Ihad forgotten – or maybe not even fully realized – how good “Dark Angel” Season 1 (2000-01, Fox) is. When it aired, it was overshadowed by genre rivals like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that were doing notably special work. “Dark Angel” treads more familiar ground, creating a mythology out of the old sci-fi concept of genetically engineered people – namely titular heroine Max (Jessica Alba) — who want to live normal lives. But boy does it ever create post-Pulse 2019 Seattle in convincing fashion.
Although “Terra Nova” (2011) would take one more stab at it, the James Cameron-produced “Dark Angel” is the high-water mark of a now-defunct breed of TV show: one that spends almost movie-blockbuster amounts of money over the course of a traditional-length season. The formula didn’t work, as ratings were never high enough to pay for the show long-term. But especially in the first of its two seasons, “Dark Angel” makes great use of its money, creating a post-apocalyptic third-world US city out of turn-of-the-century Vancouver while also adding tasty details about the state of the economy into every episode.
The casting is another source of richness. In her career-defining role, Alba – who masters the stealthy movements of an X5 along with wry statements about Max’s lot in life – has sparkling chemistry with Michael Weatherly’s (mostly) wheelchair-bound cyberjournalist Logan. I may have been more fixated on “Roswell’s” Max-and-Liz, but Max-and-Logan ranks right up there as a star-crossed romance. The writers regularly give us reasons why they can’t quite be together, and they are almost always valid (if frustrating) reasons.
Original Cindy (Valarie Rae Miller) is known for having flavor in the way she speaks (“boo,” “dealio,” “blaze”), but also bringing some flavor are Herbal Thought (Alimi Ballard) and Sketchy (Richard Gunn). The Jam Pony crew rarely gets their own plotlines – especially as the season goes on – but you can’t underestimate their importance as Max’s real-world friend base, a contrast to her militaristic adventures with her X5 siblings. A nod should also go to J.C. MacKenzie’s Normal, Jam Pony’s straight-laced punching-bag boss.
John Savage is excellent as the central villain, Manticore head Donald Lydecker. His actions are vicious, but he loves his X5 children like a father. When an even worse baddie – Nana Visitor’s Renfro – is introduced late in the season, Lydecker becomes a bad guy we root for.
If there’s a misfire to this near-perfect season, it’s that Max’s quirky and raspy-voiced roommate Kendra (Jennifer Blanc) falls out of the cast at midseason. At least she goes out with one of her zaniest storylines, finding true love with the cop who used to shake her and Max down for payola.
Since Season 1 begins in the fall of 2019, we can’t help but ask “How does it compare to the real 2019?” The answer is: quite well. Because of the Pulse in 2009, the internet and cellphones aren’t reliable and ubiquitous, so we have a throwback situation wherein landlines and bicycle messengers are used.
But if you look at the Pulse as an accidental metaphor for 9/11, “Dark Angel” is scarily prophetic, with hoverdrones, facial recognition and an overall governmental structure that knows no limits of incompetence and corruption. And old-school media is almost gone. Eyes Only – Logan’s alter ego – tells the truth, but he has to do it in secret lest he be murdered.
Here are my rankings of the 21 episodes of “Dark Angel” Season 1:
1. “Art Attack” (episode 11, written by Doris Egan) – It’s not just Max in that $6,000 dress that makes this ep great (although it doesn’t hurt). Director James Contner and his team nail the brisk pacing and humor as Max bounces back and forth between Logan’s brother’s wedding (where she tears up at the vows, to Logan’s surprise) and acquiring the painting necessary to free Normal. He’s being held by bad guys with a predilection for throwing people out of high windows (they should compare notes with the Unabomber disciples from episode six, “Prodigy”). In a nice economic detail, we learn that many pieces of US culture were shipped off after the Pulse, with the entire Baseball Hall of Fame going to Japan.
2. “I and I Am a Camera” (18, David Simkins) – In the best guest turn of the season, “The Office’s” Rainn Wilson plays a lighter precursor to his character in “Super” (2010) – a homemade superhero who uses military-grade cybernetic leg attachments to enhance his movement. He’s a geek before geeks were cool, making references to “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” etc., in the subtle way comic-book references used to be made. The hoverdrones, creeping around since episode one, have a nice payoff as they are fitted with all-too-prophetic facial-recognition tech. Logan confronts his own hypocrisy and releases information that shuts down his family’s military-industry business, which has made him wealthy. In a surprising but smart twist, it backfires: Cale Corporation dumps off its tech to Manticore before folding. So maybe there is something to using dirty money for good deeds after all.
