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A private eye with a history of hallucinations-- in fact, glimpses into alternate universes, though he is only beginning to realize this-- stumbles onto a conspiracy involving an evil corporation, three parallel universes, and plans to ravage a pristine, resource-rich version of earth.

This beautifully-filmed Canadian/South African co-production ranks among the more original series in television history. Granted, its early episodes seem derivative. The look of the protagonist's world has been borrowed from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; the show’s creators call it a tribute. We see, in the pilot episode, a world filled with technology but depleted of resources, where rain falls freely but fresh water proves scarce. Two characters, Charlie Jade and Sew Sew Tukarrs recall more than a little Blade Runner’s Deckard and Gaff. As the show develops, however, it heads in its own idiosyncratic direction. The show uses and reinvents a number of conventions in later episodes, mostly from SF and hardboiled detective fiction. However, the results differ from existing commercial television, making Charlie Jade unique, possibly the most original and thought-provoking tv fantasy since The Prisoner.

Cast:

Jeffrey Pierce as Charlie Jade
Tyrone Benskin as Karl Lubinsky
Michael Filipowich as 01 Boxer
Patricia McKenzie as Reena
David Dennis as Sew Sew Tukarrs
Michelle Burgess as Essa Rompkin
Marie-Julie Rivest as Jasmine/Paula
Danny Keogh as Julius Galt
Rolanda Marais as Blues Paddock
Langley Kirkwood as Ren Porter
Nina Swart as Gemma Gaetano
Anneke Weidemann as Jody
Graham Clarke as Brion Boxer
Bonnie Mbuli as Papa Louis

The Premise

"If you let a big corporation tell you what to do, Mr. Jade, you’re working for them. You’re just not getting the benefit package."
--Sew Sew Tukarrs

The show begins on the African cape, in a fouled but technologically advanced future. The titular Jade works in this world; his latest case involves a found person, one who should not exist. His investigation leads him to 01 Boxer, sociopath and son of Brion Boxer, the founder of Vexcor, most powerful of this world’s ruling corporations. Jade follows Boxer out into the desert, where the detective witnesses a terrorist attack against a mysterious Vexcor facility.

And then he finds himself in a world he no longer recognizes.

Spoilers

"This we did not expect."
--The Man in Gray

Jade’s world—identified as the "alphaverse"-- is not our future. The story takes place in the present; he lives in an alternate earth, where history has diverged from ours since (at least) the middle of the twentieth century. The world to which Jade has been transported seems as bizarre to most viewers as it does to Jade. However, this "betaverse" is our world. In a quirky, clever twist, Jade arrives in a corner of the earth that most of us never see. We’re in contemporary South Africa, among desert-dwellers who live apart from modern civilization.

The show continues to provide glimpses into the oddness of our world. Forays into South African politics, class divisions, and contemporary tribalism prove as disorienting and strange as the show’s SF elements. The SF elements, meanwhile, comment on and satirize contemporary concerns: environmental issues, corporate misbehavior, the war on terrorism, and civil rights concerns.

Jade allies himself with Karl Lubinksy, a reporter and conspiracy theorist with a keen interest in Vexcor. The company from Jade’s world has established itself in ours. The betaverse Vexcor also has a mysterious desert facility, destroyed in the same blast that leveled its alphaverse counterpart. The blast has also stranded the one surviving terrorist, Reena, who had in fact targeted the matching facility in her own gammaverse, a world where people live in relative harmony with nature.

Gradually, these characters uncover a plot by Vexcor to link to gamma and drain its resources.

Characters

"A lot of people have died in this club. I called a service. The next clean-up is free."
--01 Boxer

Jade proves a problematic hero. Despite his competence, his sanity becomes fragile under his new, bizarre circumstances. Initially, he only wants to return home to his beloved Jasmine and the life he knew. He doesn’t really care what Vexcor might be trying to accomplish. However, as 01 Boxer can apparently stroll between universes, he needs to investigate Vexcor to learn how he might return. Eventually Jade develops a purpose beyond self-interest, but his methods come into question.

Jade (for reasons eventually explained) can fight like a movie action hero. However, Charlie Jade differs dramatically from, say, an old Schwarzenegger flick. Some episodes bleed with brutal violence, violence that has realistic consequences. People bruise, break, and die in disturbing fashion. Beyond the krav maga-style fisticuffs, Jade employs other methods that have us questioning the difference between hero and villain. When pressed in the episode "Through the Mirror Darkly," Jade resorts to torture.

Viewers cannot forget how timely such scenes are, given that the west risks serious drift in that direction. They probably proved even more powerful in South Africa, with its recent, brutal past. Jade's methods even get results. However, the show forces us to question the relevance of the results, and the protagonist’s stability. In case we miss the point, we’re reminded rather graphically of earlier scenes depicting the torture of a more sympathetic victim by clearly-marked villains, and we’re shown a simultaneous torture scene in alphaverse which doesn’t turn out to anyone's benefit. Unlike Sin City, Jade follows up on the questions it raises, and doesn’t try to pass off ugly ideology and uglier acts as necessity or mere cinematic style.

