Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Recommended: Charlie Jade

For fans of sci-fi television, Charlie Jade is a semi-glorious punch to the face. This multinational production from 2005 took an amazing, progressive concept and rode it straight through 20 episodes of a jarring, exciting narrative. Series creators Robert Wertheimer and Chris Roland were not well-known for working in science fiction, and yet the end result showed a dedication and fascination with the genre that you'd expect from folks who spent years toiling on the various televised Star Trek series. It's that, and how relatively unknown it is, that inspires me to recommend it today; please forgive me for proceeding with a very limited description of its strengths and rewards.

The titular character is a gritty private investigator, complete with a gun, a hard-boiled attitude, and a two-day stubble. As familiar as his role is, he's living in a world that's completely alien. Odd machines fly around a smog-laden sky, much of the technology is at least twenty years ahead of our own, and a corporation called Vexcor seems to dominate everything and everyone. Oh, also, Mr. Jade's beloved live-in girlfriend is, basically, a slave that he purchased.

When first we encounter our hero - to stress it again, our hero who owns his loving girlfriend - he's trying to solve the death of a woman who's unidentifiable. This puts him on the trail of "01 Boxer," the dissolute son of Vexcor's owner. Charlie Jade is so dedicated and unafraid that he doesn't fear this massive gamble. It's admirable, as his society is a true plutocracy, where the richest people are basically above the law, if not flat-out in control of it. But, after following 01 to a desert location, Charlie sneaks up on his quarry - only to find no sign of the person he's chasing, though there's no place to hide. And, at about the same time, a young black woman blows up a power plant, after which everything - even these plots with a Soylent Green setting and a Blade Runner visual aesthetic - becomes supremely strange, confusing, and dangerous.

Check out the first 5 minutes of episode 1.

A former Irish acquaintance, one who knows TV like I know NYC's subway, recommended I give this a shot. His pitch to me stressed that the show has a rough start, but demonstrates a massive improvement after its ninth episode. While he was correct that the last 11 or 12 eps make this a must-see for people who love science fiction, what really got me to start it was learning that the program was filmed in South Africa.

I simply love movies or shows that are set in foreign locales. As a first-generation American raised by old-fashioned foreigners, I feel both part of my homeland and yet distinct from most of my fellow citizens. One of my biggest gripes with modern entertainment is that our popular productions are invariably American-centric, focusing on US cities, US problems, and US characters. Dear god, so much of our entertainment features foreign actors working with American accents, and it is downright offensive to me to think that people wouldn't have watched House, The 100, or any Hugh Jackman film unless their leads all spoke in our familiar tones. It's worse than a cliché, it ignores the rest of the world (which many of my countrymen already do too much), and it offers up this BS view - an America with no immigrants, one where people from other countries don't even come to live or work here. I say: f--k that.

And, as a Canadian-South African co-production, Charlie Jade was constantly showing me a unique response to a genre premise. Different street signs, different attitudes, different scenery - all of that is the spice of life which I find so refreshing, encouraging, and pleasing. I don't want to be glued to a screen so I can see all the things that I already know, I do it so I can explore fantastical, new worlds. Knowing that this was made on very limited financial resources (the creators took out mortgages) and with unknown (but perfectly good) actors made me all the more accepting of its budgetary limitations. In the end, its financing was the only real constraint that it had.

I liked the program so much that I listened to a podcast (also suggested by that Irish kid) wherein a smart, dedicated trio of fans snagged a very honest and friendly interview with Wertheimer. And that's when I learned the reason behind the mid-season change in quality: the show-runners hired a couple of staff writers that weren't comfortable with sci-fi and that couldn't get on the same page with the series' creators. To some degree, I did Charlie Jade a big favor by continuing to follow it despite the delayed or muddled narrative arcs and the slightly-misjudged run of "X of the week" storylines. Once CJ finally found its stride, I realized that my patience was being repaid in full - or that it was doing me the favor.

I'm struggling with myself to decide how much I can or should tell you about the overall story here. What I can say is that your jaw will drop when you learn what's really going on, and that you will be amazed that a series from 10 years ago was doing the sort of stuff that would still seem a bit avant-garde today. All of their writerly imagination is combined with a solid cast, fine artistic sensibilities, and a mindset that presumes the audience is not ever tuning in in order to tune out. And, aside from the program's rough start, you have to think while you watch this show; if it doesn't inspire you to do so, then it's just not your kind of viewing.

Wertheimer's show also deserves a lot of credit for splitting its time between two leads. On the one hand, you have Charlie Jade (Jeffrey Pierce), a stoic do-gooder for hire who wants to know why a woman without any ID or public record is dead. Haunted by his past and ambivalent about his future, Charlie focuses on figuring out how he found himself without a clue as to where he is. On the other hand, you have Reena (Patricia McKenzie), a scared woman who's just as lost as Mr. Jade - and is being hunted as a terrorist.

Pierce makes for a fine lead, and he's nicely able to convey his role's subdued (or, better, contained) emotions. McKenzie is harder to judge because of how her character is written to start, yet she's quite compelling once the script opens up a little. You're never sure what Reena is up to and what she wants, but you get this chill up your spine as her path intersects with Charlie's, always on the edge of taking the show's conspiratorial vibe to the next level - or leading the cast into a straight-out bloodbath.

The redhead, whose name is Blues, is just great.

Michael Filipowich brings a crazed, manic, fun energy to the antagonistic role of 01 (yup, it's an alternative to "Owen"), whereas Karl Lubinksky (Tyrone Benskin) is the most relatable, heart-and-soul element of the series - none of this would work without his grounding practicality, intelligence, and sheer human compassion. When you see them all together, firing on all engines, the result is almost a wonder straight out of alchemy. I watched the series and had to fight the instinct to look up their other work.

The show certainly has flaws, however positive I am about the concept and the overall execution. Filipowich plays such an unhinged and freakish person - randomly licking things, weird sexual gestures, sudden shouting or use of sing-song voice... It can feel to some like he's "trying to act" too hard. I wound up finding him quite refreshing, but it took a while for me to appreciate the part.

The soundtrack also occupies this odd space on the cusp of intriguingly different and completely misguided. I think the music becomes a strength, as the score has this alien, unsettling vibe which is perfectly appropriate for this series. Yet, I wouldn't be surprised if it took a longer while for it to grow on other people.

And some viewers might not stay through that opening stretch of episodes. When the new writers were hired, it became smooth sailing. The episodes prior to that fail to bring any clarity to the larger arc - it adds some elements and a little bit of context, but it almost feels like CJ is running from its own premise. The short-term arcs in that period are also uneven - the developments are okay, but those stories cover ground that savvy viewers have seen a lot since 2005, which adds to the sense of wheel-spinning provided by the larger narrative.

Despite it all, I still became a fan. Charlie Jade has a low-key mood, frequent use of abstract imagery, and a minty-fresh premise that will leave you pleasantly surprised. I love that not every episode is action-packed - when it includes action sequences, they're well-choreographed and well-filmed. I grew to enjoy the murky, unclear stretches because the background and roles were so interesting. Its world-building is superlative, its eco-conscious viewpoint is nearly-unique, and its blend of the familiar and the strange is just so enjoyable.

If you take away nothing else from my review, please know that CJ is a series that is clearly flawed, and yet lovable in spite its minor failings. What this show does is so good and so admirable and so ambitious that it's worth watching through the rough patches; the good material is pure sci-fi gold. Charlie Jade is the riskiest TV recommendation I've made so far - you might genuinely not like it and I wouldn't be able to argue against your response. However, if you do connect with it, you'll be thanking me (and, by proxy, the person who turned me onto it) for a long, long time.

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