusing a lot of what creaks and sways around her. For instance, it's frustrating that she has the ability to sell Max as a morally disinterested killer, even though Cameron only lets her create situations where the bad guys off each other.

The dialog and the details of the show share some of the same half-there, half-not problems. For a post-apocalyptic world two decades in the future, a lot of the fashion, slang and technology appear to be straight out of the pedestrian, every-day present. If the world "dealio" is still around in twenty years -- much less pay phones, Apple Cinema Displays and the same cell phone I use now -- I swear I will kill myself. Yes, some of these concessions have to do with the budgetary limitations of television, where a burning car on the side of the road is universal short-hand for "post-apocalyptic," but too often the failures seem more of imagination than money. Max works with varied and wacky folk, relaxes at a bar, has unfortunate relationships -- put her in a skirt and you could re-use cast-off Ally McBeal scripts for the parts of the show where she's not kicking people in the head.

But all this is quibbling, really, because Dark Angel does work. The action is fast and varied, the look is almost always interesting, and the handful of supporting players are fun, in varying degrees. (The name "Original Cindy" earns bonus points.) There are enough tidbits scattered about -- the government agents pursuing Max, her siblings, the seizures she suffers, everyday life in the burned out shell of the Pacific Northwest -- to build an X-Files (or, better, Futurama)-scale mythos, something to reward those paying attention.

And there's Alba. She's proven she can play a better character than the one handed to her by the writers. If they ever catch up, Dark Angel could be something much more than the moderately interesting exercise in cliché-reproduction that its first few episodes have taken pains to establish it as. It could be something clever.


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