Karl Lubinsky, a troubled but essentially noble man, also reveals his faults, though these we more easily understand. When Vexcor thugs threaten him with death by necklacing, he quickly turns on people he knows to save himself. He later seeks redemption, and remains one of the most recognizably human of the show’s characters.

Reena, "the new face of terrorism," proves particularly difficult for western audiences, at a time when much of the west has declared war on the technique of terrorism (while causing collateral damage in an undeclared war against a country unconnected to the terrorist attacks that led to that declaration). Reena’s acts don’t parallel Al-Qaeda’s, however. She kills a number of innocent people while launching a preemptive strike against the imminent invasion of her world and the destruction of its resources and people. And, though she considers her actions justified, her grief over the consequences nearly drives her mad. Still, any attempt to show a terrorist’s perspective will not be easily accepted by contemporary audiences. Her role becomes even more problematic when less sympathetic people try to exploit her abilities.

Most characters get caught up in the show's moral ambiguities, so that everyone, in the end, is compromised. Sew Sew Tukarrs, a good cop in a corrupt world, tries to take some action against the evil he finds around him, but to do so must ally himself with people he considers evil. Blues Paddock, a detective from our world, must decide if she should trust Jade, who has clearly demonstrated to her that he is dangerous. Jasmine, Charlie’s girlfriend, must decide how she will survive after he disappears, leaving her with few options.

It’s not just the ostensible heroes who face challenges. The villains demonstrate why so many corrupt ventures often fail. Such endeavors attract people who only get involved for their own narrow benefits, and they don’t hesitate to screw their partners over if it serves their purpose. You can know that your co-conspirators are doing this, but still need to rely on them. Meanwhile, good, admirable people with innocent intentions find themselves tolerating and supporting Vexcor.

The most problematic character is 01 Boxer, son of Vexcor’s founder. For reasons only gradually revealed, 01 has the ability to travel unaided among universes, and Vexcor therefore relies upon him while their linking facility is inoperative. This creates its own set of problems, since 01 is apparently insane and dangerously violent. He also pursues his own agenda, which is at odd with Vexcor's. Michael Filipowich steals scenes with his performance as this wildest of wild cards.

The show plays Charlie and 01 as doppelgängers. The creators even cast strikingly similar actors in these roles. Their actual relationship remains a mystery, though episodes drop several tantalizing possibilities.

01 is not the only uncertain element. The group who find Reena and subject her to MKUltraesque experiments lack a clear backstory. Another group, the Men in Gray, pose an even bigger mystery. These derivative though seldom-seen characters move between the universes as freely as 01 Boxer, for reasons of their own. Viewers may disagree on whether these elements enhance or clutter the show, but they do create a sense of a broader, more complicated world.

Problems

"He asked if I thought what we were doing was ethical. I didn’t understand the question.... Businesses expand."
--Julius Galt

The show, for all its successes, is not perfect. I thought it worked fine with its initial concerns: Jade and Reena want to return home. Reena wants to save her world. Lubinksy wants to expose Vexcor. 01 Boxer.... Well, that’s a little bit complicated. However, in keeping with the conventions of tv SF, the show increases the danger to the world-threatening. We learn that if the link between alpha and gamma opens, the universe in between—- our own beta—- will collapse. The hyperbolic raising of the stakes wasn’t necessary, and it removes much of the show’s ambiguity. What isn’t justified if it means saving an entire universe?

At times, the handling of Vexcor’s main executives takes us out of ambiguity and into clichés of pure evil; Brion Boxer's final acts lack the ethically complex motives suggested by his early history. His mistress and majordomo, Essa Rompkin, has been written as a fairly conventional villainess, lacking any redeeming moral characteristics.

The series also lost viewers due to its continuous storyline. Series with stand-alone episodes suffer from the "reset" button, and a paucity of plausible continuity. Serial-style shows suffer from episodes where the plot develops very little, and nothing makes much sense to viewers if they haven’t watched what came before. Charlie Jade reached that point by the second episode, and only a couple of the later episodes can be understood separate of the others. This isn’t so much a series as a novel on television.

At present, Charlie Jade seems unlikely to have a second season. Indeed, it’s difficult to see how they would have another without undoing the enigmatic finale of the first.

In its first year, Charlie Jade ran in Canada, South Africa, and a handful of European countries. It finally made it to U.S. television in 2008. If SF interests you and the opportunity presents itself, I recommend this series.

Episode List

1.1. The Big Bang
1.2. You Are Here
1.3. The Power of Suggestion
1.4. And Not a Drop to Drink
1.5. Dirty Laundry
1.6. Diamonds
1.7. Devotion
1.8. Betrayal
1.9. Identity
1.10. Thicker Than Water
1.11. Choosing Sides
1.12. Through a Mirror Darkly
1.13. The Enemy of My Enemy
1.14. Things Unseen
1.15. The Shortening of the Way
1.15.5. Can of Worms1
1.16. Spin
1.17. Bedtime Story
1.18. Flesh
1.19. Ouroborous

1. This clip-heavy episode was developed after the season had been shot, and included to help those who joined the series in progress.

Portions of this writing appear in reviews I wrote for Bureau42.

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