As of this writing, CBS has placed Smith on hiatus. Cancelled? Considering it’s been replaced with reruns of CSI and Criminal Minds, it looks that way. Though, as ever in television, things are still a bit murky at this point: it might return, or it might not. But since the show stars (or is it starred?) both Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen in rare television roles, it’s still worth a closer look if only for nostalgia’s sake. In exposing the fundamental flaws of the series, it’s no surprise that it couldn’t hold its own against network competition like NBC’s Law & Order: SVU and ABC’s Boston Legal. A well-made crime thriller series, Smith tackled the action-adventure genre and attempted to mix it, rather unsuccessfully, with serious crime drama. Unsuccessful simply because the two genres didn’t mix particularly well and characters remained rather unchanged from exploit to exploit.
Smith is a look into the world of Bobby Stevens (Liotta), a career criminal with a suspicious (though still-in-the-dark) spouse named Hope (Madsen). Liotta is his usual intense self in the show, but his ability to make his performance understated in scenes with Madsen is an unexpected treat. On the other side of things is Stevens’s professional crime crew played by a quartet of younger actors who all look fresh off the set of a Vin Diesel movie: Joe (Franky G), who covers transportation; Jeff (Simon Baker) and Tom (Jonny Lee Miller), the masters of firearms; and Annie (Amy Smart), the mistress of disguise and forgery. The crew has its share of conflicts, not least of which is Jeff’s loose cannon spontaneity and Tom and Annie’s dead-end love affair. On the fringe of all this is the mother of all criminal foes, the F.B.I., who have begun investigating the still unknown crew (whom they call “Smiths”).
Episodes generally focus on the planning and execution of each crime, and there’s a good deal of time taken to insure everything goes over smoothly and believably. But for all its success staging the professionally handled crime sprees and the interweaving drama of the characters’ personal lives, Smith falls victim to some stylistic choices that wholly contradict each other. Liotta portrays Stevens as a man intent on keeping everything understandably quiet, yet he has no problems openly discussing his plans to commit a crime on a busy city street or in the middle of someone’s office. Moreover, when the camera isn’t focusing on Smart’s legs, it’s often catching one of the crew members zipping around town in a brand new stolen car. In nearly every scene when the crew meets to discuss a job, they each assemble by pulling up, tires screeching, like a teenager just let out of school. While this may be free-wheelin’ fun for most, for criminals serious about keeping things hush, I can’t help but feel Liotta’s pain when the Goodfellas veteran shakes his head in disapproval.
It isn’t about maintaining strict believability so much as sticking to an agreed upon setting. The series attempts to dwell in two disparate worlds unsuccessfully. There are obvious elements lifted from Michael Mann’s film Heat and despite network television’s limitations (“Oh, crap!” is one of the harsher expletives used) things work rather well. But at the same time, there’s a feeling of The Fast and The Furious—a mentality of big guys in fast cars with beautiful women—that just doesn’t jive with Mann’s world. Can anyone actually imagine Robert De Niro’s character in Heat zipping around town in a shiny red convertible with Audioslave’s new single blasting from his sound system? It seems as though half of Smith works hard to be based entirely in reality, while the other half falls into action flick stereotypes—where dead bodies aren’t cause for concern and sociopathic behavior is just another day in the life. At least Mann’s film admitted his characters’ flaws and brought us a tangible look into their world. If the producers of Smith could have chosen to focus on character development instead of a revolving door of action scenes, they might have had a top-notch show on their hands. As it stands, however, it looks as though Smith will be another victim of a good idea given a poor execution.