Is Crash Train Wreck TV?

The pay cable channel Starz has dabbled in original fare like the comedy show Head Case, but it still lags behind cable giants like HBO and Showtime in terms of homegrown productions.

HBO has Entourage and The Sopranos. Showtime can boast The L Word and Dexter. AMC has Mad Men.

Starz has nothing of the kind in that scale. Until now.

Crash, Starz's first dramatic series, is meant to start closing that gap (trailer here). The series' first episode, which debuts at 10 p.m. EST tonight (Oct. 17), is gunning for the same lofty terrain populated by The Sopranos and its ilk -- adult-oriented fare which leverages the freedoms inherent in cable television.

The early returns won't change the pay cable pecking order, but with a story this broad subsequent episodes could exceed first impressions.

The ensemble story, based on the Oscar-winning film, features Dennis Hopper as a racist record mogul. The rest of the cast is far less recognizable -- and memorable.

The original Crash jammed plenty of melodrama into its running time, so it's only natural for the series of the same name to follow suit. Sure enough, the show opens with Hopper's character, Ben Cendars, delivering a bizarre toast to his private parts and then exposing himself to his female limousine driver.

Early HBO series like 1st & 10 delighted in pushing past network boundaries, and it's clear the minds behind Crash have similar freedoms firmly in mind.

Take the very next sequence as Exhibit B. We're privy to a graphic sex scene involving two LAPD officers (Arlene Tur, Nick E. Tarabay) capped by gratuitous, albeit fleeting, nudity.

Kenny (Ross McCall), the female cop's partner, uses his car's siren to rush her downtown in order to make a deposition on time. His haste leads to a car accident, and the woman behind the wheel of the other car isn't too happy about the situation. She threatens to sue Kenny for his negligence, which sets a curious flirtation in motion.

The first hour also introduces us to less unsavory characters, like a former gang member (Brian Tee) struggling to stay on the right side of the law as an EMT.

What's far more conventional, and dramatically dull, are scenes involving a middle aged couple (D.B. Sweeney and Clare Carey) and the woman's cantankerous father (Michael Fairman). Their squabbles are neither illuminating nor entertaining. Instead, it's the kind of subplot which could be squeezed into any broadcast show.

Hopper's character stands out as the most interesting pawn moving about this L.A. chess board. The actor is having a blast, and the feeling is infectious. His Ben Cendars is a racist and provocateur, and he's got enough money to pay for his mistakes over and again. But he also has a soft spot for his new driver (Jocko Sims), a young black man with ambition to burn. Ben's affection for the man doesn't stem from an PC mantra. It's authentic and an element of the show with maximum potential.

Their relationship is nothing like what we expect, and that's part of the problem with Crash so far. We know the L.A. racial stew is going to boil over, and that misunderstandings and deeply held prejudices will cause even wary allies to clash.

One area in which the television Crash outranks its silver screen inspiration is in hokey plot coincidences. The original's ham-handed tendencies sucked the tension right out of certain scenes, leaving many critics to hail it as one of the weakest Best Picture winners in recent memory. So far, Starz's version takes life in L.A. from a more practical perspective.

The series format also might favor the TV version, since extended storylines can tease out far better on the small screen.

The unknown cast lacks a standout talent to anchor such an ambitious project. Both Sweeney and Carey turn in perfunctory moments as the embattled husband and wife, although their fragile bond could yield richer moments as the series drags on.

Crash might work best as train wreck television, a show with so much melodramatic mayhem that it pays to tune in just to find out what happens next.

One clear benefit of launching a new series on a pay cable is knowing it won't get yanked if the early ratings are weak. Pay outlets practice far more patience with their product. It remains to be seen if Crash will reward that kind of patience.