"The lead character is a transsexual contract killer!"
This sounds like a movie pitch that would automatically be snapped up and subsequently made into one of the worst films of all time. The broadcast-network TV series that would be made from the same story idea doesn't even bear contemplating: The potential for leering exploitation and cheesy melodrama is just too extreme.
The accomplishment of the interesting "Hit and Miss" (premieres Wednesday, July 11 at 10 p.m. ET on DirecTV's Audience Network) is that it deftly navigates its minefield of a premise. The lead character, Mia (Chloe Sevigny) is indeed a coldly efficient killer, and she's also transgender, but first and foremost, she's a human being with flaws, an agenda and complex emotions that creator Paul Abbott ("Shameless," "State of Play") and writer Sean Conway spend a lot of time exploring. This show isn't about the premise, it's about the difficult person at the heart of it.
There's a moment, early in the first episode, in which you see Mia's body with full-frontal clarity, but that scene is not there in order to exploit her status. It's there to state, without words, "Here's one of several things you need to know about Mia. Decide now whether you're in or you're out."
Generally speaking, the low-key "Hit and Miss" does a good job of exploring Mia as a person while acknowledging her trans status matter-of-factly. Her transition isn't who she is, it's part of who she is; the difficulty she has achieving true emotional intimacy is more of a factor in her story than the status of her body or the hormones in it. Just as Mia carefully controls the images she projects -- she wears an asexual hoodie and dark clothing for work, but flowing dresses and colorful cowboy boots the rest of the time -- "Hit and Miss" is an exercise in measured, deliberate characterization.
Mia's rough underworld boss accepts her status quite calmly: They clearly have a long history, and to him, the most important thing about their relationship is that she does her job well. They also have a friendly camaraderie -- he's one of the few people this intimacy-avoiding woman confides in -- but Mia's former and present genders are acknowledged without much fuss.
That's not to say that everyone in Mia's world accepts her; another of this spare drama's achievements is the way in which it explores others' reactions to Mia without turning them into mindless bigots and portraying her as a saint. Early in the first episode, the pre-operative Mia finds that she has family connections and responsibilities she didn't anticipate, and the kids that she finds herself coping with are as confused, rude, thoughtful and curious as real kids would be in that situation.
The children she gets to know are also reeling from a major loss, and "Hit and Miss" depicts their grief with quiet but powerful observational moments. This isn't a show with a ton of dialogue; the characters are holding back a lot of strong emotions and confused reactions much of the time. "Hit and Miss" bides its time and allows halting alliances and simmering grievances to develop in realistic ways, and the unsentimental rural and urban landscapes add to the feeling of bleak, unshowy poignance. Much of Sevigny's work consists of subtle reactions and contemplation, and the actress is more than up to the task of depicting Mia's internal turmoil and her deep need for a link to the world that doesn't involve death.
Strangely enough, given the sexiness of the contract-killer part of the premise, there's not a whole lot of bloodshed in "Hit and Miss." I somehow feel guilty for wishing there was more of that, given that "Hit and Miss" sets itself up as a character drama and not a thriller per se, but it's hard to deny that the occasional violent moments give the show some welcome jolts of tension and drama. No doubt Mia's efficiency at work is meant to provide a contrast to the messiness of her personal life, but in the first couple of episodes of the show, the two worlds feel oddly disconnected (and would Mia the killer really recoil from separating the head of a dead chicken from its body while cooking a meal?).
"Hit and Miss" also indulges in a tendency I often see in ambitious British dramas like "Luther" and "The Fades": It tends to mistake style for substance, and at times, it falls a little too in love with its moody aesthetic conceits. The lack of overt plot mechanics and the lean dialogue are a welcome change, until these things begin to make you wonder whether the creators have a lot to say about Mia's unusual attempts to balance her career and her personal responsibilities.
Still, I found the two episodes I saw refreshingly thoughtful, though the second episode has a good deal less tension than the first and it's hard not to wonder if that bodes well for the rest of the season, which totals six episodes. The first two hours of "Hit and Miss" come across as a finely observed, well-acted independent film, and I wasn't really sure whether there was a lot more story left to tell as Episode 2 came to a close, but I'm willing to let Mia prove me wrong.
"Hit and Miss" debuts alongside the final season of "Damages," and we have interviews and features about that show here. Also, my colleague Chris Harnick interviewed Sevigny recently about "Hit and Miss" and other roles.
"Hit and Miss" premieres at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, July 11 on DirecTV's Audience Network.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan