Tuned In

Cane: How Can Something So Sugary Taste So Bland?

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Roberto D’Este/CBS

“Sugar is the new oil,” says rum-family scion Alex (Jimmy Smits) on CBS’s Cane. Which is a not so subtle way of trying to tell the viewer, “Cane is the new Dallas.”

It’s not, but let’s indulge them for a minute and continue the parallel. It’s also a rich-family saga, but in this case, the family is the Duques, a Cuban American clan that runs a successful rum empire in Florida. The Bobby-J.R. rivalry, among “brothers” struggling to take over the business from ailing patriach Pancho (Hector Elizondo), are Frank (Nestor Carbonell), Pancho’s natural son, and Alex (Jimmy Smits), Pancho’s son-in-law, who has ingratiated his way into Pancho’s heart. They clash over a proposal from a rival family to buy out their sugar fields. Frank wants to sell, arguing that the family can make rum by buying molasses and shouldn’t be in the farming business; Alex wants to keep the fields, because sugar cane may become a valuable source of ethanol, hence the “new oil” quote.

If that discussion of the future of the sugar industry got you excited, well, boy howdy are you in for a wild ride! Otherwise, Cane is (judging from the pilot, all that CBS sent) a tedious stiff retread of soap staple plots, relying on a bit of Spanglish and local color (mojitos, baseball) for novelty. Smits is a big part of the problem. He’s a limited actor, most convincing at playing anger (the easiest emotion to portray), and in his non-angry scenes comes off as either peevish or simply stiff. (He’s also, judging by the contextual clues in the script, about ten years too old for the role.) He can’t take the blame alone–the dialogue hamstrings a strong cast of actors including Elizondo, Carbonell and Rome’s Polly Walker–but the scenes that are meant to establish Alex as a patient, sympathetic father, husband and good guy come across phony.

Alex is not meant to be entirely a good guy–or, at least, we see that he’s capable of pulling off some rough stuff to protect his family–so he may evolve into a more interesting character and Cane into a more memorable show. I don’t see much hope for that, though. The overserious Cane is neither inventive enough to have its own voice, nor joyfully campy enough to embrace its cliches and have fun with them. Does it look like the new Dallas? Maybe after a few mojitos.