Black Sash: Pilot (2003) TV Review

TV shows like “Black Sash” can only exist in a world with networks like the WB and UPN. It’s a teen-oriented martial arts show with only the presence of movie veteran Russell Wong (“Romeo Must Die”) to break up the litany of young pretty faces played by 20-somethings faking it out as teens. In fact, the only character on “Black Sash” that isn’t drop dead gorgeous is Mako, who plays the resident wise sage whose only purpose is to dispense advice to Wong, his ex-student, who in turns dispense the wise advice to his own current students. And as per rule in most shows nowadays, the minority face is represented by a Sassy Black Guy, who is played by Ray J.

The premise of “Black Sash” is this: A former San Francisco Narcotics cop (Wong) must rebuild his life after a 5-year stint in the Hong Kong prison system. Wong’s Tom Chang had gone to HK on an assignment to infiltrate the Triads (the Chinese mob), but was instead set up by them. Five years later, Tom is back in San Francisco and trying to put back the pieces. His wife has re-married to a rich man who can afford to tie up Tom in litigation and his daughter has no idea he’s still alive. Worst, Tom isn’t nearly as cool and calm as he tells his students to be; by night he’s working as a bounty hunter for a shady bondsman with an English accent.

The pilot focuses mainly on Tom Chang, and the episode gives us a good rundown of where Tom has been, where he currently is, and sets the stage for where he’ll be going. The show’s real draw is its pretty faces though. We learn that the fiery Tory (Melissa Peregrym) is still filled with anger after the murder of her policeman father; that Allie (Sarah Carter) is a naïve girl who joins the dojo to get the attention of Urban kid Bryan (Ray J); and Trip (Corey Sevier) is a troubled kid with an abusive father.

Surprisingly the 40-minute long episode (sans commercial) covers all of these grounds and solves them all by episode’s end. The direction by James Marshall is slick and breezy. The writing by series creator Robert Mark Kamen, known for a number of martial arts movies including “The Karate Kid” and “Kiss of the Dragon”, is crisp and minimal. We get broad strokes of our main characters, but that’s to be expected in a pilot episode. After all, the only purpose of a pilot is to introduce the characters. They have the rest of the year (and seasons, depending on how the show fares in the ratings) to fill in the blanks.

The real treat of “Black Sash” is seeing Russell Wong back on TV in a starring role. (He was last here as the lead in another martial arts show called “Vanishing Son”.) The fact that Wong comes first in the credits gives me hope he’s not just going to be a background character dispensing wise information about martial arts and life to his pretty teen students. Which isn’t to say I am opposed to seeing the kids get more screentime. They will no doubt get their individual episodes, and if I know my Teen TV Series Conventions, they will also start pairing up as couples. The upcoming previews has already given away that the first pairing will be Trip and Tory. Bryan and Allie is a given, although I don’t know where that leaves the 5th teen on the show, Nick Reed, who has yet to show up.

As a martial arts series, “Black Sash” has hope if it stays close to Russell Wong’s Tom Chang. To be honest, the teen characters are just so generic that they’re not really interesting. Melissa Peregrym will probably become the show’s number one draw with men because, let’s face it, she’s drop dead gorgeous and has a body to die for. The girl has supermodel looks and her bad girl image only adds to the mystique. And those abs! Oy vey.

It will be interesting to see how Tom goes about winning back his wife and daughter. I liked that there is an edge to Tom, that at the same time he’s telling his students to let go of their anger, he’s unable to let go of his own failed past. There’s a dichotomy there that needs further exploration, and at some point Tom’s students must realize that their teacher is telling them to do what he says, not what he does. The show needs to continue adding to this theme. Action-wise, there are plenty of fisticuffs, with Tom in the middle of most of it. The kids mostly stick to dojo kung fu, while Tom takes on the real bad guys in the streets.

Will I watch the next episode? Oh sure. If for nothing else, then just to see if Melissa Peregrym can possibly get any hotter. (The lovely Miss Melissa, in case you were wondering, is the brunette shown in the pictures above. And trust me, the photo doesn’t do her justice.)

My prediction: The show is blessed with one thing — it’s on the WB network. As such, the show will be given greater leniency if it doesn’t perform well in the ratings. Networks like the WB and UPN have less to lose if new shows don’t perform well immediately. They can afford to wait. Most of the time, anyway.

CAST: Russell Wong …. Tom Chang
Corey Sevier …. Trip Brady
Melissa Peregrym …. Tory Stratton
Sarah Carter …. Allie Bennett
Ray J …. Bryan Lanier
Ona Grauer …. Beth
Mako …. Master Li