The marketing department at Starz has been using Dennis Hopper as the point man on its publicity for "Crash," the show based on Paul Haggis' Oscar-winning movie, which debuts as the network's first original drama series tonight at 10. This makes perfect sense, since Hopper, who recently made the news for being named a commandeur des artes et des lettres by the French government, still signals, at least by reputation, the reckless and profane poetry, the I-sing-a-song-of-myself quality, "Crash" clearly hopes to capture.
So it is odd, not to mention disappointing, to discover that Hopper is the weakest part of the show. As Ben Cendars, an aging record producer teetering on the verge of irrelevance and possibly insanity, Hopper opens the show with a paean to his penis.
This simple act (mercifully, the penis in question remains off camera) manages to do several things. First of all, it causes his female chauffeur to quit (though really, you have to imagine a limo driver in Hollywood has seen things a lot more objectionable), which is important because the new driver, Anthony (Jocko Sims), is much more street and interesting.
It also sets a certain tone for both Ben (unstable) and the show itself, which wants you to know it is not afraid of describing the physical nature of an old guy's penis. For whatever that's worth.
If only the scene were even close to believable. In Ben, Hopper seems to see his chance to do Lear, albeit Lear with Tourette's, and the airs of staginess he brings to each and every one of his scenes are indeed show-stoppers, just not in the way he probably hopes them to be.
Granted, Hopper's Ben was given the unenviable task of opening the pilot, no small task because "Crash" is a singularly, and intentionally, difficult show to introduce. As with the film version, its goal is a complex exploration of the sometimes random, sometimes intentional, and often flammable intersections of disparate lives in Los Angeles.
Which is kind of hard to set up in an hour, without looking overly simplistic, sentimental or just plain cheesy.
While "Crash," written by Glen Mazzara, is certainly none of those things, neither is it as galvanizing as it wants to be. Politically and socially ambitious, it assumes its audience is smart enough to keep up, a rather endearing trait. But even as it flouts the narrative construct of modern cop drama, it bows to many of its other conventions.
After meeting crazy Ben, we go between the sheets with Lt. Axel Finet (Nick E. Taraby), Officer Bebe Arcel (Arlene Tur) and their adulterous workplace romance -- not the freshest subplot ever seen on screen. Things perk up a bit out on the street when Bebe and her partner Kenny (Ross McCall) quickly instigate the titular crash, slamming into a car driven by Inez (Moran Atias), a beautiful young spitfire who comes out hissing and swearing and winds up cuffed by the rule-breaking, and clearly aroused, Kenny.
Meanwhile, over in Brentwood, Christine's (Clare Carey) father is having a heart attack, which causes her to cross paths with Eddie (Brian Tee), a former Korean gang member now EMT, who is subsequently sucked into a shooting that Axel is investigating, in a less-than-by-the-book manner.
That's not the half of it, but you get the picture. Like the film, "Crash" is an intricate set dance with Dickens-by-way-of-Chandler overtones and, with the exception of Hopper, everyone in the cast is agile enough to sidestep stereotypes when they can. In the pilot, McCall's Kenny is perhaps the best example of this -- as a cocky cop with a penchant for sexual harassment, he is surprisingly appealing, if only because you have no idea where this character is going.
That is pretty much the whole point of life in Los Angeles; the question that this surprisingly staid pilot leaves us with though is: Does anyone care?
Where: Starz, Encore
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)