One day I was stewing over the fact that Hack is doing much better in the ratings than the show that follows it on CBS, the terrific ”Robbery Homicide Division.” I was muttering about ”Hack”’s unbelievable premise — that every week someone climbs into the Philadelphia cab driven by David Morse’s Mike Olshansky and unloads a problem that he then helps solve. How many cabbies do you know who would even listen to a fare’s troubles, let alone get involved, and do so repeatedly? A friend listening to me grumble just laughed and said, ”There’s nothing funnier than a TV critic trying to understand why people don’t like a show he loves, and why they watch a show he dislikes.”
I have to admit, he’s probably right. There are times when the old critical apparatus — the constant wondering why something is successful, or why a premise or a particular performer appeals to people — can get in the way of gut instinct and simple reasoning. Given the relative success of ”Hack” (it’s a moderate hit, usually coming in second behind NBC’s ”Dateline”), I should conclude that many viewers who plop down in front of the set on a Friday night after a long week of work don’t much care whether the drama connects all of its motivational dots. They just want to see a likable star solve a problem in 60 minutes.
Indeed, it’s no small achievement to assemble a series that succeeds in accomplishing such seemingly simple tasks. So I give Morse and creator David Koepp (screenwriter of ”Spider-Man”) credit for reeling in viewers with downright flimsy cab-passenger plot excuses like ”I’m new in town, and my daughter is a runaway” or ”Help, a guy is after me.” Morse has spent the past decade chipping away at the sappy-nice-guy image he established so vividly on ”St. Elsewhere,” and in ”Hack,” he’s definitely a different man. Olshansky — an essentially good cop, we’re told, who got booted for taking stolen money from a crime scene — is a simmering, bitter malcontent, yet apparently unable to shake the impulse to serve and protect. Thus he works off the meter on cold, rainy nights, helping the helpless and working off some rage in the process. True to our time, he’s a Travis Bickle who interprets you-talkin’-to-me? as an invitation to engage with his fellow man.
Olshansky is aided in all this by his former partner, Marcellus Washington — ”Homicide”’s Andre Braugher — who does favors for the guy because Mike didn’t rat him out for being in on the dirty-dough skimming too. Plus, our hack is holy: He has the faithful friendship of a Catholic priest played by George Dzundza. And there’s Mike’s hostile ex-wife, Heather, a criminally one-note role played by musically gifted theater performer Donna Murphy; they have a son, Mikey (Matthew Borish), over whose upbringing they squabble endlessly.
Now, combine all this — the semicorrupt cop, a contentious child-custody arrangement, and backseat customers who range from an arsonist to a woman who claims her husband’s beating her — and you’d figure that ”Hack” would be perceived by America as ”The Equalizer” on anesthetics, as numbing as the recent sight of Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise sharing a Hollywood Square. Instead, I now realize, people enjoy the series because (a) they like Morse, who, although grumpy, also radiates street smarts and a certain jaundiced sense of humor; and (b) they enjoy the little, neatly ironic twists in most of the plots (turns out the woman wasn’t being beaten by her hubby at all — in fact, she ends up whaling on him).
Which is not to say that the series doesn’t recognize some of my complaints: Why else bring in a new executive producer (Robert Singer, of ”Lois & Clark”), if not to lighten things up a little? Singer didn’t sign on until the sixth episode, so it may be a while before changes are discernible, but I’m guessing Morse will be grinning more, and Mike will be pulling fewer night shifts — let the sunshine in! Please also consider giving the supporting players more challenges. Braugher, Dzundza, and Murphy have been wasted, and the Oct. 18 episode consigned Idris Elba — so marvelously shrewd as drug dealer Stringer Bell in HBO’s recent ”The Wire” — to the trite role of Angry Black Man Forced by the System to Break the Law. C’mon, ”Hack”: You have the talent, and you’ve drawn the audience, so do something with all you’ve got.