Hack – An Unsung Great TV Show; CBS 2002 – 2004 starring David Morse

To discover a TV show whose episodes are reminiscent of O’Henry and Steinbeck with a side of Norman Rockwell is like finding a single rose among the thorns. Hack, starring David Morse, is such a series.

I love discovering “new” stuff to watch. Only thing is, by the time Mike and I “discover” it, it is several years old and we stream it on Netflix. Actually, that’s good. No commercials. What’s bad is, the show apparently didn’t catch on and only lasted two years.

Hack premiered on CBS from 2002-2004 starring one of my favorite actors, David Morse. Quiet and low-key, the tall, intent actor often runs under the riotous waters of Hollywood radar. But once you’ve watched him in action you never forget him. At least for those of us who like the occasional Monet among the pop art.

Mike Olshanksy (David Morse) is a Philadelphia cab driver, formerly a police officer with Philadelphia’s finest, now under a cloud of corruption charges. The twist in this scenario is that the charges are all too true and Mike has only himself to blame for the loss of his job, his wife and son, and his self-respect.

The bright yellow cab takes him on a dark and lonely road of self-discovery, not only by introspection, but in sharing the lives that daily touch his own from the back seat of his cab. He watches, he relates, he acts, and he learns from them. Episode by episode, we are given a front row view of a broken man shedding the ruin of his old self and being reborn. Slowly. Painfully. And in the narrow confines of his cabby world, and among the streets of Philadelphia, the pain of other people touches his own in such a way that they become entwined and virtually indistinguishable from each other. So he uses his expertise and experience as a former cop to help alleviate the suffering of others in whatever way he can. And in so doing, he strives to understand and come to terms with his own.

The characters in the series are not typical of your run-of-the-mill, popular TV shows. They are people who are what they are. No apologies. His former partner on the police force is Marcellus Washington (Andre Braugher), who was also his partner in corruption but wasn’t caught. Mike never ratted him out, and continues to cover for him. This makes for a strained relationship with his former friend and partner, who often seems to blithely “forget” what Mike has done, and continues to do for him. In order to get information from the department to help the beleaguered lives who reach out to him, Mike doesn’t hesitate to “remind” Marcellus how much he owes him, and how much he can still lose.

His oldest and best friend is a priest, Tom “Grizz” Grzelak (George Dzundza), who attempts to guide Mike through the human and spiritual maze of right and wrong, moral and amoral, perception as opposed to self-deception. But Father Grizz stumbles over a root in that maze due to a little clay in his own feet. Addiction to gambling. But that human failing aside, the man in the black shirt and white-turned collar is solid in his belief in a God who cares. In one episode, Mike is arguing with Grizz about the suffering of Job. As Grizz comes back time and again to counter his friend’s bitterness, Mike smiles and says, “I can’t argue with you, Grizz. You have too much of a home field advantage.”

The visuals in this series are outstanding. A shot of children playing on a street in the rosy glow of a dawn or sunset light. A shadowed mural on the side of a building at night. Shots of the city of Philadelphia in different lights and directions. All make for a beautiful portrait of the City of Brotherly Love I have never seen before. In one episode, when Mike faces spending Thanksgiving with only his cab and nameless fares for company, an older couple slides out of the backseat onto a sidewalk filled with welcoming family. My husband called it a Norman Rockwell moment. And it was. Except that the face of the lonely cab driver is seen through the entwining arms and touching hands of a family that is not his own.

But before you get the idea that ex-corrupt cop Mike Olshansky is “Mother Theresa’s brother”, let me just remind that this guy is evolving. From what I gather (but is not shown on the series), is that Mike was not the best husband or father, or person, before he crashed and burned. He is working to determine where he went wrong. What road he took that was so far off the straight and narrow. But he isn’t an instant “good guy”. He is a human being who is searching for the right, and sometimes he fails. Sometimes he stumbles in the muck and has to climb out all over again. It’s a great series about what real people in a real (bad) world, have to really deal with. Of course, we don’t have a cab driver who can punch out the bad guy, or is willing and able to help find a missing child, but it sure is good to have one we can identify with on the TV screen.

