'The Cleaner': Addiction Drama Unlikely to Be Habit-Forming

Benjamin Bratt, left, with Esteban Powell in the hokey new A& E series.
Benjamin Bratt, left, with Esteban Powell in the hokey new A& E series. (By Danny Feld -- Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When producers title their new TV program "The Cleaner," they're asking for it. For what? For an assortment of derisive hoots and jeers, probably. "The Cleaner" -- what does he do? Track down missing buttons in his spare time?

Unfortunately, "The Cleaner" is a crime show that takes itself very, very seriously, its peripatetic hero a somber buttinski who tries to get between people and the objects of their addictions and effect a permanent separation.

"William Banks has saved 257 people from addiction to drugs, sex and gambling," asserts the on-screen prologue that begins the premiere -- tonight at 10 on the A&E Network. "He's not a cop. He's not a superhero. He's just a man with a Calling. This is his story."

For all his selfless devotion to duty, the Cleaner (played by Benjamin Bratt) couldn't really be called a quicker picker-upper. He takes his time, lumbering about from deed to deed, declaring himself to be God's own "avenging angel" after having come back from the brink of the addiction abyss himself. The nature of his dependence is left rather vague, but we can probably assume it wasn't sex.

Scruffed-up in a disreputable-looking beard and mustache, Banks moves freely between the underworld, the netherworld and modern suburbia, where kids who've developed nasty habits at tender ages stoop to stealing jewelry from mom's purse in the quest for drug money. Now and then, Banks sighs and talks to himself (or perhaps to his main man, God), despairing over the sad state of affairs in a manner reminiscent of silly Billy Jack, counterculture cluck of yesteryear.

"We've got a kid in trouble," he'll bark into the equivalent of a Bat-phone, calling his meager troops to action. At the body shop where he spends spare moments watching over the restoration of an adored old Ford, the hero learns his cousin is "in a bad way" drug-wise. Then comes a plaintive woman's voice on the Cleaner's cellphone: "I need your help. I need you!" Poor chap has more good deeds on his agenda than a dozen Oprahs.

And all he asks is that people care. Come on now; everybody just get up out of your chairs and care care care -- would you, please? Is it too much for the Cleaner to ask? If enough people care, then the Cleaner doesn't mind pulling people out of their "miserable, dead-end lives" and setting them on the path to righteousness.

The production has a slick, facile stylishness, with director David Semel using split screens to display action happening simultaneously in two locations, or to show us a flashback containing a clue as to what makes the Cleaner tick -- and, of course, clean. Whether the Cleaner will ever meet the Closer, however inevitable it may sound, remains rather doubtful, since one show is on A&E and the other on one of the Turner networks. Still, you never know.

Fans of the celebrated Bratt physique (his abdominal Bratt pack having received nearly as much attention as Matthew McConaghey's popped pecs) will be disappointed to discover that, in the premiere, at least, he remains heavily clothed. So do most of the supporting players -- among them Amy Price-Francis as Banks's wife, Grace Park as the most glamorous member of the Cleaner's Dream Team, and Kevin Michael Richardson as a friendly used-car dealer. The real scene-stealer in the premiere, and arguably the hottest bod on the premises, belongs to a yellow Lamborghini, zipping around with suave, sneaky grace.

In promotional puff, A&E says "The Cleaner" is the network's "first scripted drama series in more than six years," which might be exciting if there were a soupcon of substance to the show. If not a soupcon, maybe a tidbit. A dollop. A morsel? Bratt is quoted as saying, "I am always looking for good material to work with and 'The Cleaner' is one of the best scripts I've read in a long time," which takes the cake for sheer baloney.

The last word, though, comes from an unidentified singer who trills under the closing credits: "I'm waiting for my real life to begin." It's the end of the hour, and we're still waiting for the real show to begin, too.

The Cleaner (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on A&E.

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