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