Do you see what I see?

In trying to understand what happened to this jewel among the paste imitations, I’ve pulled up what others had to say about it. And though I try my best to allow for differences of opinion, I can only say that somewhere someone missed the boat. Either these viewers went once too often to the kitchen to get a snack, or they talked all the way through. They certainly didn’t see what I saw. Or my husband saw. Or my sister saw.

This from IMBD: Mike Olshansky forges a new identity as a Philadelphia cab driver patrolling the city as a roving vigilante who works with local police. 

Now I ask you. Does that sound anything like what I’ve described above? He’s not forging an identity as a cab driver. If he’s “forging an identity” at all it’s as a man who cares rather than the man he was before. The cab is just a living. “A roving vigilante who works with local police”? What? Sure he mixes it up with some of the rough characters. But it’s usually to protect someone who can’t protect himself. And one awesome show was simply about a homeless man who died in the back of his cab, and how he strove to identify the man and get him “home” to his family. The “local police” he works with is ONE cop who was his ex-partner in crime as well as in law enforcement.

As for those who could not get past the unlikely premise of a cab driver who happens to have such unlikely fares, all I can say is — Look, guys. At the expense of making a pun, the cab is just a “vehicle” for the stories of human suffering, and a man who is trying to find his way. I can deal with that. Why can’t you?

As for those who put down David Morse, all I can do is put on my high hat and say: 

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38 thoughts on “Hack – An Unsung Great TV Show; CBS 2002 – 2004 starring David Morse

  1. Must have been because he cared. That is not the way of most people now. Sad to say but it seems to be whatever I can get, however I can get it.

  2. Hack would have gone on for several more seasons-CBS loved it but because it was shot in Philly it was really expensive. I think around 1.5 million and episode. Tax incentives didn’t exist and David Morse (a Philly resident) didn’t want to move it to Canada even though it was much cheaper to shoot. His decision to stay in Philly-to be near his family gave the people of Philadelphia a place to work/spend. He brought in an estimated 72 million dollars in revenue to the city. I think it was a great show, he carried it well.

  3. When I found Hack, I was hooked. The characters and plots were excellent. Then the tide turned. The 2nd season was a bummer. The plots were predictable, the characters plastic and the script lacked luster. Without Grizz, and the conflicts with his wife, there was no meat to the series. I’m sorry to because I really like David Morse since I first saw him in House. If Andre Brougher had left the show I wouldn’t have watched past Season 2 episode 1.

    Too bad.

    • Rita, Thanks so much for your comment. That’s exactly how I felt about Hack. The first season, characters and plots got me hook, line, and sinker. I had not gotten to the second season when I wrote the post. But I did some research to find out why it lasted no longer than it did. I read there were all kinds of problems, one of which was money. From what I understand, it cost a lot to film it in Philadelphia, which is where David Morse wanted it filmed. If I remember correctly it’s because he was tired of traveling and being away from his family. I tried to find the original in-depth article about it, but a cursory search hasn’t netted it for me. I’m just speaking from memory here. But that first season shows what TV COULD do if it was willing to bite the bullet, cinch in their belts, and produce quality instead of quantity.

      Loved reading your profile and look forward to reading your blog — “Bits of Life”.

      Danke and auf wiedersehen

  4. I watched Hack on Netflix last year for the first time and this month I’m watching it again. Besides the solid performance of David Morse, Andre Braugher is excellent in his role as Mike’s ex-partner. Plus there are the fine guest actors like Michelle Monaghan, Idris Elba, John Heard, Viola Davis, Martha Plimpton and many others.

