This is just guesswork on my part, but I imagine that, had the creators of Lost been asked, back when the show was in its embryonic stages, to sum it up in a few words, they would have described it as a scripted Survivor, taking the reality juggernaut's premise--strangers thrown together in an unfamiliar setting--and imbuing it with the one quality that reality TV never quite manages to reproduce--drama. By the same token, Tim Minear and Ben Queen's new series Drive, whose first two episodes aired yesterday in Canada and which has its American premiere on Sunday, seems to be a scripted version of The Amazing Race, the series which seems to have taken Survivor's place in the hearts of reality fans. Like Lost, Drive provides its characters with a more powerful and compelling motive than the chance at a cash prize (although a fantastic payoff awaits the winner of Drive's race) and fifteen minutes of fame. A mysterious, all-powerful, all-knowing Them run the illegal, cross-country road race around which the show revolves, and they are not averse to driving contestants to their deaths, or even orchestrating those deaths. They also occasionally force uninterested bystanders to compete by kidnapping their loved ones--as is the case with the show's main character, Alex Tully (Nathan Fillion), whose wife (a, thus far, woefully underutilized Amy Acker) has been kidnapped by the race organizers.
As a visual artifact, Drive is quite impressive. The production drips with cash, and utilizes seamless CGI to get around the difficulties of shooting in and around moving vehicles. The camera swoops in and out of the various contestants' cars and storylines as they race one another to the daily leg's finish line in what is obviously going to become the show's trademark visual trick, the effectiveness of which is only slightly undercut by the fact that, fantastic premise or no, there's only so much a person can do while also operating a motor vehicle--most of the time, we catch the characters talking on their cell phones. Two episodes into the series, however, we have already witnessed two race scenes--in the pilot, Tully is nearly run off the road by an employee of the race organizers in pursuit of Corinna Wiles, who has inveigled her way into the race by hiding in the back of his pickup; in the second episode, newly-reunited half-brothers Winston and Sean Salazar flex their muscles against the straight-laced, middle-aged John Trimble, who is presumably competing to secure his teenaged daughter's financial future before he dies of a fatal illness--both of them kinetic, pulse-pounding, and almost, though not quite, enough to make us forget the absurdity of the show's premise. Why would anyone expend as much time, effort and money as the race organizers clearly are simply for the thrill of watching a race? There's clearly more to the matter, but after two episodes I still don't find myself intrigued enough to care.
Technically impressive though it is, Drive's look is primarily reminiscent of Pixar's Cars--lots of candy-colored, featureless, molded plastic and chrome; very little texture. I haven't seen Minear's The Inside, but the other two shows on which his reputation is based--Firefly and Wonderfalls--reveled in details. Their sets were cluttered and lived-in. Drive takes place on the open highway and in anonymous motels and public spaces, all sanitized to within an inch of their existence and with barely a grease stain or a fast-food wrapper in sight. There's a corresponding plasticity to the show's dialogue--it isn't until the end of the second episode that we hear a zippy, laugh-out-loud line, and even then it's mostly the actress's delivery that sells it--and even more so to its characters. I'm not a fan of reality TV, a genre whose primary appeal seems to be the self-satisfied thrill one derives from watching unpleasant people be nasty to one another, but there's no denying that your average reality contestant is more lifelike, more real (for a certain definition of 'real') than any of Drive's collection of vacuum-molded mannequins. Nathan Fillion appears to be playing a less emotionally damaged version of Mal Reynolds. In the short run, this is obviously a winning strategy--I can't be the only person who tuned into Drive because of Fillion and Minear's Firefly connection. Being emotionally damaged, however, was a substantial part of what made Mal appealing--the other part being his tendency towards clever quips. Absent both attributes, Alex is basically running on the fumes of Fillion's fan-appeal, and the character needs to grow a personality of its own before they run out.
Still, the bare outlines of somebody else's creation are still a far sight better than the kind of depth Drive's writers have given their female lead (and, I pray God, not Alex's love interest), Corinna. Kristin Lehman, for whom I have a soft spot in memory of her performance as the kickass hacker Esther Narin in the kickass, William Gibson-penned X-Files episode "Killswitch", does her level best to imbue Corinna with some semblance of personality, but the character boils down--as all strong female characters must--to a childhood trauma. Of the rest of the cast, only new mother Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey), apparently on the run from an abusive husband, stands out, but by the end of the second episode her nice-girl cluelessness (ordered to kill a fellow contestant, she hold the woman at gunpoint and then starts to explain herself, as if there were actually a chance that, once she hears Wendy's sob story, the intended victim will give her the go-ahead to pull the trigger) has already become annoying. The other contestants, who beside the ones already mentioned include an Iraq vet and his wife, and a mother-daughter team (the show's only characters of color and, perhaps not coincidentally, the ones with whom the narrative has thus far spent the least time) tend to run together into a sea of perfectly coifed, poreless faces. The women in particular suffer from this problem--not only do they not have distinct personalities, they don't even have distinct clothing styles. They all look as though they've walked off the cover of last month's Seventeen magazine, as if the show's costumers and stylists truly believe that there's only one way for a woman to be beautiful.
Drive is a Tim Minear show airing on Fox, which means that the odds of it surviving past six episodes are pretty slim. With that in mind, I'll probably keep watching, but unlike Firefly and Wonderfalls I see very little in the show to make its almost inevitable cancellation a tragedy--in the transition from reality TV to the scripted kind, the show's writers seem to have left real life by the wayside--and at least one good reason to hope for that cancellation's swift arrival. I realize that what I'm about to say will make me sound like a fuddy-duddy, and--even worse--like someone who complains when a product does what it said on the tin, but I live in a country with one of the world's highest rates of vehicle-related deaths per capita, so here goes: Drive's glorification of dangerous road behavior borders on the irresponsible. Car chases are a staple of both television and TV, but in Drive they take center stage, week after week, with, thus far, no acknowledgment of the dangers the race poses to its contestants and to innocent bystanders. Here is a brief reminder of what a little inattention, or the belief that a public highway is the same thing as a racetrack, can do to a human body. Wear your seatbelts.