Sunday, February 26, 2017

Penguins Can't Dance: APB

Justin Kirk and Natalie Martinez in APB on FOX.

We've now seen three episodes of FOX's new crime drama APB and I'm going to call it: APB is the most depressing seemingly upbeat show on television. Ostensibly following the now-too-familiar model of the independent consultant working with police detectives to solve crimes (CastleThe Mentalist, Numb3rs, etc.), APB is somehow so derivative and insipid that it takes most of its progenitor shows down with it – no easy feat!

Created by television writer and producer David Slack (Person of Interest) and developed by Matt Nix (Burn Notice), APB gives us a hero tailor-made for 2017: a "maverick billionaire" who is convinced he knows better than anyone how to fix what ills American society. In the series' opening scenes, tech mogul and engineer Gideon Reeves (Justin Kirk, Weeds) watches his friend get gunned down in a liquor store robbery in urban Chicago, gets frustrated by the slow response of 911 and the police, and decides that the best way to get "justice" is to take over the neighbourhood's underfunded precinct. He accomplishes this by publicly paying off the city's $89 million police pension deficit – with a personal cheque! – and by bullying/shaming the city's mayor and city council. Over a weekend, he brings in an eager young team of coders and engineers who upgrade the 13th District's obsolete equipment, providing (among other things) shiny new tasers, military-grade vests, and bulletproof squad cars. (Paperwork? Irritating, and apparently pointless. Tasks like logging evidence? Civil rights? Not in Gideon's district!) What follows is precisely what you'd expect if you've ever seen a single episode of Numb3rs: every week offers a new crime, and a new problem, that only our hero's unique talents can solve. Along the way, sure, Gideon learns a lesson or two about 'real' law enforcement, but ultimately the show never wavers on its basic premise that this is what we need to really fix our broken society.

The series was inspired by a true story, and perhaps most of its issues begin there. Though the show gives the central figure TV-ready good looks, the entire premise remains based on a singularly problematic assumption: that American urban centres are war zones and the cops are fighting a losing battle that threatens to undermine civil society – the same reasoning that contributed to the general decline of community policing and the increasing militarization of police departments across the U.S. in recent years. APB may give this trend a charming, boyish face, but it never calls this narrative into question; in fact, it serves as a ready demonstration of its legitimacy.

What is most insidious is that, despite its surface grittiness (and blue-tinted post-process colour-grading), the tone of the series is actually light. Gideon banters and flirts with his new favourite cop, Detective Theresa Murphy (Natalie Martinez, Under the Dome), who also serves as the show's proxy for the good police officer who overcomes her initial misgivings and becomes a true believer. In turn, Gideon (borrowing from the Castle model) slowly becomes more and more invested in his new crime-fighting pastime, forgoing his high-society life for high-speed car chases.

Caitlin Stasey and Justin Kirk in APB.

The central bit of technology that Gideon offers is a smart phone app, called APB, which allows every citizen to report and record criminal activity. information that is sent directly to Gideon and his team. Though some of the cops drag their feet on this de facto deputization of the civilian population, deeper questions regarding the implications of a crowd-sourced surveillance state aren't even posed. (Nor are any eyebrows raised later, as Gideon pilots an armed and armoured drone through the city.) Ultimately, the series happily short-circuits any skepticism about Gideon's project by ensuring that all on-screen criticism is reduced to ignorance, impatience, or craven plays by political figures ill-inclined to let go of the reins of power (see Chicago's mayor and his lower-level surrogate, Murphy's ex-husband, who reads simply as an unpleasant and controlling prick in these early episodes).

APB seems to think itself an essentially hopeful story about one man's commitment to help others. (As its opening introduction tells us, this is the story of Gideon Reeves "tak[ing] on the biggest engineering challenge of his career … to revolutionize a police force … and save a city.") Though APB certainly can be a distracting exercise in wish fulfillment, to find any pleasure in that means its audience has to take its profoundly nightmarish premises for granted. In fact, the series' gestures at the realities it is pretending to address – cops struggling without resources or public trust, neighhourhoods lost to gangs and gun violence, disenfranchised populations who feel forgotten and ignored by the authorities who are supposed to protect them – only reveal the show to be the smiling, crypto-dystopian fantasy it doesn't seem to know it is.

It all comes down to what I long ago identified as the Happy Feet problem: a story which identifies very real, and even urgent, issues and offers only empty, fantastical solutions. (After all, the ice caps are melting, but unfortunately for us, and for our children, penguins can't dance.) There are real problems facing the police, and there are likely real strategies for making the lives of police officers and everyday citizens safer, and real (if challenging) ways of improving the relations between cops and the people they protect. The answers, however, won't lie in a messianic billionaire with money to burn and a grade-school knowledge of the Constitution.

Ultimately, APB is cynicism masquerading as hope. Fortunately, unlike the news, this is one story we can turn off.

APB airs on FOX on Monday nights. Its fourth episode will air tomorrow.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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