    • I agree with all of the above. One thing my husband and I talked about (that I failed to put in the post) was that every actor turned in very solid performances. David Morse is great, but he didn’t have to carry it alone. I had a love/hate relationship going on for Andre Braugher (I mean his role) because he could be such a jerk. And man did he play it well!!!:) Thanks for your comment.

  5. The series dragged me in slowly. They went out of their way to make aspects of the Olshansky character singularly unlikeable. There was always an undercurrent of caring and decency in the face of odds that carried through, however. At times it got a bit heavy-handed in making its points like with the priest-friend a saintly drinker-gambler. After seeing the Season 2 episode questioning the Feds use and operation of the Patriot Act, I began to believe that THAT spelled the death knell of the show. Now, THAT would be heavy-handed.

    • Still glad you watched it. It was worth it. And I loved how David Morse handled the character. The whole show was different. I never watched into the second season. I had read it didn’t have the character of the first. But I still may go back and see them for myself. I think sometimes script writers get a little heavy handed because otherwise, I hate to say, it goes over the heads of a lot of viewers. Thanks for your comment.

    • Hi, Rachel,
      Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. I appreciate every comment. I don’t feel so much like I’m talking to myself. Glad you agree about the TV show Hack. If more people thought like you, television wouldn’t be such a joke.
      Thanks again,
      Linda

  6. Couldn’t agree more with your well chosen words. Hack was a gem of a series about incredibly REAL people and Greek heroes with Achilles heals. Wonderfully acted, but the writers failed to deliver plots worthy of the talent.

    • Thank you for your response. Those were some well-chosen words yourself. Great comparison to the Greek heroes and Achilles heel. Spot on. And so true about the writers and eventually failing to deliver plots. The story I’ve read about the demise of the series was that it was simply too expensive to make in Philadelphia, which David Morse insisted on, as it was close to his family. Who knows what the whole story is. Thanks again. It’s good to get some feedback.
      Linda

  7. I just discovered “Hack” on Netflix a week or so ago, and I agree completely with your assessment. I am still in the first season, and so far the stories are compelling; the characters’ dialogue is wonderfully idiosyncratic; the cinematography of Philadelphia, a city I know, is hauntingly beautiful; and the acting is terrific. (David Morse is great and the actress Donna Murphy, who plays the wife of David Morse’s character, is a revelation. Heck, I would be in love with her, too.) What is so great is that all of the characters are three-dimensional and there is a moral core at the heart of the series, as Oshansky struggles to recover his own soul and redeem himself, for himself and his family. (A small point: Unlike many so-called dramas on TV today, the stories play without a musical backdrop to cue your responses. Your responses unfold as the stories do.) And while the premise stretches plausibility, it does not break it; we see only a few of the rides that Oshansky picks up and only a few of the people he comes in contact with each day, each week, each month. It is just possible that a cabdriver who was a cop would involve himself in the lives of some of the people he meets.

    • Thank you, Michael, both for your comment and your own great assessment. I missed entirely the UN-cued viewer response reflexes that are so irritating on other shows. Thanks for pointing that out. I was so drawn into the drama I didn’t notice this wonderful little nugget of great drama-making.

  8. Thank you, Linda, for your very kind words, but I must correct a point I made in my original post: My comment that the episodes play without a musical backdrop is not quite accurate. There is music in each episode, and the music fits the story being told. What I meant to say is that the music is not intrusive or insistent, and there are long stretches in each episode where the dialogue and urban noise are all that is heard. I guess I found the music so “in tune” with each episode that I forgot it was there. 🙂

    • I knew what you meant because the music background was beautiful, and, as you said, fit the circumstances — un-intrusive. It’s the overt, and often maudlin, music that I object to in TV and films that demand your emotions rather than allow them to play out naturally. I love it when the background to good dialogue is the natural setting itself. That’s what I missed “seeing” and it had to be a big part of what drew me in so completely. As you so aptly put it — in tune. You are good at this. Do you write a blog? I sometimes refer to, and link other blogs that either support my own review, or that give a different take entirely, but are well-thought-out and well written.