3. “Meow” (20, David Zabel) – While the ep repurposes the premise of “Heat” (episode 2), I forgive it because it’s so funny. Yet it doesn’t go over the top; it expertly mixes tones as Max feels bad about being at the mercy of the Manticore-implanted feline DNA that makes her want to mate with every male in sight. That’s no exaggeration: In the season’s funniest moment, Max is irresistibly drawn to Normal as he works on getting a stain out of his shirt, making Max suspect that he works out. Luckily, Original Cindy punches Max as she promised she would. We get great settings, including the silo where Renfro is holding X5 Tinga (Lisa Ann Cabasa) in one of those science-fiction water tanks. But what clinches this ep as a classic is the “Blade Runner”-style noodle bar where Lydecker meets with a South African genetic researcher. You can’t say “DA” doesn’t appreciate its forbearer among 2019-set SF stories.
4. “… And Jesus Brought a Casserole” (21, René Echevarria and Charles H. Eglee) – Fake-out dream sequences are clichés, but this one is perfectly handled as Max imagines an ideal world with all the X5s and Jam Pony people having fun at Crash, her neighborhood bar. Even Lydecker is there, having a glass of water, in a moment that shows us Max doesn’t 100 percent hate his guts while also clinching for the viewer that this is her imagination. Savage shows his balancing-act thespian skills as a man who is a ruthless villain (he cuts out a guy’s eye to gain access to Manticore, a year before “Minority Report” used the trick) yet he would never purposely hurt his X5 “kids.” In a twist almost as good as the dream fake-out, Max must fight her X7 clone (Geneva Locke, who also plays young Max in flashbacks), and Zack (William Gregory Lee) must do the same.
5. “Rising” (12, Jose Molina, Zabel, Egan and Moira Kirland Dekker) – With “The X-Files” exploring supersoldiers around this same time, I had forgotten how good this thread is, especially with “that one guy” actor, Patrick Kilpatrick, playing his latest brute. We get the clichéd-but-epic moment of Max – under the influence of the Reds’ implant – throwing off a circle of attackers, along with a creepy scene of a Red lighting his own funeral pyre and climbing into it. It’s funny when Original Cindy succeeds at telemarketing when she reverts to her personal speaking “flavor” – the opposite of “Sorry to Bother You.” Max’s reaction to Kendra dating Mr. Multiples is classic. But Kendra will be missed.
6. “Pilot” (1, James Cameron and Eglee) – Director David Nutter delivers an all-time great pilot for the second straight year, following “Roswell.” The double-length episode expertly walks the tightrope between entertaining us and introducing the world. This one is helped by being the most expensive TV episode ever, but that money is all on the screen. Poor post-Pulse Seattle looks visually rich. Alba totally looks the part of a genetically enhanced human, and she has the stealth movements nailed out of the gate. The screenplay shows Max’s ingenuity – like when she poses as an escort, one year before “Alias” popularized undercover role-playing. From the category of all-too-prophetic: One of Max’s friends dies from a cancer he acquired during his military service, one that the government can’t (or won’t) treat.
7. “411 on the DL” (5, Egan) – Max reunites with Zack for the first time in a nice-looking hour with lots of rain, old brick buildings and alleys. When Max’s motorbike is stolen by the cops in order to get the $3,000 impound fee out of her, it’s a nice example of this third-world corruption-driven economy. Herbal’s adventures with a romantic rival are entirely told via the spoken world, but it’s still entertaining. This is almost always the case with the Jam Pony crew’s side tales, which often stand as an exception to the “show, don’t tell” rule.
8. “The Kidz Are Aiight” (13, Echevarria and Eglee) – This striking hour includes a cave, woods, graffiti-covered buses turned into living quarters, and that rocky riverbed from “First Blood” (I almost wish for a full “First Blood”-style episode). It’s extremely sloppy of Zack and Max to discuss locations of other X5s (they’re being recorded by Lydecker). On the other hand, we get some of the season’s elite cute/awkward Max-and-Logan material as both Logan’s butler/physical therapist Bling (Peter Bryant) and Original Cindy know more than the lovebirds do that this is a date.
9. “Red” (10, Eglee, Echevarria, Molina and Zabel) – Building on the interplay between Max and hired gun Bruno (Douglas O’Keeffe) from the pilot, this ep gets some chuckles out of Max babysitting the thug, who also has a cute little daughter that he loves. It’s a solid character study for Bruno, backed by a clever plot featuring multiple hitmen. We’re introduced to a second group of supersoldiers: the Red Series, out of South Africa. With no pain receptors, they are vicious in battle, but also short-lived.
10. “Haven” (15, Molina) – The world of “DA” nicely opens up as Max and Logan vacation in a small town and we witness homegrown martial law – but also hunting, fishing and agriculture — outside of the big city. David Kaye gives a good performance as the kid who bonds with Max over mutual childhood trauma (hers plays out through strong bouts of seizures). Before the adventure kicks in, Max and Logan are really cute as they look forward to the trip.
11. “Hit a Sista Back” (19, Dekker) – Sebastian Spence, as the husband of X5 Tinga, gives a nice performance at the center of a straightforward family story where Lydecker puts a child’s life in danger with nanotechnology. We get a good wall-scaling escape sequence, and a fight between X5s; Brin (Nicole Bilderback) has been reprogrammed by Manticore. South Market is an expansive setting for the final showdown in this top-shelf action episode.
