Benjamin Bratt, Esteban Powell,
Amy Price-Francis, Grace Park,
Brett DelBuono, Liliana Mumy, Kevin Michael Richardson
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All photos © Paramount
Reviewed by Will Harris
“The Cleaner” could’ve been an awful, mawkish mess of a show. The concept – a former addict who takes it upon himself to save the lives of other addicts – is one that, if it’d been handed to a broadcast network, would’ve almost certainly been cleansed of the slightest approximation of real addiction. That’s still not to say that we’re seeing every last aspect of what junkies, alcoholics, crack heads, and coke fiends are going through, but the fact that the show airs on the same network that brought us “Intervention” is enough to give it a chance, and the ultimate execution results in a payoff.
The former addict referenced above is William Banks, played by Benjamin Bratt. William has been battling his demons for years, but when his daughter Lula (Liliana Mumy) is born, he makes a deal with God that, if he’s given a second chance at redemption, he’ll not only end his own drug abuse but also help others end their addictions as well. His wife, Melissa (Amy Price-Francis), loves him enough to trust that he’s capable of doing this, but his son, Ben (Brett DelBuono), is a harder sell. You can’t blame him, though, when he’s full of memories like, say, his dad buying him Dragon Ball cards to keep him busy while Pops is off shooting up.
In order to better accomplish his mission, William gathers a team composed of other recovering addicts to aid his efforts. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to include Akani Cuesta (Grace Park) in their number, since she and William had a brief fling, but she’s good at what she does. So is Arnie Swenton (Esteban Powell), though his abilities are impaired a few episodes into the season when he’s forced to, ahem, indulge in order to save his cover on a mission, resulting in a full-fledged backslide. Ironically, the biggest member of the team is the one who brings the least to the table, but that’s only because Darnell McDowell (Kevin Michael Richardson) is new to the gang; as a result, however, he ends up being the one who’s easiest for us to relate to, since he’s often as incredulous about the actions of the addicts as the viewers are.
One of the more intriguing things about “The Cleaner” is the decision to make the character of William Banks equally likeable and unlikable. We know he’s been through a lot and managed to come out the other side, and we respect him both for that and his decision to spend his life trying to save others, but he ends up being horribly unreliable to his family as a result. It’s also clear that he’s clinging to his sobriety for dear life, but although it explains why he so desperately requires consistency in his life, watching him refuse to accept his son’s request to stop playing football and act like a jackass when his wife attempts to carve herself a new career in real estate, well, you can’t help but feel like he deserves a punch in the face, if only to serve as a wake-up call.
While the whole “making a deal with God” thing will no doubt cause the opening strains of “Running Up That Hill” to begin running through your brain, religion doesn’t permeate the proceedings in a way that will cause anyone to get their dander up. The Almighty exists within the show, but in a highly ambiguous way. William speaks to God regularly, but when it’s suggested that he’s praying, he immediately argues that only religious people pray, and that what he’s doing is closer to conversation. William believes that God exists, but he doesn’t necessarily agree or understand everything that happens in the world that He created, so, y’know, it’s kind of like Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours.”
You’re probably thinking that, since it’s a TV show, William and his team are going to end up being more successful at their attempts to curb the addictions of their marks than the statistical average for these things. You’re right. But this ain’t a feel-good show by any means. “The Cleaner” isn’t afraid to show the needle and the damage done both to the person suffering from the addiction and those around them, and if you need proof, you need look no farther than “Back to One,” which is heart wrenching and predictable in the worst possible way. Given the intensity of the series and the regular acknowledgment that sobriety involves standing on the precipice 24-7, there’s reason to believe that the show will revisit some of the first season’s successes in Season Two, only to find that they’ve turned into failures. It’s a topic that runs through the show from the pilot episode onward and, for better or worse, it’s a reason for viewers to keep coming back to “The Cleaner.”
Special Features: CBS / Paramount has come through with a nice bit of bonus material, including cast and crew commentary on a handful of episodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a backstage look at the series from Esteban Powell. There’s also a featurette, “The Mystery of Benjamin Banks,” which delves into the show’s lead character, as well as a series of cast and crew interviews, which lasts about ten minutes.