The L.A. Complex, “Down in L.A.” (1.01)

The L.A. Complex logo.

A review of the new Canadian drama, written and directed by Martin Gero, after the jump…

That wasn’t bad.

I find myself enjoying two of the side characters most, partly because of residual Firefly and Wonderfalls fondness for Jewel Staite and Chelan Simmons. Neither story is particularly new – in fact, none here are – but both are just sympathetic enough to make their stories fun. I had more problems with Abby (Cassie Steele) and Nick (Joe Dinicol) from that standpoint, and while each had some newness to the plot, I came away having issues with the characters.

As a dancer, Simmons‘ Alicia is good, but she just can’t get the dream job she auditions for. The show takes painstaking care to remind us that everyone in this world is interchangeable. Even Mary Lynn Rajskub, who has made it, and Jewel Staite‘s Raquel, who made it once upon a time, are pinged here as Nick confuses one for Sarah Silverman and the other struggles just to get a decent audition. Until you prove yourself too talented to miss, you are one in a sea of a million just trying to get by. Which is why I liked Alicia’s plot: the show takes time to remind us that she’s good, she’s nice and she deserves it, which is why it’s a shame that she doesn’t get it. It’s a lightweight story, but it’s just enough for the amount of screentime she gets.

I suspect I liked Raquel’s plot only because of the dialogue (Staite enjoys the chance to play Raquel as relentlessly bitter and snarky), because she’s a character we’ve seen plenty before: the actor who people liked once upon a time, who now struggles to even get attention of the producers who used to like her because she’s not ‘young and perky’. The scene in which Raquel argued with a producer to allow a white actor to play a black character was so bizarre that it was one of few that started to give The L.A. Complex something of a unique tone, as a white character attacks racist stereotypes only in order to try and secure her own chance to audition for the role (and, thus, whitewashing the show). However, while Raquel’s story beats weren’t new, there’s something to the idea of her championing an indie film with a script that she genuinely likes in order to secure herself a decent role, and that offers great potential in coming episodes. As we see Raquel a little bit more empowered to fight for what she wants, instead of any job she can get, the character might get a little more sympathetic.

There is a reason I have not written about our protagonist Abby (Cassie Steele) until a good way into the review. Her story is perfectly alright; like Raquel, there’s little we haven’t seen before in this story of a struggling actress trying to get any role in L.A. There are scenes (like her opening invasion of her old apartment to secure her bag) where the script itself shows an enjoyable inventiveness I liked. Furthermore, I liked the offhandedness with which the show depicted Abby’s drug use and contraception issue, as an American show would have been terrified to do. And her ultimate goal, to pursue her dream in a city that doesn’t want to let her, is pretty sympathetic.

However, Abby is a problem. Pretty much every character in this pilot, I can describe in a few words – Alicia is sweet and ambitious, Raquel is bitter and a fighter, Nick is awkward and downtrodden and Connor is charming and relaxed – except Abby. She’s desperate, but that’s more her situation than her character. She’s a bit self-deprecating, and a bit bitchy, but neither of these things really last beyond the scene they’re in. Abby is whatever the scene requires her to be, but never really leaves a mark as a protagonist with a clear personality and psychology. This might be an issue with the character: as written, it’s hard to like Abby, as she rarely does anything here worthy of respect or affection. If a character is particularly brilliantly written and acted, this is far from a death knell (see House), but Abby is a combination of both unlikable and not terribly distinctive as a person. That said, it might be Cassie Steele, who is a bit of an issue here. Steele clearly struggles with Martin Gero‘s dialogue (every time she utters the word ninja, the actress steps out of the character immediately), much more than any other member of the cast. With a more-suited actress, Abby’s final disastrous audition could have been compelling, sympathetic and even darkly funny, but it mostly falls flat with Steele at the helm. I wouldn’t say this is a mark against her as an actress, but I’d question if this character is a good fit.

The other issue is Joe Dinicol‘s Nick. The writing for Nick, and Dinicol playing him, work really well: the idea of a comedian trying to make it with nothing that currently resembles talent is pretty fresh. In another show, we’d have been told or shown that Nick is really great, so his fumble and resulting takedown from Mary Lynn Rajskub and Paul F. Thomkins would have been a tragic moment. Because we’d gotten to see exactly how unfunny (and completely lacking in self-awareness) Nick was, it was a great moment to see him finally have his eyes opened to how bad he was. I was with them every step of the way, right up to their suggestions Nick perform in a venue with a sub-zero audience. And I liked that they managed to slip in a valid criticism that sat at the forefront of his lack of funny: his utter absence of point of view. So, while offering up the idea that Nick had a lot of work ahead of him, the show offered a way for him to move forward: find a point of view, and maybe that would be the gateway to laughter for him. My problem isn’t with anything here, but the future: the pilot was so successful in building Nick as an unlikeable, talentless hack that I had no sympathy for him. The show might be able to develop him into someone I root for… I hope so.

Tariq’s story was alright. Benjamin Charles Watson was completely watchable as Tariq. The plot went nowhere new, but neither bored nor offended me, so it’s a decent set-up for his story arc. Not terribly memorable at this juncture, but hopefully it will be once it kicks off next week. Ennis Esmer, in a recurring role as their landlord, was a lot of fun doing exactly what Esmer does on The Listener: being awkward and amusing, and it works.

The set-up for the show is decent, as I assume we’ll be following each thread (Abby, Nick, Alicia, Raquel and Tariq) on each of their individual adventures. What the show desperately needs more of is interaction amongst the group. None of these story arcs are that inventive alone, and segmenting them gives us five 8-10 minute stories instead of a rich ensemble drama, which this show could develop into. A show like this, moving forward, will improve the more it integrates its cast and develops a chemistry between them, which it sorely needs to do next week to rise it from watchable mediocrity. It’s playing in the same territories that Party Down did, and not nearly as well as that show at its height – but, perhaps with time, it will. For now, it’s good enough. The talented ingredients are present; it will be up to the show to use them accordingly.

I hope the show has time to do so. Six episodes is not a long season, and the television landscape for a Canadian show is not exactly inviting; even if the show reaches its potential, it’s likelier than not that we won’t get to see it become great unless it beats the odds. Hopefully it will.


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