The Evil That Pop Ironists Do

Heaven is for the hip: Afterlife agents Chandler Smythe (Clayton Rohner) and Henry McNeil (Richard Brooks) pose toward the pearly gates

I wish I liked USA's "dark" and "edgy" new series, G vs. E as much as the show likes itself. I do like the premise: Dead tabloid reporter has to tune up his iffy karma in the afterlife, bumping off demons for Good's police force. And I like the aesthetic: grungy in the best scuzz-film mode, brimming with deadpan ultraviolence, bleeped obscenities, and pop-cult riffs. I even like the way the credit sequence tips its hat to Charlie's Angels, Pulp Fiction, and The Mod Squad without making a big deal of it.

But wait, there's more. The jokes are hip and savvy enough to poke fun at TV with wit that suggests writers who actually watch TV. "They're all redheaded, they're all strippers...and they're all dead," remarks the heroes' commanding officer, neatly summarizing the second episode's plot. "Sounds like a night on cable TV, huh?" Later in the same episode, a stripper who's about to be murdered complains that she had a tryout for "some producer who claimed he had a show on the SciFi network," but all he could really muster was a Doritos callback. (Directors Josh and Jonas Pate, having escaped development-deal purgatory with last year's knotty, noirish character study Deceiver, surely know whereof they speak.) "Would a serial killer have every Loggins & Messina album?" demands one suspect, who indeed proves to be innocent. Minor characters named "Googy Gress" and such hint at a screenwriter with a shelf full of Ellroy. And the hip don't stop: The closing credits list the indie bands played during the episode, seemingly all of them on the newly emancipated Matador label.

So what's not to like? Well, for a start there's the staleness of the production, a fetid sea of images that drowns the show's entertaining bits and pieces. One bottom-of-the-screen graphic that reads "Cab waiting. Body in trunk" clumsily reminds you how many times you've seen other directors make the same move. Where once that device seemed new and daring, a gleeful tear in the fabric of realism, by now it seems like just another wink and nod. Or remember those French New Wave rip-offs--the slo-mo effects and split screens--that seemed so cool in 1991? Today these tricks feel like a homework assignment from the first month of film school. Maybe Oliver Stone still believes he can wring some juice from hoary tropes like Beneath Normality There Lurks the Monstrous. But check those grosses for David Lynch's Lost Highway again, pal: We've taken a different route.

Then there's the backstory itself, which recalls an unholy marriage of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Michael Landon's Highway to Heaven. The nominal hero, Chandler Smythe (Clayton Rohner, quite adept at various degrees of rumpled and unshaven), dies in the first three minutes of the first episode. He awakens with a chance to gatecrash heaven by working as an operative for the Corps, which defends humanity against demons ("Morlocks") and soul sellers ("Faustians"). The Corps is, as its name suggests, just like every other big business: It boasts a nifty logo, works out of your standard-issue TV police station, and even produces dopey instructional videos. Worst of all, it puts up its employees in a fleabag hotel that doesn't have cable. Even in the afterlife, apparently, the daily grind still feels like eternity.

Smythe has a partner, of course, in the person of Henry McNeil (Richard Brooks). He is, naturally, cool and black and Afro'd. They meet when Smythe nearly ruins McNeil's Commodores bootleg. McNeil runs down the basics of supernatural copwork: no sex, no contact with your old life, and no special powers. The pair spend much of their time in an orange Volvo wagon, driving the freeways of L.A. ("more deals with the devil per capita than anywhere on Earth") in pursuit of objectives they never quite attain. In the first episode, they let the wrong man go free; in the second, they finally catch the killer only after she has committed three more murders. As a whole, the series gives an entirely new meaning to the term "working stiff."

I don't mind that all this seems cribbed from 20 minutes in the science-fiction aisle at Borders: name from H.G. Wells, concept from Goethe, atmosphere by Tarantino. But the program is too insistently metaphorical, too glibly referential, too anxious to award itself subcult cred. There's the obligatory minor celeb playing against type: Old-school football star Deacon Jones delivers homilies along the lines of "I'm here to tell you how to whip Evil's ass!" A single episode name-checks Billy Dee Williams, Barbara Feldon "in the Get Smart years," and "convenience-store burritos." And America's Most Wanted demons include Orrin Hatch, LeAnn Rimes, and Gavin MacLeod. This name game should have ended years ago when MTV's Remote Control went off the air.

The central problem is that all this hipness has no foundation. And here's where the aesthetic lets the directors down: If you're happily ripping off the last eight years of indie-film tricks, you can't stand on artistic principle as any kind of bulwark. G vs. E wants you to root for anti- or sorta-heroes who prevent humans from selling their souls. But who's really scared of that?

Granted, no one in our culture really seems to have a handle on the whole Evil thing. A few years back, literary critic Andrew Delbanco's The Death of Satan charged that Americans long ago let rust the philosophical equipment necessary to truly understand evil--not in the loose Slobodan Milosevic or Littleton sense in which editorials toss the term around, but as a fundamental moral reality. Sure enough, G vs. E can't figure out why evil might be alluring. We don't even learn why you should sell your soul, since life seems just as grotty afterward. And we never know why we should root for good, either, when it's essentially stolid and bureaucratic; it's like being a fan of the postal service.

Quentin Tarantino at least had a video geek's intimation of morality--Harvey Keitel standing by Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs, Bruce Willis doing the right thing in Pulp Fiction. As yet G vs. E hasn't dared to give its central conceit that kind of ballast. And that is a shame: The frequent flashes of wit suggest a creative intelligence that should be able to figure out something worth saying. For now, though, the show languishes in limbo, neither touched by angels nor playing for the other team.


G vs. E plays 7:00 p.m. Sundays on the USA network (cable channel 17 in Minneapolis; 12 in St. Paul).

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