When I saw Crash for the first time in 2005, I was conflicted. There are some excellent performances in the movie from Michael Peña, Terrence Howard, Ryan Phillippe and, to a lesser extent, Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton, yet they're on the verge of drowning in a deep, thick stew created by the contrivances and stereotypes littering the screenplay, co-written by Bobby Moresco and Paul Haggis, and glossy, melodramatic direction on Haggis' part. Since that screening, the film became buzz material, an Oscar nominee, an Oscar winner and the target of some serious backlash.
Now, in 2009, just as the movie was turning into a distant, forgotten memory, we get "Crash", Starz's first venture into original programming. The resulting product shows that while those intervening years may have been spent on many things, upgrading the writing wasn't one of them. Worse, the TV show adds the striking sensation that the producers have pulled a fast one, that the material cheats its way into the middling level of success the show manages to pull off. I know "Episode 1" gets its uncreative title from being a pilot in the modern television production process, but it's ironically fitting in that the episode feels like a paint-by numbers. It's like the writers dug into the Melodrama Tinker Toy set and threw together a mishmash of plot threads and storylines they hoped would stick, and slowly wrote themselves out of corners after the series got picked up.
Take, for example, a trio of police officers: Bebe Arcel (Arlene Tur), Kenny Battaglia (Ross McCall) and Axel Finet (Nick Tarabay), for instance. In the second scene of "Episode 1", Axel is busy cheating on his wife with Bebe. Infidelity? Check. In the middle of their passionate lovemaking scene, he tells Bebe he loves her, only to get slapped, because Axel has been refusing to leave his wife. Emotional conflict over love in an affair? Check. Shortly thereafter, Kenny picks Bebe up in the squad car, and despite her protests and the lack of an emergency, Kenny turns the sirens on and runs a red, only to hit an innocent driver named Inez (Moran Atias), who he tickets and cuffs. Power trip? Check. Inez turns out to be a feisty, foul-mouthed woman with a rich husband, and she trades words with Officer Battaglia before leaving the station. Late at night, he goes to her house and they trade a few more words before they speed down the extremely short road to a hate-affair, which involves Inez's shallow character swinging back and forth arbitrarily from genuine anger to sexual attraction. Enemies become lovers? Check, with a touch of racial stereotyping to boot.
But therein lies the rub. Inez acts exactly the way I've seen Latina women stereotyped in plenty of movies and television shows, and yet, the character turns out to be a gypsy. Even if the creators of "Crash" have planned this reveal from the beginning -- and I'm perfectly willing to accept that they were -- does that suddenly make the character less of a caricacture? Similarly, the writers can create sympathetic sides to Officer Battaglia out of thin air; the character segues slowly from being an unlikable, cheating jerk-off to a troubled but kind man with a psychological need to stray. It all walks the fine line between pulling rabbits out of a hat and pulling back a curtain to reveal more. Was it always there, or not?
And why would I want to know more about such an unlikely-yet-totally-predictable romance between two characters that start out being almost wholly unlikable? Bebe's perspective on Kenny's law-bending might have added something, but Bebe's story is too busy failing the Bechdel test; for the first few episodes, all she does is pine for Officer Finet rather than display any characteristics other than her love for a married man, and almost literally, the only other two women she talks to during the entire 13 episodes are Inez and Axel's wife Ann (Trilby Glover), who she has a bit of a catfight with at a hospital. Maybe the fact that Bebe and Axel supposedly have something real is meant to make me care, but not only do I not buy it, I can't, because their personalities are only filled in where the plot necessitates it, and Axel is obviously a terrible person, playing both women and, much worse, on the under-the-table payroll of a powerful gangster. Axel murders two people in the very first episode; how can I possibly relate to anything he does after that? (Also, side question: are the producers not up on pop culture, or did they name the character Axel F on purpose?)
There are other, more concrete issues with the show. Not one, not two, but three plotlines involve marriages broken due to cheating. The first five or six episodes of "Crash" are enough to make cheating feel more tired and worn out than an inspirational sports movie. Some of the performances are also terrible, specifically Kari Matchett, who plays her role as a music mogul as poorly as it's written on the page, all fake smiles and cynicism. Other stereotyping includes Asian gangsters (Asians are the new Italians, I guess), black characters with a distaste for authority and a penchant for bringing up racism as a possible motive at any given opportunity and a vindictive gay man who lashes out at people around him in a desperate need for attention.
The major relief here is Dennis Hopper as verbose, eccentric, down-on-his-luck music producer Ben Cendars. In the very first scene, Cendars' driver quits, forcing him to find a replacement, and he hires Anthony Adams (Jocko Sims), a young poet/lyricist who appears both unprepared for yet unfazed by Cendars' various antics, including waving a gun around, attempting to stab other music producers, and claiming to a big-name producer that Adams is his new rap protégé called Panic. By process of elimination, these characters are the most entertaining, but that doesn't mean they're brilliantly-written either, with the pair running a back-and-forth routine where Cendars does or plans something crazy and Anthony tries to talk him down or deals with it, followed by a reveal that Ben might not be as crazy as he seems. Arlene Tur is also a warm-hearted relief from all the hateful, angry characters despite her character's poor writing, and I really liked Tom Sizemore's nervous, jittery performance as another cop who ends up coming in to investigate Axel. Clare Carey, as a housewife trying to remodel her bathroom, only to be thwarted by slow-boil family issues, is also good, although her plot goes nowhere, consistently shuffled to the back by the rest of the show.
