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When streaming services have jumped into original programming, the tendency has been to emphasize the lack of restrictions and emulate premium cable networks. House of Cards could be an HBO show. Transparent could have been on Showtime. Or that’s what Netflix and Amazon wanted you to think.
Not so for Crackle.
Crackle isn’t going for a “We’re better than TV” strut with its first original one-hour drama, The Art of More. This is, after all, the home of Joe Dirt 2, so they can’t brand around elitism. Indeed, The Art of More is closer to an average, or slightly below average, broadcast network show.
The Art of More doesn’t push time boundaries. Episodes come in at roughly 44 minutes apiece and are designed for ad breaks if necessary. It doesn’t push content boundaries either, boasting no language, violence or sexuality that would seem salty in a 10 p.m. slot on CBS. Crackle is dropping all 10 episodes of Art of More at once, but it isn’t especially binge-friendly either, with a serialized narrative that’s far weaker than the stand-alone procedural component of the show, which at least hint at the kind of show this could have been if it had just committed to being network-style.
When I tell people that The Art of More is set against the backdrop of the high stakes auction world, I’ve heard giggles and seen winces, but after watching five episodes, I’ve become a convert. This is the elite auction house circuit, not fast-talking hucksters selling hogs, but nattily dressed salespeople proving that priceless works of art and memorabilia can actually be had at a price if you have no financial or, in some cases, moral qualms. Auction houses have a vernacular of their own and every item comes with a provenance, sometimes sentimental, sometimes action-filled, sometimes illicit. It’s actually a tremendous venue for a TV series, but creator Chuck Rose can’t quite execute.
Our hero is Graham Connor (Christian Cooke), a blue collar kid from Brooklyn reinventing himself as an account executive at a Park Avenue auction house after serving in Iraq, where he became involved in the smuggling of ancient artifacts. Mentored by collector Arthur Davenport (Cary Elwes), Graham is trying to hide his past and make a splash by landing an art collection owned by Sam Brukner (Dennis Quaid), a sleazy billionaire with political aspirations who could be compared to Donald Trump if you were feeling lazy. His biggest rival is Roxanna Whitman (Kate Bosworth), the heir to a rival house, trying to make her own name and struggling with her own obligatory demons.
After the first episode, The Art of More settles into a simple structure. Each hour begins with the origin of a valuable object — an original Pete Townsend lyric sheet, purloined gold coins, an explorer’s journal. We learn about the difficulties of pricing such a trinket, follow potential buyers and, by the end, we see who prevails at auction. Some cases require detective work and some need legal maneuvering. Some items can lead to funny bidding showdowns, some to daring fraud and some to emotional clashes between self-absorbed family members. It’s a theoretically versatile format undermined here by weak guest and supporting performances and overwhelmed by the dud of a serialized narrative.
The smuggling operation Graham gets sucked back into features generic Iraq flashbacks and interactions with generic Middle Easterners, Russians and Latinos, each more vaguely stereotypical than the last. Lest you think The Art of More discriminates, the biggest caricature is probably Elwes‘ ascot-sporting, purple-loving “Dear Boy”-spewing Brit. There’s also an FBI agent looking into the case, but she’s so infrequently utilized that I had to check my notes to remember her name (“Agent Kramer,” not that you’ll care), much less if she was making any progress.
Unfortunately, Cooke isn’t a compelling enough leading man to rescue the black hole ongoing storyline at the center of The Art of More. Easily the most forgettable part of Magic City, Cooke is laughably unconvincing as a blue collar kid raised on the streets of New York. Full credit to Cooke for at least trying a specific regional accent rather than Mid-Atlantic Generic like so many of his British comrades, but the accent waxes and wanes and not always in moments that seem appropriate to the ruse the character is advancing. Cooke also can’t distract from how sporadically the show’s big names are actually appearing.
Quaid pops up for a couple scenes per episode and conveys that rascally twinkle that made him a star in the ‘80s, but there’s more of a sense that he’s stretching his creative muscles with executive producer responsibilities than with a character who alternates between PG-rated debauchery and growly exasperation. There are inferences that Sam and Roxanna are supposed to be generating some sort of heat, but Bosworth is more at ease with her character’s flawed chilliness. Frequently misused or underused on the big screen, it’s easy to find something semi-autobiographical in Bosworth’s commitment to Roxanna’s desire to prove she deserves her elevated status.
Bosworth and Quaid both actually sell the tony side of The Art of More, but just as Cooke doubles meekly for a star, Montreal is doubling meekly for New York City and hindering its world-building. A gorgeous city in its own right, Montreal plays New York City so poorly here that the various directors mostly give up on location work, settling for interiors that also fail to convey affluence.
For all the time The Art of More spends pontificating on the aspirational side of auctioning, whether it’s an issue of money or time or imagination, the penthouse apartments, glitzy clubs and Martha’s Vineyard vacation escapes all look equally flatly designed, underpopulated and light on glamour. The Art of More is trying to sell a lifestyle, but it instead becomes a cautionary tale of trying to yield caviar dreams on a filet-o-fish budget.
Streaming services are all eager to show that they can play with the TV big boys. Its unique venue and recognizable names guarantee some interest, but with its underwhelming star, production values and storytelling ambition, Crackle’s arrival in this marketplace teases More, but delivers less.
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