12. “Heat” (2, Patrick Harbinson) – With helicopters, boats and a forest chase scene, the second episode indicates that there is not a substantial drop in production values after the pilot. The idea of Max being in heat due to her feline DNA could be played for straight comedy, but refreshingly, it’s not that kind of show. The idea that Eric (Branden Williams) is into Max (after their passionate night that didn’t really happen) is amusing, but he’s not treated as a joke; he saves the day.
13. “Cold Comfort” (7, Molina) – This is a good acting reel for Savage as three strong personalities – Lydecker, Max and Zack – square off. We see how scattered and corrupt the army is, as one outpost aims to sell Max, Zack and Brin to the highest bidder. Luckily, Lydecker shuts them down as we learn he has significant authority over other military and law-enforcement groups. We also get the season’s funniest Jam Pony plot as the gang uses laxatives and a fake biohazard so Normal doesn’t sell out to a corporation.
14. “Out” (9, Zabel) – This ep features a clichéd-but-cute storyline where Max, the girl who can reassemble a motorcycle in no time flat, is helpless when planning a dinner date with Logan. It’s prescient with its thread about human trafficking (a popular news story nowadays) and it’s almost, but not quite, progressive in the story of Normal dating a transgender woman. While Normal is surprisingly cool with her being a former man, Original Cindy balks at receiving the woman’s phone number, saying she’s too straight for a “science fiction girlfriend.” Truth be told, though, Cindy’s reaction is not off point for the real 2019, where transgender acceptance significantly trails behind that of gays.
15. “C.R.E.A.M.” (4, Zabel) – While cash rules everything around most people, Max says she won’t use her special skills to get rich. She also rejects Logan’s offer of a gun, another of her moral hang-ups. But she will help out a friend, Sketchy, in need, as she uses her math skills – complemented by her distracting dress and ditzy persona — to win big at a casino. That goofy but fun thread is balanced by a sad tale of a woman who just wants revenge and money. Logan is also contrasted by his old friend Herrero, a once-great investigative reporter who has opted to go into hiding rather than continue the fight.
16. “Blah Blah Woof Woof” (8, Dekker) – The ending doesn’t hold water: When Zack turns himself in, Lydecker inexplicably calls off the search for Max. Otherwise, there’s some good stuff here, including an unusually romantic blood transfusion from Max to Logan. Plus, Sketchy learns it’s not so fun to be in Normal’s shoes, when he’s the boss for a day.
17. “Female Trouble” (14, Harbinson) – Brenda Bakke gives a nice turn as a doctor who used to work for Manticore and is now hunted by them for defecting. The story of Max convincing X5 Jace (Shireen Crutchfield) to leave Manticore and swing over to the good side is straightforward. And I don’t buy that Logan is so depressed over the loss of his walking ability that he almost kills himself, although Max’s concern for him is touching.
18. “Flushed” (3, Echevarria and Eglee) – The show’s sometimes-convenient storytelling style, wherein two threads connect, makes its debut here: During her time in a foster home (a surprising revelation – I would’ve thought she had lived on the streets), Max’s foster sister was raped by the foster father. And the same thing is happening inside the jail here: The warden picks out his favorite girl. The cruelty of third-world Seattle is balanced by a good-hearted big dude, Break (Abraham Benrubi), who befriends and helps Max. This ep features the first use of the drinking-game-worthy phrase “genetically enhanced killing machine.”
19. “Prodigy” (6, Eglee, Echevarria and Harbinson) – It’s bold to throw Lydecker and Max (undercover as a reporter) together, but the hostage plot could’ve used more spice. The bad guys’ motives don’t make sense: Disciples of the anti-technology Unabomber aim to kidnap a kid whose life has clearly been improved by genetic manipulation. While it’s often the case that villains don’t strike us as logical, I would’ve liked more nuance here. Max’s midair rescue of Logan is impressive.
20. “Pollo Loco” (17, Egan) – Although Jensen Ackles (in a different role) would go on to be a Season 2 regular, his performance as X5 serial killer Ben isn’t layered enough for me to sympathize with him in this “Of Mice and Men” riff. The evil tooth fairy worshiped by Ben shows us how kids’ imaginations can get twisted, but it’s more convoluted than creepy.
21. “Shorties in Love” (16, Adisa Iwa) – The chemistry between Diamond (Tangelia Rouse) and Original Cindy isn’t there even though this is the girl who supposedly gave O.C. her flavor. Synthedyne is a rare aspect of “DA’s” economic world-building that doesn’t make sense. If a corporation is using (and killing) human test subjects, how is their product successful on the marketplace? Even in this third-world USA, it seems unlikely; people are poor, but they are savvy: Eyes Only’s bulletins always draw attention. We get a rare horror moment when an ooze-faced Diamond attacks Synthedyne’s CEO, but nonetheless, this is the weakest hour of an outstanding season.