(Premieres tonight on CBS, 10 p.m. ET/ 9 p.m. CT)
“In America, first you get da sugar, then you get da power, then you get da women.” That line, from Homer Simpson (with a hat tip to Scarface), kept echoing in my head while I was watching Cane, a new primetime soap opera about Cuban-Americans in da sugar business. Unlike poor Homer, who watches helplessly as Englishmen and rainfall dissolve his modest pile of “white gold,” they’ve already got da power and da women, but holding onto them requires a little foul play. Dallas by way of Univision, with a little Godfather thrown in for good measure, the show deals with heated conflicts in a family’s sugar-and-rum business (from ruthless gringo competitors and from within), set against a Miami backdrop where passions presumably run high. But it doesn't exactly put the "heat" in mojitos.
To be fair, the pilot episode has an awful lot of setting up to do, given the good dozen or so major characters that make up the Duques, the Samuels, and various hangers-on. The Duques are Cuban-Americans who are celebrating their 30th year in the rum business, but the backbone of their operation has always been their vast sugar cane operation in South Florida. When the Duque patriarch (Hector Elizando) discovers he has only six months to a year to live, he has to choose a successor to run the company. That opens up a power struggle between his sleazebag son Frank (Nestor Carbonell), who’s pushing his father to sell off the sugar business to the rival Samuel family and concentrate on the rum, and his adopted son Alex (Jimmy Smits), who would never considering selling out to a bunch of schemers and killers. Alex isn’t “blood,” but he’s secured his place in the family by marrying his stepfather’s daughter (Paola Turbay), and they have three kids of their own: an older son who’s balking on going to MIT in order to please his girlfriend; a 17-year-old wild child of a daughter, and a precocious kid who’s trying out for the All-Star baseball team. And then there are the Samuels, of course, represented most strongly by Rome’s diabolical Polly Walker as a seductress who’s got Frank wrapped around her finger.
The long-winded description above doesn’t even make room for the legendary Rita Moreno as the Duque matriarch, but then again, the pilot episode doesn’t make much room for her, either. Like most soap operas, Cane lights a very slow fuse: There’s plenty of intrigue abound, and Smits makes for a solid (if intriguingly shifty) center, but it’s a little too classy for its own good, lacking the smutty pleasures of the Latin soaps it's trying to emulate. (Or at least, what I imagine those pleasures to be, since I don’t speak Spanish; but some of those shows sure do look racy.) At times, I got the feeling that Cane was too haughty to indulge in Dallas/Dynasty hijinks, and was trying to position itself more like The Godfather, with backroom deals being struck during family events and the two brothers, Alex and Frank, taking up the Michael and Fredo roles, respectively.
Should this too-stately show ever loosen up, I’m guessing that Walker will be the one to do it. Though hampered by an odd accent, Walker could easily slip back into the queen-bitch manipulator mode she mastered on Rome, though she’s bound to be strait-jacketed by broadcast standards. Having old pros like Smits, Elizando, and Moreno along for the ride gives Cane some legitimacy—not to mention three of the few recognizable Latino actors over 40 working in English-speaking Hollywood—but legitimacy is the one thing it doesn’t need. It needs disrepute.
• “You’ve still got it, Smits.” I don’t like to talk much during television shows, but when Mr. Smits undoes his sexy wife’s blouse string with his teeth, I couldn’t help myself.
• One little off-hand touch I enjoyed: When two members of the Samuels clan drop in on the Duque’s Fourth Of July bash, they make a point of ordering two bourbons from the bar.
• “I can’t live the button-down life like you, Marge. I want it all: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creammmy middles.” (Everything comes back to The Simpsons somehow. Can’t be helped.)