Last of the mo­ji­tos

An all- Latino drama se­ries sig­nals a re­fresh­ing break from tough cops and foren­sic babes, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Graeme Blun­dell

PRO­MOTED as the first all- Latino prime- time English- lan­guage drama, Cane , from screen­writer Cyn­thia Cidre ( Fires Within , The Mambo Kings ) con­fused many US view­ers when it started sev­eral months ago. A big- bud­get tra­di­tional se­rial drama star­ring the ver­sa­tile Emmy Award- win­ning Amer­i­can His­panic ac­tor Jimmy Smits, Cane is about a wealthy Cuban- Amer­i­can fam­ily, the Duques, who farm sugar and make rum.

Pa­tri­arch Pan­cho ( Chicago Hope ’ s craggy Hec­tor El­i­zondo) is of­fered a ques­tion­able deal by bit­ter ad­ver­saries the Sa­muels clan ( sport­ing won­der­ful snake- oil gringo ac­cents) to buy a large por­tion of his sugar fields.

Life’s been full for Pan­cho but now the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Duque Rum is dy­ing. Should he cash out of the sugar busi­ness, pleas­ing his nat­u­ral but im­pul­sive off­spring, Frank ( Lost ’ s Nestor Car­bonell)? Or side with adopted son, Alex ( Smits), smart and po­lit­i­cally con­nected, and pro­tect the hard- won fam­ily legacy?

Of course, Frank’s busi­ness sense is some­what clouded by his re­la­tion­ship with El­lis Sa­muels, the won­der­fully south­erny- twanged Polly Walker ( Rome). ‘‘ Sugar’s be­come a nui­sance,’’ she tells the Duques in a stand- off at their dusty cane fields at Playa Azul. ‘‘ Tree hug­gers, off­shore labour ad­vo­cates, ev­ery­one treat­ing us like we’ve just laid a turd on the ta­ble.’’

But Alex has a vi­sion of how the Cubano fam­ily can make its tran­si­tion into the Amer­i­can dream. ‘‘ Sugar is the new oil,’’ he says, be­liev­ing gov­ern­ment pol­icy is go­ing to shift ethanol em­pha­sis from corn to sugar and make his fam­ily even richer.

Cane ’ s pilot episode is packed with fam­ily and busi­ness drama ri­valling any Span­ish- lan­guage te­len­ov­ela, that won­der­fully lurid form of melo­dra­matic se­ri­alised fiction pro­duced and aired in most Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries. And di­rec­tor Chris­tian Duguay hus­tles Cane along at the same kind of fran­tic pace.

There are con­fronta­tions; flash­backs to gun­shots and the death of chil­dren; hot sex scenes; a strange, sin­is­ter, limp­ing man; be­tray­als war­rant­ing bloody re­venge; jeal­ousy; peo­ple killed and bod­ies buried; and, like the te­len­ov­e­las, the show is charged with de­sire and ten­sion.

Cane ’ s first episode is ef­fi­cient, florid and highly en­ter­tain­ing. The melo­dra­matic sto­ry­telling style, with its many char­ac­ters and po­ten­tial plots, al­lows for a wide range of in­ter­pre­ta­tions. This is the kind of se­rial you watch think­ing, ‘‘ Why is this hap­pen­ing?’’ or ‘‘ How on earth can they pay this off?’’ as chance en­coun­ters, ac­ci­den­tal oc­cur­rences and seem­ingly thought­less de­ci­sions hint at some ob­scure pat­tern of sig­nif­i­cance. It’s a wel­come change from the es­tab­lished for­mu­las of the cop, court­room and doc­tor shows with their un­am­bigu­ous nar­ra­tive style.

Af­ter you come home from a long day’s work, you want res­o­lu­tion,’’ pro­ducer Jerry Bruck­heimer of Cold Case and the CSI fran­chise once fa­mously said.