      • Dear Linda, Thank you again, and no, I do not write a blog. I tried to start one in January when I went abroad for six months for work. Unfortunately, I did not have the support and self-discipline to do it regularly. But I must say, I love your blog — it is well-organized; your posts in different categories are fun to read and are superbly written; and it is well-designed and nice to look at. Yes, I am impressed! If I may ask, how do you do it? It seems like a lot of careful, thoughtful work. Best, Michael

      • Michael,
        Thank YOU for those super kind words. I’ll just say this — I hate to cook; I hate to sew; I don’t tinker with machinery; I don’t do crafts. What’s left but to read avidly and write sporadically.:)

        If you do settle down to a blog, give me a heads up. You really are good at it.

      • Dear Linda,

        Good afternoon! Do you watch “Game of Thrones” on HBO? And if so, what do you think of it? I am a fan of historical fantasy, and I loved J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy when I was younger, and I loved the movies that Peter Jackson made from those novels (I did not like “The Hobbit” as much, either as a novel or as the three bloated movies that Jackson make from that slim book). However, I had not read George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series on which the “Game of Thrones” T.V. series is based, so I did not know what to expect when the series first aired. Since then I have watched it off and on, impressed by the period detail, multiple storylines and complex characters. But at the end of the day, I am not just disappointed, I am angry at the sadism the curdles through the series and seems to be derived completely from the novels themselves. I understand that Martin actually wanted to be the anti-Tolkien; he wanted to write a series of fantasy novels where good did not triumph over evil, where, in fact, to be good in an ethical sense was actually a liability in the struggle for survival.

        And so, Martin “celebrates” evil to an extent I have not seen in mainstream television or the movies outside of horror films. Whether it is the beheading of Lord Eddard Stark to end season 1; or the murder of his widow, son, daughter-in-law and retainers at the “red wedding;” or the evils perpetrated by Joffrey Lannister while he is king before he is poisoned; or the terrible degradation and castration of Theon Grayjoy, or the rape of Sansa Stark in the latest episode, it seems as if Martin piles on the humiliation and the terror for its own sake. Martin is so intent on showing that virtue is not rewarded — in fact, he mocks virtue — that he wants us to see that evil can be rewarded instead. I get the truth of this, but I think it is a truth not to be celebrated. In Tolkien’s world evil was triumphant for a very long time, but it was always resisted by those with other values. And Tolkien celebrated those values, not evil’s triumphs. By contrast, it seems to me that in Martin’s world, survival and power are everything, and one must be willing to do anything in order to obtain power and thereby survive. In Martin’s world, there is no “right” and “wrong.” There are only “winners” and “losers” in “Game of Thrones.” I disagree with that. I think these two concepts exist side-by-side, sometimes in conflict, and the end does not justify the means. I think there are moral choices we each must make; that there is a difference between right and wrong; and that sometimes, to chose the moral, ethical, right way, means not to survive in the short run. But I guess I do believe that good triumphs in the end.

        It bothers me that the show dwells too long, almost lovingly, on the pain and degradation of some characters, as if to celebrate that reality at the expense of many other possible realities. (On a related point, I discussed the series with students at the university where I teach, and some female students objected to my criticism, pointing out that the show had much stronger female characters than were present in Tolkien’s novels. This is a valid criticism of Tolkien’s novels which were written in the 1950s, and I think Peter Jackson made the female characters in Tolkien much stronger and more visible in the movies he made from the novels between 2001 and 2014. But in “Game of Thrones,” for all their strength, the women are still victims — even the strongest female characters such as Cersie Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, “mother of dragons,” struggle and do much harm to others without fully achieving their own goals for themselves — and, like Catelyn Stark and Ygritte the Wilding, the women are often killed without accomplishing their goals. So while I appreciate that the female characters in the “Game of Thrones” novels and HBO series are vibrant and richly drawn, this only makes their lack of success more poignant.)

