Painkiller Jane: The Breakdown

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There’s one line of spoken dialogue that has yet to appear in Sci-Fi Channel’s show Painkiller Jane.

"Jane, you ignorant slut."

For most female ex-DEA agents named Jane, that first cut would be the deepest, but for Jane Vasco, the only thing those words will bruise is her feelings.

That’s because Jane is special.

Like the slogan says,

Like a Timex watch, she takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. A run-in with a car might leave her shaken, but not stirred. Connect her to 10,000 watts? Shocking, yes, but nothing that a clothing brush and a bottle of Evian won’t take care of. Push her through a plate glass window on the 20th floor? While she doesn’t quite bounce like a superball, let’s just say the first priest on the scene would have to speed read last rites to be done before Vasco pops back up and runs off to track down the perp.

I.V. anyone?

The TV show is loosely based on the comic book series of the same name.

The marketing angle says, "A power she can’t explain. An assignment she didn’t want."

In the future, the world will contain neuros. Neuros – short for neurological aberrants – are human mutants with supernormal mental powers. Not all neuros are the same. In fact, there’s pretty much a flavor of the week. Motives for neuro actions also vary widely, but theories abound that a neuro’s heightened neurological functions may interfere with his or her ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Maybe that explains why, against all logical reason, perfectly normal people can be seen rocking a vending machine to get that last preservative-soaked cinnamon bun to fall.

In the pilot, a routine drug bust for Agent Vasco goes super sized. She encounters a neuro who causes her to temporarily hallucinate … which wouldn’t be so bad if she was relaxing at the crib with a Vanity Fair and a glass of chardonnay, but in fact … Jane was holding a loaded gun at the time. Luckily, the encounter brings her to the attention of Andre. No, not Andre the Giant, you silly, Andre McBride; he’s in charge of a group of neuro hunters, though the only one of the bunch that shouldn’t worry about job security is the team’s cyber-geek, Riley Jensen. The rest are a bunch of layabouts. After a game of cat and mouse – okay, okay … I’ll spell it out: Jane is the cat and Andre is the mouse – Jane infiltrates Andre’s headquarters and earns a spot on the team. Loath to simply stick her toe into the wading pool of life, Jane dives in. In short order, she infiltrates a drug company, exits through the aforementioned 20-story window, and learns after having a face-to-gravel meeting with Mr. Pavement that she really can’t be killed. By the end of the show, she’s brought her first neuro to heel and begun to search for information that will help her discover how and why she heals so fast.

In the weeks to follow, and with the help of her Painkiller Gang (or without, depending on whether your glass is half full or vice versa), Jane takes on a zombie master, shakes off the effects of selective amnesia, rescues teammates from a madman who can predict the future, hold a no-holds-barred séance in a haunted safe house that’s anything but safe, and suffer from a deadly case of mal de mares.

All for the love of neuros.

Take last week’s show, Breakdown, the one about deadly nightmares. It seems that an unusual sleep disorder causes victims to find unusual ways to hide from something that terrifies them greatly. They try to push themselves through small passageways, stack furniture against the door … all while they’re sound asleep. For some, like the guy in the passageway, it’s a one way ticket to the afterlife. For others, perhaps not so lucky, they’re traumatized beyond belief. Utilizing systematic interrogation techniques, the Jane’s Gang find that common links between victims are seeing flowers and a rain hat. When Jane falls victim to such nightmares, she should turn herself in, but that plucky Jane sallies forth like the trooper she is. In the end, the team cracks the deadly relationship between a well meaning but delusional doctor and his patient, a neuro, who can’t seem to get rid of the (bad) stuff that her dreams are made of, until the final, climactic moments.

Reviewing Painkiller Jane is like trying to review Jello. Jello is a good, solid, lip-smacking dish, but by itself it isn’t satisfying. Making a meal out of Jello would be like painting the Brooklyn bridge … once you finished you’d have to start all over again. Now, don’t get me wrong, Jello can be made more substantial by adding fruit, or cottage cheese, or Cool Whip (slogan added here), or whatever, but it’s still glorified Jello and not really a meal.

In many ways, Painkiller Jane as a TV show is the same as a meal made of Jello. The characters within PKJ all have their places within the storyline and they function pretty well. The world of PKJ is in some ways quite engaging, but in others remarkably homogenous, bland, and incomplete. The stories presented each week in PKJ are sometimes thought provoking, but never to the degree that you’re blown away by a dramatic plot twist or a freakishly outlandish ending and there’s always more than a little "gee … I’ve been down this neuro path before; do I want to spend another hour going down it again?".

