Television has always had a soft-spot for drunks and drug addicts, both real and fictionalized. Forty years ago, Dean Martin seemed to never draw a quite-sober breath (even if that was just ginger ale in his highball glass); nowadays Hugh Laurie plays a medical savant/Vicodin addict on "House."
During the intervening years, a whole new genre of character evolved: the recovering addict. John Larroquette's recovering bus manager on "The John Larroquette Show" gave way to the vice presidential AA meeting on "West Wing," which in turn begat Dani Reese, Charlie Crew's former-cokehead partner on the already much-missed "Life."
And now we have William Banks, former drug addict turned extreme interventionist, on A&E's "The Cleaner." Starring Benjamin Bratt, "The Cleaner," now entering its second season, is essentially a recovery procedural. Having assembled a crew of motley sober special ops (including the terrific Grace Park from "Battlestar Galactica" as Akani and Esteban Powell as Arnie), Banks is hired by loved ones to locate, rescue and snatch a variety of drunks and addicts, then hustle them off to various locations where they are dried out, twelve-stepped and generally read the riot act of sobriety. The more compelling and overarching story is how Banks' addictions have damaged his marriage and family, perhaps permanently, and the ongoing effort required to stay sober. Bratt beautifully captures the seesaw of fury and acceptance of a man in the midst of perpetual transition.
Such a narrative construct, complete with voice-over in which God (a.k.a. the Higher Power) is often invoked or directly addressed, walks a fine line between illuminating the soul's dank crevices and preachifying. As difficult and miraculous it may seem to the participant, long-term sobriety can be boring to watch. As is the case with so many drunks, recovered or otherwise, "The Cleaner" often stumbles into self-righteousness. But when it's on, it's difficult to look away. An addict struggling to stay clean is the human condition writ large -- the world is full of demons and self-destructive tendencies but few are as easily identified as addiction.
Tonight's season premiere is a good example of the show firing on all cylinders, and not just because Whoopi Goldberg and Gary Cole costar.
Cole plays Davis, a local newscaster and old friend of Banks' who is simultaneously celebrating his 20th year of sobriety and, as his wife suspects, using again. A former addict herself, she is suffering from the final stages of cancer but won't surrender to morphine until she knows Davis is clean. If this sounds overly sentimental, it is at times. But Goldberg is on hand as Davis' no-nonsense sponsor. Her natural astringency cuts through much of the smudgy stickiness allowing us to see clearly the effort real change requires, how tenuous a thing it is, so easily undone but miraculous nonetheless.
It is unfortunate that the next episode veers into even more sentimental territory where, without the aid of either Goldberg's or his team, Banks, and therefore "The Cleaner," gets bogged down in a few too many tortured father/child relationships. One is left wishing the show would lighten up just a bit. A sense of humor is key to long-term sobriety, and it doesn't hurt a television show either. Still, Bratt gives us a very believable portrait of recovery -- each episode may have its often too-neat ending, but his story unfolds one day at a time.
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)