        I wonder if this critique of “Game of Thrones” could be broadened to include many other shows on TV today, such as “House of Cards” on Netflix, “Mad Men” on AMC, and “Scandal” on ABC. In each of these shows as well, the lead characters and the storylines celebrate a moral relativism where there is no right and wrong, only success or failure. Does this reflect a broader cultural shift in our society? I shiver to think so. But that is a much larger topic, for another time.

        Here endeth my screed for today! 🙂 All the very best,

        Michael

      • Michael,
        I , too, am a fan of historical and epic fantasy as well as great novels of high adventure. But the ones I read must all have some leading characters who exhibit nobility, integrity, courage, loyalty, etc. The best literature displays these things without hitting the reader over the head with them, whether they are an integral part of a character or whether the character learns them in the school of hard knocks. These may sound simplistic, but, as you no doubt know, in the hands of a great writer they become so much more than the sum of their parts.

        As for George R. R. Martin, like you, I was terribly disappointed. I read the first three books and refused to waste my time and money on another. And that’s a shame because the setting and characters alone, much less the involved plotting, promised to be something astounding. Martin so skillfully drew me into each character, that I grieved for each and every one. My husband and I were even willing to suspend our disgust of the depravity exhibited in hopes of a future, higher merit.

        Until you mentioned it in your comment, I had not even realized that — “Martin actually wanted to be the anti-Tolkien; he wanted to write a series of fantasy novels where good did not triumph over evil, where, in fact, to be good in an ethical sense was actually a liability in the struggle for survival.”

        I had not thought it through in the way you have, but when I got to the part where Tyrion Lannister killed his father in the way that he did, I was no longer able to overlook or suspend my abhorrence or revulsion for the sake of following the story. I was also beginning to think that even the hard shell surrounding Sandor Clegane — The Hound — might crack and show us a man of flesh and blood. What a fool I was to trust this writer. It’s as if Martin teases his readers with snippets of goodness and hope, or a flicker of humanity, before dropping the blade and slicing off the head of virtue. I caught on to that “game”, and I refused to play it. He was messing with my mind and emotions and not for any higher ideal or greater good.

        “Lord of the Flies” is a great example of good literature on the dark side of human nature. Written by a man who had seen the atrocities of war and what horrors man can inflict upon his fellow man, Golding’s novel was a cry for humanity to wake up, to do an emergency self-examination, and turn the tide of savagery before civilization destroyed itself. Once read, Lord of the Flies can never be forgotten or dismissed.

        But Martin’s epic series celebrates that very savagery, that dog-eat-dog mentality, and says to mankind it’s okay to return to barbarism, to break down the human and Biblical standards that the pillars of civilization rest upon. And I call his epic a dark blot on society because his characters and story are so seductive. They are terribly hard for a reader to resist.

        As for the HBO series “Game of Thrones”, just out of curiosity, Mike and I watched some of the first episode. We were impressed with the actors and the visual world they created, but then the depravity began. Like the book, it was offensive and disgusting. We turned it off.

        I never got to the rape of Sansa in either the novels or the TV series and I’m glad I didn’t. To use that magnificent gift that Martin has just to showcase brutality, or just for the sake of shoving horror in the world’s face, is a crime against the high ideals of real literature. The excuse I’ve heard from people is, “Well, that’s just the way the world works”, is not good enough. Charles Dickens showed us how bad the world could be — how cruel — without turning out the light of hope. He acknowledged there was also goodness and mercy. He showed it through the hearts and actions of his characters.

