[This is a review of The Player season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Right from the start, The Player presents itself as the television equivalent of the Las Vegas strip. It's flashy, gaudy, and wrapped in a near-continuous cacophony of sound. It is prone to assaulting the viewer's senses in two ways: either through its admittedly well-staged, slick action sequences, or by heaving enormous amounts of exposition upon them like the randos handing out flyers and marketing materials for a certain kind of entertainment. At times during the pilot episode it can feel as though even Wesley Snipes will be buried under the mountain of exposition, leaving the audience to watch as yet another network television series gets lost in its own nonsense. And yet, somehow, miraculously, it doesn't.
Make no mistake, The Player is ridiculous; the idea that a premise this needlessly convoluted even exists would be troublesome if not for the fact that it's just keeping with the trend in network television (and a few other places) this fall. But something happens while watching Philip Winchester run around Sin City, trying to stop crimes from happening. Something becomes clear even through the haze of Wesley Snipes muttering chestnuts about gambling. Despite all the distractions, The Player gets at least one thing right: It seemingly knows that it is dumb, delightfully trashy television that, notwithstanding its narrative shortcomings, will seemingly go to any length to please its audience.
You've heard the phrase "a good dog will run until its heart explodes"? Well The Player is a lot like that. The show's golden retriever-like devotion to both its central conceit and desire to satisfy those watching goes a long way in making what could have been a rough hour of television moderately entertaining. It also bodes well in terms of being able to sustain its story on a weekly basis.
Wesley Snipes may be the headline-grabbing name attached to the series, but The Player lives and dies on Philip Winchester's ability to be the affable hero at the center of its overly elaborate plot. Winchester plays security expert Alex Kane, a guy who knows how to think like a bad guy and spot weaknesses in a client's security detail. He's also the sort of fellow who will jump off a hotel rooftop, grab a cable, and swing through a window, tackling a would-be assailant in the process – and all of that is before he's wrapped up in a global online gambling conspiracy that, despite betting on crimes big and small, still seems slightly less malignant than DraftKings.
There's a charming simplicity to the show in its early going, and even after surviving the ordeal that is absorbing the reams of information it takes to explain its concept, you can't help but wish The Player could have stayed that way. The pilot takes every simple, charming element the show has and blatantly writes over them. It's like seeing the producers' notes on the script's first draft manifest themselves directly on-screen. Watching Kane smile his way through a plate glass window, all to bust a bad guy, and then do shots with his ex-wife before ending up in bed with her, one might think, "It's so nice to see an action hero who's not all angsty and morose" – and then, his ex-wife gets shot in a home invasion and Alex Kane finds his inner gloom.
Throughout its first hour there is a pervasive sense that The Player just isn't happy with the decisions it's making, and therefore continuously attempts to write over them. The story of a security expert making sure people stay safe becomes a quasi sci-fi conspiracy thriller, involving a cabal of degenerate gamblers with so much money they can never lose enough for it to ever matter. What starts as a charming romantic subplot, helping round out the protagonist somewhat, becomes another tired women in refrigerators scenario that itself may or may not have been re-written by the episode's end.
Unnecessary twists and additions to the narrative nearly derail a show that is demonstrably more entertaining when afforded the opportunity to be a simpler version of itself. When The Player is just an action-adventure series about Alex Kane and his penchant for making a grand entrance, it's a lot of fun. Philip Winchester brings the same sort of can-do athleticism he did to Strike Back, and while the pilot doesn't reach the death-defying heights of Cinemax's soon-to-be concluded series, Winchester's unremitting energy makes sure the wheels never stop spinning.
As the pilot moves toward its climax, it becomes clear that if The Player ever stopped moving it would almost certainly die. It is a series that survives by acting like Kane when faced with a problem: It continually propels itself forward, remaining heedless of what's waiting around the corner (or on the other side of a window or door). That need for constant momentum might explain the convoluted twists and turns, even if it doesn't entirely excuse them.
On the other hand, using Winchester to spin the hamster wheel powering the series makes things a lot easier for Snipes, who mainly exists to explain the plot and work as Kane's get-out-of-jail-free card. Still, there is some intrigue in the mystery of Mr. Johnson and which side of the moral equation he's actually on – which, should the series continue, might become an interesting avenue to explore. The same goes for Charity Wakefield's Cassandra King, and the connection she shares with Kane's (possibly not dead) ex-wife.
These additions provide some spice to the series' continued plotting, but at the risk of making the whole dish wildly over seasoned. The Player is a meat-and-potatoes series in a television landscape wherein every new program has become the nitrogen-infused, molecular gastronomy-inspired version of itself. That level of complexity works for some, but in this case, simpler is better.
The Player continues next Thursday with 'Ante Up' @10pm on NBC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Greg Gayne/NBC