But the gaps cre­ated by Cane ’ s se­rial struc­ture, for a time at least, open is­sues, val­ues and mean­ings that the show’s style doesn’t im­me­di­ately close off. Cer­tainly the brothers’ bit­ter ri­valry will com­pel at­ten­tion right through the show’s run. As will Cane ’ s cel­e­bra­tion of Amer­ica’s Cuban past and her­itage. And surely the great Rita Moreno ( West Side Story ), still vi­brantly gor­geous, who plays Pan­cho’s wife,

Amalia, will in­habit a few ex­plo­sive melo­dra­mas of her own in the fu­ture.

But when Cane launched two months ago crit­ics were per­plexed and opin­ion was sharply di­vided about its chances of sur­vival.

Did its huge cast, glow­er­ing lead­ing char­ac­ters and clashing fam­i­lies’ plot lines sig­nal a re­turn to big- time soap that makes an­tic­i­pa­tion of an end an end in it­self? Was there the pos­si­bil­ity of Cane be­com­ing one of those cultishly de­voured com­plex nar­ra­tives sim­i­lar to The So­pra­nos ?

Some re­view­ers saw a Cuban- flavoured Dal­las but missed the camp un­der­tones and irony; oth­ers saw a Span­ish The God­fa­ther but quickly fig­ured ethanol wasn’t as sexy as horse’s heads in the bed­clothes. But most looked se­ri­ously at Cane be­cause of Smits. His pop­u­lar stints on LA Law , NYPD Blue and The West Wing have proved him ca­pa­ble of draw­ing an au­di­ence. He’s the kind of ac­tor who makes shows good just by be­ing in them.

While he has ap­peared in films, he just doesn’t seem to be­long there the way he does on television, where he has man­aged to avoid the gang­ster, drug lord and il­le­gal im­mi­grant stereo­types. Smits has gen­uine lead­ing man pres­ence, that qual­ity of con­sum­mate per­sua­sion, and is ob­vi­ously an in­tent and as­sid­u­ous ac­tor. His tricks are em­pa­thy, the abil­ity to do­nate an in­ner life to sur­face el­e­ments, a stage- man­aged ca­su­al­ness and an abil­ity to nur­ture a kind of private idio­syn­crasy.

He’s ter­rific in Cane as a Cuban- Amer­i­can ver­sion of Tony So­prano who likes to or­der hits while re­lax­ing with a ci­gar and a fine rum. And, as with The So­pra­nos , this se­ries is about the way we all strug­gle to sat­isfy the needs of fam­ily and our­selves. I like Cane ’ s ba­sic premise that uses the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence and adop­tive fam­i­lies to ex­plore no­tions of au­then­tic­ity. And I cer­tainly en­joy watch­ing beau­ti­ful peo­ple flirt with dan­ger and de­cep­tion. Sure, we’ve seen shows about fam­ily in­trigue be­fore, but never with Cuban shad­ing and never this stylish.

Cane comes with that sul­try film look that we have ro­manced since the silent era, as cin­e­mat­i­cally vivid as any­thing on TV. We have be­come in­ured to the pre­vail­ing aes­thetic that dom­i­nates the seem­ingly om­nipresent pro­ce­dural cop shows, all wob­bling cam­eras, speedy zoom shots and noirish light­ing.

Cane swings with south Florida Latin flair and the groovy sounds of salsa, samba and AfroCaribbean reg­gae. About 20 per cent of the show’s di­a­logue, too, is in Span­ish, adding more ex­otic al­lure.

At­tract­ing a mod­est 11.1 mil­lion view­ers in the US, Cane was one mil­lion shy of the ninth sea­son pre­miere of rat­ings ri­val Law & Or­der: Spe­cial Vic­tims Unit , which led the 10pm times­lot.

The se­rial de­clined in rat­ings be­tween its first and sec­ond episodes, but week by week it has been hang­ing on to about nine mil­lion view­ers; hardly bril­liant, but not freefall ei­ther. But, then, dra­mas with eth­nic casts have al­ways had a blink­ered re­cep­tion in TV land.

Let’s hope it sur­vives. Surely it’s time to bid farewell to cranky doc­tors and randy nurses, chalked out­lines, courts and foren­sic babes?

Sweet sur­ren­der: Jimmy Smits stars in new se­rial drama Cane , about Cuban- Amer­i­can sugar barons

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