Recently I went to a reading by the Russian-American writer Gary Shteyngart at Labyrinth. He
was reading from his new novel Super Sad True Love Story, a widely praised satirical novel
about the very near future. Shteyngart is a young writer. Born in 1972, he appeared this summer
in The New Yorker’s list of 20 distinguished writers under the age of 40, and he is distinctly
of this era. He publicized Love Story with, among other things, a web campaign, including a
humorous video that went viral in which Shteyngart amusingly plays a version of himself who
At the conclusion of his reading, Shteyngart was peppered with questions from various
middle-aged readers, asking about his craft, his choices, and his family history. One woman
asked the writer what he thought the future of literature was. Shteyngart has repeatedly been
quoted lamenting the demise of print and of reading in general. On multiple occasions, including
when I saw him in person, he praised a small literary magazine in the Pacific Northwest that
requires those who submit to them to send along a receipt of a book purchased within that same
month. So it seems clear that Shteyngart has a realistic, if not altogether cynical, view about
literature in America. He answered the woman thusly: “the future of literature is television.” He
went on to talk about his interest in working with HBO, that renowned luxury brand network,
whose slogan, of course, is that “it’s not TV, it’s HBO.” No matter, Shteyngart had made his
It is with this in mind that I give you some scattered thoughts on NBC’s fall drama The
Cape, a drama that appeared this very calendar year as a midseason replacement, with a slated
production schedule of thirteen episodes, airing once every week.
The Cape is about a police detective named Vince Farraday, whose life is turned upside
down when he comes into contact with billionaire entrepreneur Peter Fleming, whose aim is to
replace Palm City’s police force with a private one, something like what goes on in Spielberg’s
Minority Report. And just as in that film, Fleming turns out to be a deviant, and he frames Vince
for the murder of the city’s police chief, televising his own private police force as they chase
Vince through Palm City. The entire sequence culminates in a violent oil tanker explosion that
Fleming claims takes the life of our hero. And so Vince’s son is left devastated, believing not
only that his father was a murderer, but that he is dead as well.
That’s the basic set-up of The Cape. It’s good enough—it really is. There is a greedy,
diabolical villain, there is a young, heartbroken child, there is a man desperate to clear his name.
Yet The Cape makes so many terrible choices from this point on that it is actually a painful show
to watch. First and foremost is the very thing that makes Vince into a superhero—a cape. A gang
of bank robbers masquerading as a circus troupe abducts Vince and gives him a mystical black
garment. It’s a cape with some incredibly campy powers. It seems to be able to stretch to great
lengths, to become hard and soft depending on the whims of the wearer, and to generally be one
of the most pathetic special gifts any superhero has ever had. It is clear that the writers of The
Cape wanted their story to be a realist approach to the genre: no superpowers, no villains with
bizarre physical defects that granted them super strength or flame throwing ability, but a magical
cape? There is actually nothing redeeming about this decision. It is terrible.
The Cape is set in the present day in a fictional California city called Palm City.
California of course has a rich history of being fictionalized in film, television, video games
and books. I only want to point out one particular instance, in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, where his protagonist, a Miss Oedipa Maas, thinks to herself, as she travels through
Pynchon’s created world, that the things she is seeing “were not part of any California she
knew.” Palm City is that sort of place. There are many precedents for superhero literature and
films to take place in made-up cities: Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis the most
famous. The thing that disappoints me so much about The Cape choosing to follow those leads
is that the show aims to be something very different from its comic book brethren. It aims to be
a realist approach to the genre. And Palm City is not in California except for the fact that the
weather seems to be good.
What The Cape should be is this: a show about a vigilante from justice, somehow
disguised in dark, form-fitting fabrics, using his not-so-spectacular physical abilities, his brain,
and his desperation to clear his name and reunite with his son to fight crime. It should be about
will, about the things that drive a man. It should be more about Bruce Wayne than Batman, more
about Vince than The Cape. His villains should be mob bosses and underground crime lords,
but also dastardly business leaders and corrupt politicians, destroying a real American city from
within. These villains, though rather ordinary, should hold unusually great sway over the city, a
city that should be shackled by failing schools, a depressed economy, a tired workforce. Vince
should be seeking out the good people of this city to solve its problems, fighting those who want
to keep things the way they are, striving to give his son a better life while remaining invisible to
him. Think of the plotlines here: a father separated from his son, eager to restore his faith in the
world, willing to do anything in his power. A political drama. A family saga. A superhero show.
Production on the program has since been halted after ten episodes due to low ratings.
I have no complaints about this—The Cape is an awful television program. But it’s not awful
merely because of poor writing or acting, though to be sure The Cape is overrun with both. It
is awful instead because it exists, because men and women in business attire at one of the most
powerful, famous television empires in the world, NBC Universal, decided it was worth airing. It
is awful because Tom Wheeler, the show’s creator, had an idea at some point, that at its essence
is clever and a recipe for success, and then utterly wrecked it when he began to design the show.
It is awful because anyone not in the television business who read this show’s pilot script would
know it was unfit for mass viewing.
I have no doubt that Gary Shteyngart can write a wonderful television program for HBO.
That network has a glowing track record and repeatedly offers original, unusual, and generally
wonderful programming. But I find it hard to believe that if television is the future of literature,
if Shteyngart is to be believed, that the basic networks cannot produce television shows that are
strange, new, and fun. It’s so easy. I just rewrote the plot of The Cape in forty-six minutes.