        As for Tolkien, believe it or not, I have only watched the movies. Never read the books except for excerpts here and there. I own all the Tolkien books and have picked them up to read several times. I don’t know what my problem is. I love his wording, syntax, and the great mind that comes through on these pages. But I’ve never gotten past a chapter or two. Don’t ask me why. I first fell in love with Tolkien through the wonderful 1977 animation of The Hobbit. I love the story, the characters, everything about it. My children and nephew could sing all the songs and quote the words verbatim. And they were all three under the age of ten. As for Jackson’s Hobbit, I loved it all because I’d never read the books.

        I’m thinking of writing a post on this. May I quote you, either with just your first name, or with a full introduction? It’s been fun discussing this. Thanks so much.

      • Linda,

        Thank you, as always, for your wonderful note. Yes, please fell free to quote me — it old be interesting to see what others think. And I do also wonder whether “Game of Thrones” and shows like “Mad Men,” “Scandal” and “House of Cards,” are symptomatic of a societal unwillingness to celebrate moral judgments anymore. Or is it just that this form of entertainment is attractive to so many because it allows them to indulge in fantasies so far removed from their real lives. I wonder what you and others think. All the very best, Michael

      • Thank you, Michael, for your reply, and for the opportunity to open a dialogue about these subjects. How would you like to be introduced? Just first name or name and credentials? You are a professor, teacher? Anyway you want to do is fine by me. My Michael and I certainly enjoy what you write. Very refreshing. Have a great Memorial Day.

      • Just my first name is fine. Yes, I am a teacher. I would prefer to remain just a private, first name only, poster for now. Thank you!

  9. Just finished the series. While the 1st season was certainly a jewel, the second season was almost not worth watching. Besides the characters becoming plastic and the plots predictable, the dialog became politicized. Who made those decisions? No wonder it got canceled. But why was it ruined?

    • Martin, thank you for your comment. That’s a very good question and one to which I have no answer except that I have read that David Morse wanted to keep the filming in Philadelphia to be near his family. However, it was very expensive to do it that way. But cutting back on talented writers, as in the first season, was not the way to do it. That first season was awesome. I wanted more. And so did its many fans.

    • I didn’t pick up on the political insertion, but it was clear that the writers from season one either moved on or ran out ideas. I have a relative who worked in H-wood who told me that writers move quite frequently and that many great potential series die after the first or second season.

      • Thanks for your response, Marty. It’s a shame about the writers. I have noticed that about several series with very promising beginnings. It seems like online streaming is getting the good writers (if they’d just finish a whole sentence without such awful profanity). I liked Longmire. It was smart and they talked like real people. The script was very well written, which is more than I can say for the books by the original author. Have you seen it?

      • Longmire — you know, I didn’t recall this, but just looked it up on Wikipedia and recall watching part of the first episode. I don’t recall why I didn’t follow it – it looks interesting – so I think I’ll plug back in and see if it catches! Thanks, Linda.

  10. So, Linda – I followed your suggestion and just finished Longmire. OMG… what a simple, yet complex series. The stories were dark, the acting superb and the resolution at the end of Season 3 both complete and incomplete. I hate to admit this, but I actually had tears running down my face when Walt Longmire spread his wife’s ashes at the end. The writers did NOT peter out like the writers on Hack did. The acting of Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire and of Lou Diamond Phillips as Henry Standing Bear was beyond words. Even the supporting role actors turned in outstanding performances.

    I really appreciate this suggestion. What’s next?

    • Marty, I’ll have to think about what’s next. But I really, really appreciated your comment. It validates the time and effort I spend sitting here pounding this stuff out. I love writing, but I love hearing from people. It’s been great lately with followers not only commenting, but dialogue-ing. (Sometimes I make up words if I have to). Hearing from friends like you keeps the old brain cells firing. I love it. Thanks, Linda

      P.S. What a good review you did. You said it all. Loved reading it.

  11. I first watched Hack when it originally aired. At the time I only had local TV stations where I lived(rural) so I was limited to my viewing selection but Hack was my weekly show to watch. However, great show! Wished it would have lasted longer.

    Was on Netflix until July 2015, looked as of today and no longer to be found.

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