Despite mostly negative reviews for the new CBS drama "Hack," viewers have made it the No. 1 network show on Friday nights at 9.
So much for the power of the press.
In its first two broadcasts, Hack averaged approximately 12 million viewers. "Hack's" creative team says the show's large audience suggests there's a great divide between what critics and viewers want to see on television.
"If you look at critics as a demographic group, they're college-educated. They have graduate degrees; they like foreign films," said Gavin Polone, an executive producer on the series. "Hack's" blue-collar sensibility, Polone argues, speaks to the average viewer. "There's something in 'Hack' that the common man can relate to a bit better than the critic," he added.
In the series, David Morse stars as Mike Olshansky, a dirty ex-cop-turned-taxi driver, who finds himself again fighting crime-- only this time, without a badge. Joining Morse are Andre Braugher as Olshansky's equally dirty ex-partner, for whom Olshansky covered; and George Dzundza as a priest with a penchant for gambling.
"Hack" already is being compared to "The Equalizer," a mid-1980s series on CBS in which British actor Edward Woodward played a former government agent who took the law into his own hands. But Morse said his character is no vigilante. He even shrugs off the notion of Olshansky as a hero. At best, he said, Olshansky is a reluctant hero.
"He's not out to avenge something, he's not even looking to do good," Morse said of his character. "He's just a guy who has messed up his life, and he's trying to find his way back to something like the good guy he believes he started out as."
Of course, getting caught taking cash from a crime scene cost Olshansky more than his job. His marriage crumbled, and he lost the respect of his 11-year-old son. But even as Olshansky searches for redemption, Morse points out that his character remains unwilling to fully acknowledge his own wrongdoings.
If "Hack" has struck a chord with viewers, Morse believes it's because of Olshansky's moral complexities and the conflicts he faces both internally and externally.
"I think that's more interesting than a guy who's just out to do good," Morse said, adding that viewers may "identify more with [Olshansky] than with the kind of invincible character who every week can save the day. I just don't think we buy that anymore."
Polone agrees. A former Hollywood talent agent who also is an executive producer on the WB's "Gilmore Girls" and HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Polone said he thought up the idea for "Hack" several years ago and turned to screenwriter David Koepp ("Spiderman," "The Panic Room") to write the show's pilot.
With the hope of creating a non-traditional cop show, Polone said he thought back to classic westerns such as "Shane" and "The Searchers," in which "the lead actors were quasi-bad guys," he said. "It's so boring when a character is perfect."
Not only is Olshansky imperfect, so are the characters around him. And "Hack's" surprising realism--some may say cynicism --also could resonate with viewers who in the past year have come face to face with an increasingly hostile world, in which the roots of evil seem to dwell as much in corporate greed as they do in religious fanaticism.
Even if the line between good and evil has become blurred in real life, television traditionally has kept that line distinct. But the times may have finally caught up with the medium.
"That clarity doesn't exist anymore," said Nina Tassler, senior vice president of drama development at CBS. "Olshansky tends to see things in tones of gray rather than black-and-white. And I think that aspect of the show has struck a chord, because the rules of our world and life tend to change day-to-day."
"Hack's" success may stem as much from its cast as it does from its concept. Like William Petersen on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," Hollywood has viewed Morse as an actor's actor. But with "Hack," Morse is finally achieving the sort of mass audience appeal that has eluded him. Morse is perhaps best known for his TV role as Dr. Jack "Boomer" Morrison on the Emmy-winning medical drama "St. Elsewhere" (1982-88). In 1997, he won New York's coveted Obie Award for his starring role in the off-Broadway play "How I Learned to Drive."
Morse said "Hack" may be one of his most satisfying parts yet, simply because he can sink his teeth into Olshansky. Even in starring roles on independent films such as "The Crossing Guard," Morse said, "It doesn't matter how much you love the character, filming is over in four weeks."
In supporting roles on films such as "Proof of Life," he added, "you're there to serve the plot or the main character." But playing Olshansky every week, he said: "You get to live out this character. There's a constant sense of discovery."
Despite "Hack's" strong start, how long Morse gets to discover his character remains uncertain. Just before its Sept. 27 premiere, "Hack's" chance at success seemed like a long shot. In addition to its bad reviews, the show underwent a behind-the-scenes executive change. Such goings-on often signal a series is in trouble.
Morse said that between the show's three executive producers at the time, plus network and studio executives, making decisions on the show's direction seemed driven less by creative needs than by bottom-line demands.
"There are so many people involved in this process, especially when a show is new," the actor said. "Everybody's got an opinion, and everybody feels they're in a position to exert that opinion."
Further complicating matters was "Hack's" bicoastal setup. Although it is filmed in Philadelphia, the show's writing and post-production staffs are based in Los Angeles. Overseeing the production got messy. Enter Bob Singer, a veteran producer of series such as "Lois and Clark" and "Midnight Caller." Singer, in fact, was directing an episode of "Hack" when CBS executives asked him to replace an executive producer on the series, after which another exited, leaving Polone and Singer as the only executives on the program.
If ratings remain strong for "Hack," the network's 11th-hour move may have paid off.
"We always were looking for someone to operate in a more full-time capacity," said CBS's Tassler, "someone who was located in Philadelphia, but who could come to Los Angeles when needed."
With Singer steering the series, even Morse predicts that network suits will take a more hands-off approach toward the show.
"As we go along, I think the show will be less a result of corporate decision making, and more an expression of the few of us at the show's core," he said.
Even if the show doesn't make it, Morse seems glad to have had the chance to play Olshansky, if only to explore his character's evolving humanity.
"He can be smart, sensitive, dangerous, petty--or just a jerk," Morse said of Olshansky. "He's caught between the good side and bad side of himself. For an actor, dealing with that sort of dual nature is a fun place to live."