Now I know why they called it “Spenser Confidential”

They didn’t want the word to get out…

Mark Wahlberg would make a great Spenser.

Maybe he should play him sometime.

Because anyone who’s ever read any of Parker’s novels (or those by his successor Ace Atkins) knows that whoever the hell  Wahlberg was playing in Netflix’s 2020 TV flick Spenser Confidential, it wasn’t Spenser.

Or even a reasonable facsimile.

Oh, sure, Wahlberg’s got the bulk, he’s got the acting chops, and he’s handsome enough, in a rugged, non-pretty-boy way. He even looks like he’s been punched in the face a few times (“Deservedly,” according to a friend of mine). He can be glib, and witty, and even charming, when he wants to be. Much like Robert B. Parkers iconic eye, in fact.

But whoever that was, it wasn’t Spenser. Or at least the real Spenser. Wahlberg just played a guy from Boston who happens to have the same name.

I know, I know… Wahlberg’s no Robert Urich. Or even Joe Mantega. But I never thought they were particularly well cast either.

Still, I kept my fingers crossed, and hoped this would be better than it was. But, as Joe Lansdale tweeted, after it was released, “I try to avoid criticizing films, but with Spenser, I made an exception. This one was so bad it hurt my feelings.”

I, too, felt the pain.

The real Spenser is a former investigator for the DA who got fired for insubordination, and became a private eye. The guy Wahlberg plays is an ex-cop and ex-con just out of prison, with dreams of becoming a truck driver in Arizona.

The real Spenser is a surprisingly literate fellow, with a great knowledge of English literature, and prone to spouting lines of poetry. We see the Netflix Spenser reading (for about a nano-second) exactly once in the show, from a thick, hardbound copy of  Medium/Heavy Duty Commercial Vehicle Systems. Sitting in the prison cafeteria, apparently crammed for his truck driving exam. Not exactly Keats, is it?

The real Spenser dated several intelligent and interesting women, before beginning a long and mature relationship with Susan Silverman, a high school guidance councillor and later Cambridge therapist with a successful practice. The Wahlberg Spenser is seeing a possibly deranged dog groomer from Southie who acts like a high school girl having a tantrum a good deal of the time. It even prompted that same snarky pal of mine to announce “I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Susan.”

The real Spenser was a feminist. The Wahlberg Spenser fucks his dog groomer girlfriend in the men’s room.

The real Spenser has been friends of a sort with Hawk, a tall, sophisticated African-American gun-for-hire, for years. Hawk’s stoicism is intimidating, and his fighting skills may be even more impressive than Spenser’s. He also keeps his shit together so tight it squeaks. The man is not just cool–he’s ice-cold. The Wahlberg Spenser has a meet-cute with a Hawk who’s a much younger, over-sized doofus whose fighting skills need work, and has a soft spot for animals. The real Hawk is about as soft as an anvil.

The real Spenser was often confronted with moral and ethical challenges to his personal code of honour. The Netflix Spenser is willing to take out two (possibly innocent) security guards because… they’re in the way.

I know, I know… the less you know (or care) about the original, the more likely you’ll enjoy it. There have been good adaptations of Parker’s work. The best Parker adaptation might have been the feature film Appaloosa, an under-appreciated gem of a western. The early Jesse Stone TV movies, starring Tom Selleck, were pretty good, too.

But the show’s problems go far beyond the question of how faithful they were to the source material. Even by the standards by which it wants to be judged (whatever those are), the show was DUMB.

HOW DUMB WAS IT?

The bad guys, who are involved in a multi-million dollar real estate scam, risk it all by ordering a hit on a disgraced patrol cop who poses them no threat to them? A disgraced patrol cop who nobody really cares about?

DUMB.

And they wait five years to do it?

DUMB.

And then Spenser decides the best place to hideout from the bad guys is his long-time girlfriend’s place? Because the bad guys (who by then he suspects include several police detectives, some of whom know him personally) would never think of looking there?

DUMB.

The rehashed tropes that have been in play in dumbed down action flicks since the eighties are all present and accounted for: a few violent flashbacks, a load of bad guys (including corrupt cops and some machete wielding black guys–in hoodies, no less) that came right off the rack, and a big, explosive-but-pointless, honk-if-you-like-stupid finale. Almost every part of it feels like a photocopy of a photocopy of some scene from a movie you’ve forgotten somewhere in the last forty years, possibly starring Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson. And not one of their better ones.

DUMB.

And just to make it seem even more eighties-ish and generic, the soundtrack is top-loaded with blandly generic “classic” rock from the likes of Boston and Foreigner…

DUMB.

I’ve heard plenty of excuses for the show. Most galling, perhaps, is that this is just Wahlberg’s “interpretation.” But you have to understand something before you can interpret it. From what I’ve heard and seen in the onslaught of interviews and hype preceding the show’s debut, I’m wondering what Wahlberg based his “interpretation” on. Market research? His horoscope? Tax loopholes? Tea leaves? A bet with director Peter Berg?

Because there’s little evidence Wahlberg ever read any of Parker’s books, never mind Wonderland, the Ace Atkins novel that this was allegedly based on. Wahlberg’s entire frame of reference seems to be Spenser For Hire, the eighties TV show he watched growing up in Boston. But that show was already a watered down version of the character in the novels. This Netflix thing, though, is just water.

Wahlberg mentioned the show frequently in the interviews and promo pieces I saw, commenting on how inspiring it was as a kid to see film crews on the streets of Boston. But I don’t think the names “Robert B. Parker” or, for that matter, “Ace Atkins,” were ever uttered, although I do believe he did allow, perhaps on The Ellen Show, that there were “also books.”

Generous of him.

I could go on, but I believe Lansdale (again), summed it up best. On Twitter a few days ago, he said, “Spenser Confidential really sucks shitty donkey ass.”

TELEVISION

  • SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL
    (2020, Netflix)
    Based on characters created by Robert B. Parker
    And on the novel Wonderland by Ace Atkins
    Screenplay by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland
    Directed by Peter Berg
    Starring Mark Wahlberg as SPENSER
    Winston Duke as HAWK
    and Alan Arkin as Henry Cimmoli
    Also starring Iliza Shlesinger, Michael Gaston, Bokeem Woodbine, Marc Maron, James DuMont, Colleen Camp, Post Malone
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. (March 12, 2020)

2 thoughts on “Now I know why they called it “Spenser Confidential”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Why did Ace Atkins sign off on this crap. Even if you don’t use Spenser or Hawk’s names it isn’t even a decent “buddy film” Although Alan Arkin did play a decent Henry Cimmoli

    1. All Ace did was write a book. He wasn’t involved in any way, as far as I know, with the TV adaptation, nor would he have any say on the finished product. We can’t hold him to blame for what they did with it–if that were the case, an awful lot of writers we all admire (everyone from Hammett and Chandler to Spillane, Paretsky and Robert Parker himself) would have to be held accountable for the crappy films and television shows made from their books and stories.

      But yes, Arkin was a good bit of casting. Hell, Wahlberg could have been fine–one day maybe he’ll play Spenser?

Leave a Reply to Bill Lucas Cancel reply