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Torchwood 

A Doctor Who spinoff arrives in America, offering easy stereotypes of Americans.

click to enlarge These alien-hunters are anti-American.
  • These alien-hunters are anti-American.

It's weird watching a stereotype of yourself. It’s not so much creepy (like watching a clone of yourself) as cute-awkward and then annoying. It’s like watching a child dressed up as an adult, wagging a stern finger and parroting phrases. “Eat your veggie-tables!”

Torchwood, the British Doctor Who spinoff, has come to America. Rather than open with Jack Harkness — Torchwood’s immortal leader — or his underlings, the show starts with Mekhi Phifer, in the character of Rex Matheson, an annoyingly brash, one-dimensional CIA agent. He spends this episode running around and wagging a stern finger: “Do what I say! I’m an American!” Phifer’s character is concerned because one day, no one dies. In the whole world. People don’t die of cancer. They don’t die of old age. Matheson doesn’t die when a piece of industrial steel impales him through the heart.

He hurts — hurts real baaaaad — but doesn’t die.

The world is already overcrowded, and now no one’s dying. Someone does the math and it doesn’t look good. The event has a strange connection to the alien-fighting Torchwood Institute — which was eradicated by the British government last season — so Matheson and his partner, Esther Drummond (who is beautiful and does all the actual work), set about nosing it out.

This could make for riveting science fiction (Bill Pullman plays a wonderfully menacing pedophile released from prison after the lethal injection doesn’t take), but the camera keeps coming back to Phifer.

Rather than swooning over the implications, I spent the first episode thinking, “Why is this guy acting so damn strange?” Why is he cutting everyone off mid-sentence, why is he swerving through traffic for no reason? Why is he popping pills as he leaves the emergency room with a gaping chest wound, without any regard to what the label says? (They’re as likely to be Ex-Lax as Oxy, son.)

Then, just before the credits — as he performed extraordinary rendition on the Torchwood crew — it clicked: Mekhi Phifer isn’t playing an American. He’s playing American — the European stereotype. The guy who acts unilaterally, who flouts international law. The guy who just can’t. Be. Killed.

It’s satire, but here’s what I can’t decide: Is Torchwood mocking Americans? (A job it does poorly.) Or is it mocking the British sense of the (perceived, Bush-era) traits of all Americans? (A job it does not much better.)

The other thing I can’t decide is how much I care.

(Fridays, 10 pm, Starz) 


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