What's most disappointing about "Crash" is that it had the potential to be something different. In the last few episodes, the characters' relationships to one another become clear in a similar way to the movie, but it's hard to think that the show can continue to coincidentally connect the dots, or, worse, add more characters in a happenstance web without becoming goofy. "Crash" could have done something innovative, like followed a new character every week, using the beginning of each episode to send off our protagonist from last week and introduce us to our new one, or followed a central character for a season and spent each episode exploring a key interaction with one non-recurring character, and that's just off the top of my head. If Starz wants to play the same game as HBO and Showtime have done with shows like "The Sopranos" or "The Wire" and "Dexter" or "Weeds", then they'll have to do a little better than this. "Crash" is okay, and as the show develops, it finds a few ways to patch itself up by coloring in things that already seemed covered, but the key word in "original programming" is "original", and originality is something "Crash" could use more of.
The episodes break down as follows:
Disc 1: "Episode 1", "The Doctor is In", "Panic", "Railroaded".
Disc 2: "Your Ass Belongs to the Gypsies", "Clusterfuck", "Los Muertos", "Three Men and a Bebe".
Disc 3: "Pissing in the Sandbox", "The Future is Free", "F-36, Sprint Left, T-4", "Ring Dings".
Disc 4: "The Pain Won't Stop".
"Crash": The Complete First Series comes in a single-width, foil-embossed slipsleeve that looks really slick, with two slimpaks holding the four discs inside the case. Not surprisingly, the artwork takes its cues from Lionsgate's artwork for the DVD of the film, and it's nice and eye-catching. Inside, the slimpaks are graced by a character photo or two, with episode listings on the back. Two inserts are included, one promoting Anchor Bay's release of Sleepwalking, the other promoting Starz, the second season of "Crash", and "Spartacus" (gee, Starz, "Rome" much?).
The Video and Audio
Anchor Bay presents "Crash" on DVD in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Disappointingly, this is a grungy-looking show that fails to echo the glossy, over-saturated, striking cinematography of the film. The opening title sequence of every episode is glossy, with eye-popping colors and rich blacks, but the rest of the show can't match it on any level. "Crash" is coated in fine grain, which is clearly meant to be sort of contrasty and gritty, but on standard DVD, it just looks slightly bad, as if this show was made in the 1970's or 1980's and restored for DVD. Blacks are also washed out, failing to exhibit any depth or richness in both daylight and the dark of night. The cinematography also does a this silly, partial-focus trick in almost every other shot in an attempt to make "Crash" look more expensive, which is distracting.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 English audio is fine, but it's not particularly impressive. It seems more like a show that was mixed in 5.1 because 5.1 is the standard and lots of viewers have 5.1 at their disposal rather than a show that ever calls for 5.1. The occasional car crash or gun shot will liven things up, and the music flows into the surrounds, but it never feels all that necessary or organic. Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also available.
"Behind-the-Scenes of Crash" (19:26) starts with an extremely cornball montage of the actors talking about "Crash" to the camera in-character, moves onto placating, promotional interviews where the same cast members tell the viewer how great the show is, and the entire thing is narrated by Poor Man's Alec Baldwin. The word "passionate" and the phrase "pushing boundaries" pop up a lot.
Episode 13 Alternate Ending (3:39) is a minor alteration to the season finale, but it's one that would have depressed me to no end. Nice to see it included, but I'm extremely grateful it hit the cutting room floor.
I thought Character Bios would be text profiles of the show's subjects, and I thought "Really?", but these are actually 1-minute interviews with each cast member about their character, likely from the show's website or something. I suppose they're okay, although the lack of a Play All option is frustrating.
A really lame promo for "Crash" Season 2 (0:18) without any footage in it is included. Disc 1 opens with an ad for Starz and trailers for Sunshine Cleaning and Last Chance Harvey, and Disc 4 contains additional trailers for Streets of Blood, Lies & Illusions, Table for Three and Bart Got a Room. The bonus features are not subtitled.
"Crash" starts to show some promise as the season goes on, but there's still a web of clichés and stereotypes that the viewer has to slog through first, and more than a couple of incredibly unlikable characters that must be endured as the show tries to parade them around like the viewer should be sympathetic towards them. The bonus features are also nothing to write home about, and the show doesn't look all that great on DVD. Since "Crash" has been granted a second season, perhaps it will develop further and fight off these problems, but if you want a primer for that, I'd rent this four disc set instead of buying it.
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