We watch... so you don't have to.

Fall '06: Smith

The title sequence for Smith -- the new CBS drama that follows a group of master thieves as they pull off a series of high class jobs -- is simply the word "SMITH", with the "I" inexplicably replaced by the silhouette of a man walking away from the viewer. I initially found this baffling, but as the pilot wore on, it started to make more sense. Because at the end of the hour, "I" walked away from Smith with no intention of ever returning.

Of course, as baffling things about Smith go, the title animation is pretty low on the list. Way up at the top is the show's assumption that I have any interest in watching the exploits of a bunch of unrepentant scumbags. Smith, at its core, is a show about total bastards. For a change, that doesn't mean lawyers; but that doesn't make me any more inclined to want to spend an hour with them.

Let's briefly run through a few of Smith's main characters -- and keep in mind that these are the folks we're supposed to be rooting for:

Jeff (Simon Baker) is a handsome, devil-may-care ladies man, and also the group's weapons expert. When we meet Jeff, he is being hassled by a couple of Hawaiians for surfing on a "locals-only" beach. Chastened, Jeff heads back to his jeep, calmly towels himself off, returns to the beach with a high-powered rifle, puts a bullet in the head of one of the surfers from 100 yards out, then shoots the other in the back while he's running away. The scene closes on a shot of the surfers' corpses lolling about in the foam, as a wave crashes in and washes a surge of blood down the shoreline. Charming!

Annie (Amy Smart) is a showgirl and also, according to the show's web site, a "beautiful master of disguise." She demonstrates said mastery in the pilot by tearing her shirt down the front and exposing her bra, thus ensuring that no male witnesses will remember her face. The rip in her otherwise flawless tapestry of deception is that there are also hundreds of women on the busy street in front of the museum they're robbing. Her hobbies include getting her coke-addicted cocktail waitress friend to steal gamblers' credit card numbers, then stiffing her pal on the promised blow money.

Tom (Jonny Lee Miller) is British.

And then there's Smith. Smith is a talking orangutan with an IQ of 256 who becomes a political advisor in Washington. Resplendent in his business suit and glasses, Smith makes us both laugh and think by showing us that perhaps we are the real animals.

Whoops, sorry! My mistake. Different show.

Better show.

"Smith" is actually just the name investigators supposedly give to high-class thieves who have not yet been identified. The group's head honcho is really named Bobby (Ray Liotta). He's a devoted husband and family man who, as a fun side project, plans and perpetrates heists that generally result in the death of two or three other husbands and family men. Emotionally he's a cipher, if only because the script is too half-assed to actually flesh him out with emotions.

Bobby's double life is becoming more complicated as his wife Hope (Virginia Madsen) has begun to suspect that those frequent "business trips" are perhaps something more sinister. You might actually sympathize with the lady if you didn't know that she's an adulterer and a recovering addict to boot. Won't somebody please think of the kids?!

In short, these are not good people, and we're given no reason to care about them. This is a problem, because the script spends half its time on these worthless grifters' personal lives. I don't give two shits for any of them, so by extension I also don't give a damn whether the Brit is schtupping the token female, or whether Smith and his cheating junkie wife work out their differences. I'll admit that when the explosives expert died at the end of the pilot and the driver was weeping over the body of his fallen friend, I did get a little bit sad. But only because the other characters were still alive.

Even with such a hateful group of protagonists, there are ways a show like this could still be made to work. It could be played for laughs, minimizing the general awfulness of the leads by making them obvious caricatures. But Smith goes instead for a deadly serious tone, which makes the characters seem like irredeemable scoundrels and saps all the potential fun from the proceedings.

They could pitch Smith as more of a Robin Hood tale, where the thieves only steal from those who have it coming. Instead, the pilot has our band of rogues steal a Rembrandt from a Pittsburgh museum for a Japanese buyer. I'm guessing the writers chose this because they saw it as sort of a victimless crime, but in actuality the public is being deprived of the opportunity to appreciate great art. And try telling the hapless security guard who takes what sounds like about sixty bullets that he's not a victim.

Another potential approach is to make the crimes themselves so well planned and clever that you're interested in spite of the characters. This is what Smith seems to be shooting for, but it totally blows it.

For starters, while we're led to believe that intensive planning goes into the museum job, all we get to see is the team meeting up in a parking garage, a short exposition sequence where they case the joint, and some quick shots of the team taking their positions; at which point they have already magically procured a delivery truck, a construction outfit, and a bunch of other crap. We end up with about as much insight into the crime as we got into the mechanical techniques Mr. T used to turn the A-Team van into a hovercraft.

Worse, the crime sequence itself turns out to be uninspired and not particularly smart. The thieves create a diversion, walk into the museum, subdue the security guards, and take the art. If we got to see this play out with a kind of clockwork intricacy, it might be interesting. But the whole sequence is delivered as a series of jump cuts, that beloved refuge of screenwriters who aren't clever enough to write an actual scene.

And they weren't even clever enough to get this skeleton of a crime scene to make sense. As the thieves escape by boat, they are chased by a long line of police cars driving along the waterfront. The team's brilliant plan is that they have rigged up a truck with explosives, and they intend to blow it up as the police approach. And indeed, they do just that, effectively preventing the cops from continuing their chase -- which is odd, because the truck is parked on the side of what looks like a six-lane road, and the explosion barely reaches out past the shoulder.

Rest assured that if this is the best they can do for the pilot -- presumably the episode the writers had the longest time to think about -- things are not going to improve for subsequent episodes.

Admittedly, Smith does assemble a pretty impressive cast with some big-name talent. Too bad it's completely wasted on this crap.

The jury is out on Ray Liotta's performance, which is either pretty good or absolutely horrible. He spends most of the episode just staring at things with no expression on his face. In the few moments when he is supposed to seem relaxed and at ease, he seems instead mildly constipated. And maybe that's exactly how he's supposed to be; since the script doesn't give us any clue as to his personal motivations, I have no idea.

I have to say, though, that I'm leaning towards horrible, almost entirely on the basis of this weird little "evil" laugh Liotta lets out in one scene. It sounds robotic and totally unnatural. That is, as a laugh it sounds unnatural. As one of those rhythmic farts you let out when you're climbing up a flight of stairs, it sounds as natural as can be. I'm pretty sure that's not what he was going for, though.

I don't buy Amy Smart at all as a slick, street smart femme fatale. But then, I've never bought Smart as anything I've ever seen her attempt to portray. I suspect the only way she'll ever seem like a good actress is if she takes a role in which she is supposed to play a bad actress.

I liked Jonny Lee Miller in "Trainspotting." In Smith, he's just "there", which is all he's really expected to be. I think they just wanted somebody with a British accent and then, upon reflection, couldn't remember why.

Virginia Madsen is also just there. Her rack, on the other hand, is doubtless the most emotive member of the cast, and it puts on its usual terrific performance.

But even if network TV allowed full frontal, no performance would be strong enough to cover up the fact that Smith has little to recommend it. In fact, rack aside, most aspects of the show are actively repellent. If you're the sort of person who enjoys watching somebody's masturbatory fantasy about the criminal lifestyle, by all means, tune on in. Otherwise, don't let Smith steal an hour of your life.


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