In other words, it’s Jello … and depending on your own take on the Jane Gang, it may be Jello with fruit or cottage cheese, but it’s never, say … steak, (or if you’re Vegan … a heady little veggie curry with saphron rice and savory toppings like peanuts, raisins, and cocoanut).

What would elevate the show?

In my humble opinion, a surrounding cast that didn’t graduate from Cookie-Cutter University and the University of I’ve Seen This Before. I mean really … there are Jane, the Brain (Andre McBride), the Geek (Riley Jensen), the Muscle (Connor King), and the Eye Candy (Maureen Bowers). Everybody is equally adept at hanging out chasing data at the HQ as they are strapping on body armor for a little "Tag & Bag" operation (or in this case it would be a "Flip & Chip" since the power of a neuro is neutralized with some sort of high tech chip that’s injected via some sort of single shot Daisy air pistol).

Another mitigating force might be the actors behind the roles and the performances they deliver (insert any film or TV program wherein the actor’s chops elevated a mundane script to new heights). Unfortunately, that’s another area where Painkiller Jane falls short. Rather than drop a safe on Kristanna Loken, Rob Stewart (McBride), and the other actors, however, in my humble opinion they’re being hogtied by the parts written for them.

As stated in the show’s premise, Jane is supposed to continue to feel the pain from her wounds long after the wounds themselves have healed. Unfortunately, there is no time to allow Loken to demonstrate this in any way because the character must be able to heal, get up, and help save the good guys and wallop the bad guys. Once the action is finished, there is precious little time to allow Loken/Jane to act out the part and make the viewer develop an emotional attachment to her and the character.

It’s impossible to go to the lengths that the comic book Jane achieves to act our the hell that her life has become, but you’d think that a character transformed by pain and healing would quickly develop a few gnarly, quirky mannerisms that would provide Loken with a hook on which to hang her characters hat and coat.

The other actors are very much relegated to support roles, and when even the lead actress is unable to forge that emotive bond, what chance do they have? Props to Sean O. Roberts because he manages to establish a certain pathos for uber geek Riley Jensen, but there are only so many times you can play that card within the framework of the story before it gets as stale as day old bread (bordering on that now, actually, because he gets so little help from anyone else in the cast).

Noticeable on the other side of the equation is poor Noah Danby who plays Connor King. Also IMHO, if Danby were allowed to play King the way the late Aldo Ray played the character of Albert in the 1955 comedy, "We’re No Angels," the role would have a lighter, more sophisticated patina to go over the gender-banging, all-brawn-no-brains. testosterone-soaked machismo.

By the way, any time I can use the word: mah-CHEESE-moh … it’s a great day.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is the slowness of how Jane’s backstory is revealed. Glaciers move faster, or should I say recede faster – a B.F. nod to global warming. Each week a tiny teaspoon of information is doled out, kind of like driving through a Midwestern town in your classic ’67 ‘Vette with the stock 357 hemi – even with the drop top dropped, if you blink you miss it. The end result is that the house of cards that the PKJ writers are building, which should be about the size of a Bavarian castle, is really just a semi-attached duplex in LA’s Compton district. I don’t mean to bag on Compton, but you choose between a Bavarian castle and Compton. I thought so.

Case in point: At the end of the most recent show, the one called Breakdown, Jane has convinced one character that she has been helped a lot by the neuron hunter team that she’s with. To prove it, she dislocates her finger, then watches as it heals itself in seconds. Convinced that Jane and crew are no threat, the other character leads them to a motel where he has safely stashed the neuro they’ve been searching for. Later, during the episode’s denouement, Andre has a low down to the nitty-gritty chat with Dr. Seth Carpenter. The topic? Carpenter has compared Jane’s DNA to a neuro that was recently captured. Again, with more than a little seriousness, the good doctor asks Andre is Jane knows about this … that she might be a neuro herself … and Andre replies (with a straight face), "I don’t think so."

Now wait a cotton pickin’ minute. You’re expecting anyone with even half an ounce of smarts to believe that someone who has fallen from a 20-story window (and lived), received a 10,000 volt e-gram (and lived), and who routinely can dislocate their joints on demand while anticipating that they’ll heal faster than a frog eats a June bug doesn’t recognize that they might actually be one of the neuros that the team is hunting?

Well … to return full circle to my original quote: Jane wouldn’t be a slut, but she sure as heck would have to be somewhat ignorant.

The creative talent putting Painkiller Jane together are working very hard to tell compelling stories within the framework they have created around the core story from the comic book. Breaking out of confinements that make Painkiller Jane into Just Plain Jane would make for more compelling viewing.

Regardless, when new Painkiller Jane episodes air, Broken Frontier will be there. The power may be something even we can’t explain, but unlike Jane, it’s an assignment we certainly do want.

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