Living in Your Car, “Chapter 1” (1.01)

“Okay, here’s the thing. Nobody said you couldn’t bend the rules to make money. Actually, they said the opposite: They said ‘think outside the box’.” – Steve Unger

The series premiere of HBO Canada‘s new original series, Living in Your Car, written by George F. Walker, Dani Romain and Joseph Kay, and directed by David Steinberg. Review after the jump…

The past few years have been good for Canadian scripted television. We’ve lost longstanding stalwarts like Corner Gas and The Royal Canadian Air Farce, but what we’ve gained is our first shows in a long time to actually embrace some of the adventurous spirit of the American cable networks, rather than pale comedies that belong to the mid-nineties at heart (see: Dan For Mayor, Hiccups). The first sign of this was The Movie Network‘s strong, boundary-pushing Durham County, which proved anti-Canadian naysayers wrong about our ability to tell taut, tense, deep drama with compelling acting, writing and directing. The general quality of shows has increased, from the lighthearted Being Erica to the police procedural Flashpoint, trickling down even to cancelled shows like Douglas Coupland‘s ill-fated jPod. We’ve demonstrated we can compete in their swimming pool with Flashpoint, Being Erica and Durham County all finding some measure of success down there.

So why the rant about Canadian TV at the top of this review? Because Living in Your Car shows us tackling, and succeeding, at something else our whale of a southern cousin has been doing for the past while: a show that challenges the common conflation between ‘hero’ and ‘protagonist’. They’ve offered us morally ambiguous serial killed Dexter Morgan and budding drug kingpin Walter White, so we’ve began to offer our own antiheroes: Durham County‘s tortured Mike Sweeney, and now Living in Your Car‘s charismatic villain Steve Unger (played to perfection by John Ralston).

Steve Unger is a complete and utter asshole. A businessman who redirected funds in all sorts of amusing and terrible ways, Unger destroyed the savings of his company’s investors, then turned his co-conspirators in for a lighter sentence. Eighteen months later, he’s penniless and friendless, with his sole possession in the world a luxury Sedan under his lawyer’s name. The pilot follows his attempts like a pinball, bouncing from one acquaintance to another, making demand after demand in hopes to bleed dry any tears of pity he can acquire from those who will still see him. This is a man who, being rebuffed by his angry wife, testily demands, “”If I can’t stay here, and I can’t have money, can we at least have sex?”, never thinking anything of demanding what he wants and badly taking anything he can get. He’s impossible to root for, and in fact part of the joy of the series is watching life slowly crush him up into a little ball.

This might be perfect timing for the show: our economic problems are just recent enough for the topic to still be relevant and sting, but we’ve largely (as a country) pulled out of much of the recession. The show follows a gamut from Damages to The Good Wife in showing almost the exact same figure: the carefree, charismatic leader who had no qualms about betraying their investors and leaving them up to dry. Now its time to see the asshole himself in action, answering the immortal question: “How the hell can you do this and sleep at night?” Apparently, by being an obsessive narcissist, history revisionist and charismatic user, if the story of Steve Unger is to be believed. Watching the guy continually come up against his own follies without seeing his own reflection is maddening – this is a guy who tries to borrow $500 off the judge who put him in jail for eighteen months – but there’s a spark of hope. He doesn’t learn his lesson even remotely by the end of the hour, but nonetheless has definitely begun to pay for his actions. It takes his parents admitting they gave every penny he ever sent them to charity to make up for being “responsible for bringing [him] into this world” before he cracks a little bit, finally meeting a disapproval he can’t easily brush off and move on. Unger very well may take baby steps soon into becoming an actual person.

This episode is also a great indictment of the power that our society assigns to the privileged: Unger is white, straight, male, well-off, handsome, charismatic and plays wholly by the rules of those classifications, and despite being a complete asshole, has always been rewarded for them. Now, he’s barred from that world – not because he’s a liar or a rat, because ‘the business’ is teeming with them, but because he got caught: ‘a sign of weakness’. In fact, Unger isn’t the only one in this group shown in a bad light: former competitor Ben is shown to be a preening, self-indulgent prick, while lawyer Neil Epstein (who hides his own Jewish background to appeal to a wider demographic) is an insecure hypocrite.

The format of the show isn’t really set yet; the premiere is largely a set of conversations in which Under attempts, and largely fails, to squeeze something out of those who once respected him. However, hints are dropped: a mysterious, kind woman who first recommends he try living in his car for a while; his judge, hoping to lead him to rehabilitate by forcing him to teach, rather than attend, a business ethics class, and his daughter, who tells him she “really wants to like him”. Interestingly enough, all of these redemptive forces are women, which paints the gender issues of the episode in an interesting light… But that’s a topic for future episodes. Ultimately, Living in Your Car is an interesting experiment, and one I hope bears enjoyable fruit.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: