One of the defining characteristics of the Peak TV Era is the rise of shows about worlds you've never seen before airing on networks you're not sure you can see now.
Like, did you know you could watch shows set against the backdrop of art auctioning or crypto-currency if you could figure out how to watch Crackle? Or that if you can find OWN on your cable tier, you could see the inner workings of a Southern mega-church or a sugar plantation?
Narrative uniqueness is a good point of differentiation, but quality is still probably a bigger deal. That's why I'd tell you that tracking down OWN for Queen Sugar has been a valuable use of my time, but Crackle has yet to produce an original show worth the effort to explain to people how and why they want to use Crackle.
Audience Network is a bigger challenge, because either you have DirecTV or AT&T U-verse as your service provider or you don't and there are lots of factors that go into that decision and they may not be related to whether the later seasons of Friday Night Lights were good (they were) or whether Rogue was thrilling enough to be a subscription inducement (for me, it certainly wasn't).
So even if I tell you that Audience Network is premiering the new drama Ice on Wednesday (November 16) and that Los Angeles' diamond-trading industry is a setting you probably haven't seen before, if you don't have DirecTV, this information won't be all that useful to you and that's before we get to whether Ice is any good. And how good would Ice have to be to cause you to reevaluate your entire cable setup? Let's just say it's not anywhere near that good, though with a cast featuring Jeremy Sisto, Raymond J. Barry, Ray Winstone and Cam Gigandet (and eventually Donald Sutherland), there are familiar faces that might offer some allure for anybody who already has DirecTV.
Created by Robert Munic (The Cleaner, Empire), Ice follows the Greens, a family of prominent diamond merchants. Patriarch Isaac (Barry) and brother-in-law Cam (Winstone) are holding together the multi-generational business, but when bad seed son Freddy (Sisto) kills a shady dealer, it falls to slightly-more-responsible son Jake (Gigandet) to protect the family from increasingly powerful and violent rivals.
The more specific Ice tries to be, the more I enjoyed it, which was also the case with Crackle's The Art of More and OWN's Greenleaf. The family's wealth stems back to a fortuitous escape from Europe on the brink of the Holocaust and there's something tantalizing about a presumably secular Jewish clan holding its position in a business still ruled by Hasidic Jews. It's a terrain of subterranean vaults, labyrinthine systems of certification and provenance, plus craftsmen refining a precise and studied art. It's also a world of wealth and competitiveness that puts it constantly on the brink of conflict.
There's no lack of drama to the diamond business, but Ice stumbles over the gap between what you can sense Munic finds compelling and what he could sell and what, in turn, Audience Network could promote. With director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) leading the way, Ice quickly buries the aspects that might have been most distinctive for me in a hip-hop-infused gangland crime series that concentrates on perfunctory kidnapping, torture, semi-gratuitous "We're like cable" humping and stereotypical pan-ethnic thugs. Fuqua delivers some flash with intimate camera placements, evocative capturing of the L.A. skyline and interiors filtered to a steely blue (or warmer shades when demanded by hot-blooded criminal elements), but he only directed the pilot and the assembly line that follows him either lacks the time or budget to emulate. There's a progression that Ice goes through from possible substance on a script level, to a pilot that prioritizes style over that substance to subsequent episodes that even lose the style and are left with little to recommend them.
Gigandet embodies that progression. It isn't that he's bad, but he's been cast more for how smooth he looks cruising behind the wheel of a vintage convertible in a carefully tailored suit and shades than for any acting nuance. Jake has a teenage daughter and an on-again-off-again history with his ex-wife (Audrey Marie Anderson's Ava) and there were more than a few times I found myself wondering how old the producers were pretending the 34-year-old Gigandet is. It feels like a character written for an actor with a decade more seasoning and a little more gravitas, traded in for flash and swagger.
Or maybe the producers just figured that Sisto and Barry were there for gravity, so Gigandet would work as contrast? Freddy traffics in too many screw-up cliches, but the Clueless veteran commits to that haggard side and the character gets good, but underutilized, details like a savant's gift at rating stones. After a brief window missing Arlo Givens from Justified, I settled in to really appreciate what Barry was doing as the obligatory scion trying to hold his family together and retain his grasp on the empire he built.
The first positive thing to report on Winstone is that even though he's part of the Green family, he isn't doing an American accent, because as great as the Sexy Beast star is at loosely controlled rage, accents aren't his bag. Through the three episodes made available for critics, he's a mostly gruff and appropriately avuncular presence, but there's a tendency to project an entire hypothetical character arc — he's bound to cause trouble, probably by playing cowboy, maybe by double-dealing — just based on Cam being played by Ray Winstone. While waiting for Winstone to inevitably bust out, the showiest performance in the early episodes comes from Judith Shekoni as Lady Rah, an alluring kingpin with hideous scars on her back and an army of sexy henchmen and henchwomen. Lady Rah is basically a James Bond villain, but once Ice is abandoning realism, you might as well have fun.
Donald Sutherland apparently shows up in the fifth episode as a "a ruthless Afrikaner diamond merchant." That was also, entirely unconnected, around the time that Fuqua was reportedly eased out of a day-to-day creative role on the show. Whether either of those factors will impact the quality of Ice is impossible to report after watching three episodes, though Sutherland often makes things better and, not knowing when his character was set to appear, I was perpetually disappointed by his absence. At least you now won't have that problem.
Instead, you'll just have to ponder whether you know what Audience Network is, and whether you have DirecTV (or U-Verse) or not. If you don't, Ice isn't a good enough thriller to force your hand on that count. If you do, there are fleeting insights into the diamond industry that I enjoyed and several actors who lend credibility, but for all of its tip-toeing around a world that's unique to TV, Ice is a so-so tourist in that world and not an fully immersed resident.
Network: Audience Network
Cast: Jeremy Sisto, Cam Gigandet, Ray Winstone, Raymond J. Barry.
Creator: Robert Munic
Airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Audience Network premiering Wednesday, November 16.