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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘The Cleaner’ has me scratching my head

I meant to write about The Cleaner, A&E’s new scripted drama, sooner, but I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I watched a screener of the pilot before it aired on Tuesday night, and then I watched it again when it aired, and I’m still kinda scratching my head and wondering, What the hell? I thought maybe I’d missed something on my first go-round that I would surely catch on the second, but I guess I missed it then, too, because I still didn’t see it.
What I’m not seeing is this: How is this life of William Banks’ supposed to work? The backstory is: he made a promise to God that if God got him to kick drugs and go straight, he’d dedicate his life to helping other people go straight. And now he’s doing that, and it’s like a business except it isn’t. People who know people who need help seek him out, somehow know how to find him, cuz he can’t advertise, of course, because what he’s doing doesn’t seem quite legal — he’s like a PI without the license… unless a self-assigned license to kick ass counts. And it doesn’t seem that people are paying him help the people they love kick whatever habit needs kicking. Maybe that was covered in some little tossed-off line of dialogue that I missed… twice. Except, in the pilot, Banks reassures his potential “client,” a mom worried that her teenaged son is turning hardened druggie, that he, Banks, believes her son is probably just fine, even though he’s pretty sure that’s not the case. Banks is a decent guy, so it’s not like he’s gonna go back to Mom later and say, “Hey, I was wrong about the kid, he’s a mess, now pay up.”

So we have this strange self-appointed crusader, kinda like Dr. David Banner, except he stays in one place instead of wandering lonely from town to town: how does he make a living? There’s his wife, I suppose, who works as a dental hygienist or something (and we know what kinda major dough those folks pull in), and they fight a lot about a lot of stuff, and there’s a lot of talk about money (lack of) — Banks needs a new truck, for one; the beater he’s driving around keeps breaking down — and the whole shebang is meant to be very serious and grounded and intense, and for the most part it is. It’s just that, you know, the entire concept doesn’t seem plausible.

It’s also all terribly, terribly earnest. Battlestar Galactica’s Grace Park is on hand as Banks’ partner to make occasional sexy-snarky remarks, but even those come across as terribly, terribly earnest. It’s pretty clear that The Cleaner is a reaction to TNT’s Saving Grace, and Benjamin Bratt as Banks pulls off the conflicted-do-gooder-who-ain’t-good-himself thing just fine, and the liberal sprinkling of swearwords formerly verboten on basic cable — there’s lots of shits and bullshits, just like on Grace! — don’t ring with an undertone of “hey *snicker* can you believe what they’re lettin’ us say on TV?” even though that’s what it’s really all about. But the talking-to-God thing doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it does on Grace, where it is deployed with good humor and a healthy dollop of the fantastical. It’s not that Banks is getting down on his knees and praying every five minutes: what he does isn’t praying, as he points out to his teenage son. He’s just shootin’ the shit with the Man Upstairs, real conversational-like.

So far, God ain’t talking back to Banks, at least not that we can hear. But maybe that’s what The Cleaner needs: a kindly looking old dude in a white suit talking back. Or else maybe Banks needs to be a little crazier so he can at least have more interesting one-sided conversations.

‘The Cleaner’ is on Tuesdays at 10pm Eastern on A&E. But not, I bet, for long.

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