Preview: Smith

Ray Liotta and Jonny Lee Miller

In the US: CBS, Tuesdays, 10pm ET/PT. Starts September 19th.

In the UK: Acquired by ITV for ITV4 for 2007; Hallmark has second-run rights

Heat: The Series. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not, but in the right hands it could be. Are the hands of John Wells, the man who largely messed up The West Wing post-Sorkin, the hands that could take Michael Mann’s classic and turn it into quality television drama?

Surprisingly, almost.

Story

If you’ve seen Heat, you’ll already know the plot of Smith, although there are some variations. Ray Liotta plays a professional criminal, Bobby Stevens aka “Smith” to the FBI, who together with his crew pull off brilliant, methodical robberies. But he’s married with kids and wants to get out of the business. Three more successful jobs are all he needs and then he’s out of it for good.

Will Stevens be able to give up his criminal lifestyle when the time comes, or will he be lured back by money, adrenaline and the thing he does best in all the world? Will his crew, all of whom have their own problems and lives to deal with?

Maybe they won’t even have the chance if the FBI get their way…

Verdict

Unlike NBC’s similarly themed Heist and FX’s Thief, both of which folded in just a few episodes, this has the potential to run for a long time. It doesn’t divorce itself utterly from reality or play it for laughs, as Heist did, and its characters aren’t so unlikeable, convoluted and uninteresting as Thief‘s were.

It also has a pretty stellar cast with some reasonable characterisation going on. Liotta, to some the poor-man’s De Niro but to others simply a potential star that never got the roles he needed, does well with a script that finally gives him something decent to do. Jonny-Lee Miller gets to be English, funny and clever but never effete. Amy Smart (Tasty Coma Wife in Scrubs) is the token female crim in the crew, but doesn’t get sidelined; Virginia Madsen plays Liotta’s wife, a role that initially looks thankless but turns out to be a lot deeper than we initially suspect; Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) is Liotta’s ‘manager’ and gets to do away with the histrionics that marred her appearance on 24; and Chris Bauer (outstanding as Frank Sobotka in season two of The Wire, but also making an appearance in the first episode of The Black Donnellys) is presumably going to be the Pacino to Liotta’s De Niro as the series progresses, although he has little to do in this first episode.

Even minor characters are intersting. The less well known Simon Baker (The Ring 2) plays the sociopathic Jeff to good effect, with a particularly chilling act of murder on his vacation that leaves him completely unmoved and tells you all you need to know about the character for now.

Direction is good and manages to recreate much of Heat‘s look, right down to some very “Mannian” interior design for the crew’s houses and apartments, even if it lacks the sheer sense of place and the style of Michael Mann’s perfectionist aesthetics. But the pilot feels a little stretched at times: the failed robbery that is the centrepiece of the episode is gradually shown via repeated time jumps, with more and more detail added with each jump. The trouble is that too much of the same information is repeated with each jump, dragging down the pace and adding a slight measure of boredom to action scenes.

It’s a good start to the show, though, and there’s considerable room for all the characters to develop in interesting ways. It doesn’t grab at the imagination the way something like CSI does, but it lacks the distinct “eat your greens, it’s good for you” turn-off potential that Brotherhood and The Wire both have that requires your undivided attention at all times.

In other words, I’m predicting lowish but not awful ratings, which would be a shame. Nevertheless, with an 11pm slot in the US, it’s clear CBS aren’t expecting a ratings smash with it either: here’s hoping for a little forward-thinking, anyway, and a growing audience, provided the cat-and-mouse chase with the FBI hots up in subsequent episodes. There are signs of a developing plot and there are enough clues left behind during the robbery that you know the tension is going to mount.

Not outstanding, none of the pearls of dialogue of The West Wing, but still worth watching until the third episode at least, I suggest. I’ll be there for you, guys.

Here’s a shiny YouTube trailer that actually makes it look a lot more action-heavy than it is. Sorry I can’t stick it in the page, but CBS won’t let me.

Cast

Ray Liotta as Bobby Stevens

Virginia Madsen as Hope Stevens

Simon Baker as Jeff

Franky G as Joe

Amy Smart as Annie

Jonny Lee Miller as Tom

Production

Warner Bros. Television

Executive Producer: John Wells