Successful TV shows based on movies tend to forge their own identities to such a degree that people forget the movies even existed; recent examples include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights, both of which are far more well-known and critically acclaimed than the movies on which they were based. Even MASH, an Oscar-winning film from legendary director Robert Altman, is not nearly as prominent as the long-running TV series it spawned. What these shows have in common is that they forged their own paths and, in some cases, improved on their mediocre source material.
None of this can be said for the new TV version of Crash (Starz, Fridays, 10 p.m.), based on the Oscar-winning 2004 film directed by Paul Haggis. Although Crash the TV series features new actors playing new characters, its devotion to the overwrought, heavy-handed tone of the movie is evident in every moment of its first episode, which like the movie follows the lives of a cross-section of Los Angeles residents. Also like the movie, it features race and racism as its central subject matter, although to his credit executive producer Glen Mazzara, a veteran of FX’s The Shield, does tone down the relentless didacticism of Haggis’ simplistic lecturing on the subject.
Not that the show has anything resembling a light touch at any time; when it does address race—far from infrequently—it does so in the same cut-and-dried manner as the movie. Rather than exist as one in a tapestry of factors that inform how people deal with each other, race becomes the be-all, end-all of human interaction. People simply state, without nuance, their prejudicial assumptions about each other, and the show quickly turns into a game of spot-the-stereotype as it invites the audience to guess what ethnic cliché each new character will embody.
The saddest thing is that this approach makes Crash one of the most ethnically diverse shows on television, yet it treats its minority stars (and Caucasian stars, too, for that matter) with contempt by boiling their characters down to the most basic, crude assumptions about their backgrounds. When a young black man applies for a job as a chauffeur to an aging white music producer, it takes only a minute or two before the producer is rattling off every ghetto stereotype imaginable—most of which the young man completely lives up to.
That white music producer is played by Dennis Hopper, the show’s biggest name and biggest selling point apart from its connection to the movie. But Hopper is atrocious, spouting off weird, mystical non sequiturs in a characterization that seems meant to make him come off as quirky and sad, but in reality just makes him irritating. The rest of the acting is similarly lacking, although the oppressively somber script, weighed down by a constantly ominous score, doesn’t exactly give the actors a whole lot of room to work.
Even when certain storylines have nothing to do with race, they’re still pitched at the same histrionic level; no one here has a normal, calm interaction with another person, and no scene comes without some lesson about miscommunication. The first original scripted series for pay-cable network Starz, Crash clearly comes with a lot of expectations for prestige and success; sadly, the show takes itself just as seriously as its producers do.