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Reviewed by Will Harris
&E’s “The Cleaner,” a series about a former addict who takes it upon himself to save the lives of other addicts, could’ve been a syrupy affair that waggled a finger at the world and said, “Drugs are bad!” Instead, it provided viewers with a dark look into the life of that addict – William Banks, played by Benjamin Bratt – and showed how he struggled on a daily basis to be a husband and a father while saving people suffering from the same affliction that he was once cursed with. Unfortunately, Season Two of the series proves to be somewhat of a disappointment when compared to its freshman year on the air, owing to a restructuring which places the focus less on series regulars and more on the weekly guest stars.
When speaking of the regulars, of course, there’s an exception to the rule, and that’s William, whose personal history as an addict remains as crucial to the show as ever. But the other members of the ensemble suffer a significant loss of screen time. Indeed, one member of William’s team – Darnell, played by Kevin Michael Richardson – is missing from Season One, and his absence is neither explained nor even referenced during the course of Season Two. (You can, however, find out more about Darnell’s mysterious disappearance by checking out my brief E-mail conversation with the show’s head writer, Jonathan Prince.) The returning team members don’t get much better treatment: the relapse suffered by Arnie (Esteban Powell) at the end of Season One is mostly glossed over, and although there’s acknowledgement of the affair that William and Akani (Grace Park) once had, it’s only in passing.
Even the amount of screen time dedicated to William’s kids – Lula (Lilana Mumy) and Ben (Brett DelBuono) – has been cut significantly. This is particularly unfortunate, given that one of the key storylines of Season One was the way that William’s devotion to helping addicts impeded on the relationship with his family, a relationship which had already been severely damaged by his own years of addiction. It isn’t that there aren’t still regular references to Lula and Ben, though, and each does get to shine at some point during the season. Ben briefly takes center stage in “Last American Casualty,” but his storyline is ultimately overshadowed by the showy performance of guest star Joe Don Baker; Lula gets a far better spotlight in “Cinderella,” where one of her ballet classmates turns out to be addicted to painkillers that she’s being provided by her dance instructor. Oh, if you’re wondering about the status of William’s estranged wife, Melissa (Amy Price-Francis), she’s still floating in and out of the picture, getting more screen time than the kids, but given that William has moved out of the house, she’s definitely a lesser character this go-round, too.
So what of these guest stars, who’ve stolen the thunder away from the folks who made the show such an exceptional drama in Season One? Well, at the very least, you can’t say there isn’t some star power to be had. The season premiere features Gary Cole as a news anchor whose assurances about having conquered his addictions come crashing down when his wife (Jane Brook, late of “Chicago Hope”), also a recovering addict, refuses to take any drugs for her cancer until her husband admits to his problem and attempts to quit. It’s a hoot to see Shirley Jones and Steve Landesberg playing a married nightclub act who decide to give up drinking late in life in order to help their son battle his own problems Mia Kirshner also guest stars in the episode, and as the season goes on, you’ll also see Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), Paul Schulze (“Nurse Jackie”), Lori Petty, Rebecca Gayheart, and Christine Lahti, with a recurring role from Whoopi Goldberg as William’s heretofore-unseen sponsor, Paulina.
“The Cleaner: The Final Season” isn’t awful, but it suffers tremendously from memories of what the show was like during its first season. If you read the comments from head writer Jonathan Price in the above link, you get the impression that this may have been a directive from above – no, not God, the network. If they were, as is implied, dedicated more on bringing in new viewers than pleasing the ones who’d been there from the beginning, then it’s no wonder that they dropped the ongoing story arcs in favor of self-contained episodes. Unfortunately, by doing so, they dropped a great deal of what made “The Cleaner” so unique. It’s still a well-intentioned series, but it’s not surprising that its second season was its last.
Special Features: Given that the series was canceled some time ago, it’s a pleasant surprise to see how much bonus material has been offered up for the show. In addition to cast and crew commentaries on selected episodes, there are a pair of featurettes (“Coming Clean” and “Warren Boyd: The Real Cleaner”), a series promo, episodic promos, a gag reel, and several deleted scenes.