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Crusader, cape and all, doesn't take the easy road

‘THE CAPE’ ★★★

8 to 10 p.m. Sunday, then 8 p.m. Mondays on WMAQ-Channel 5

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

‘No capes!” That’s the rule we learned in “The Incredibles.” Modern superheroes should avoid them, as they are a safety hazard (they can snag on a missile fin, get sucked into a vortex, etc.).

What, then, can we make of a crime fighter who is nothing but the cape?

I’m not sure whether Vince Faraday is postmodern or old school, but the guy has style. As the title character in “The Cape,” the cop-turned-vigilante doesn’t believe in doing things the easy way. That’s why his weapon of choice is an outer garment that drapes well, and not, say, a gun.

“The cape idea just felt sort of simple and yet iconic,” says creator and producer Tom Wheeler. “It felt like it could have existed in the ’30s, but at the same time it was weirdly fresh and of a different world. It felt clean and elegant.”

Can a superhero defeat evil with what amounts to a vigorous towel whipping? Do you have the necessary suspension of disbelief to watch this show?

I was surprised to find that I did. A huge source of the appeal is David Lyons (“ER”), who plays Vince/the Cape. How can I describe him to you? He’s a combination of Aidan Quinn and Eric Roberts’ goody-goody twin, with a soupcon of Paul Newman. He is magnetic.

Sunday’s premiere episode on NBC is breakneck-paced, as we learn how he becomes a superhero and what he’s up against. Vince was apparently the last clean cop in fictional Palm City, and as luck would have it, he is framed for various homicidal crimes and presumed dead.

Vince can’t return to his wife and son for fear of endangering their lives. So instead he ... vows to clear his name, taking up with a colorful carnival of bank robbers, who teach him how to master the fine art of cape flourishing and disappearing in a cloud of smoke. He dresses up as his son’s favorite comic-book hero and gets to work. It’s not the way I would go, but “The Cape” is essentially a live-action graphic novel; it deserves a little leeway.

“I wondered: What would be the real-life, bruising, brutal experience of being a hero?” Wheeler says. “My favorite heroes were always the grounded, crime-in-the-city sort — Daredevil, Batman, the Shadow, the Spirit. I wanted the show to have a kind of pulp flavor.”

The Cape would fit right in with that crowd. You can see how he evolved from decades of superheroes on TV, too: From “Batman” in the ’60s, you’ll find the colorful villains and a setting that’s just this side of camp. From “The Incredible Hulk” in the ’70s, there’s the idea of the superhero as a tortured soul with no real home. From “The Greatest American Hero” in the ’80s, we learn that the Cape is someone we can identify with; from “Lois & Clark,” there’s an underlying love story.

“When we were looking for Vince Faraday, you see certain versions of the superhero that are in people’s minds — the square-jawed, hands-on-hips kind of guy,” Wheeler says. “But ‘The Cape’ all hinges on his character being accessible, emotionally believable and grounded. He just glues this hyper reality to the earth.”

The Cape may be grounded, but he’s surrounded by some over-the-top personalities: There’s Rollo (Martin Klebba), the muscle of the carnival, who is a foul-mouthed dwarf. Bad guy Scales (Vinnie Jones) has an unfortunate skin problem — don’t stare! Crime blogger Orwell (Summer Glau) is a stunning techie. And the Cape’s archnemesis is billionaire Peter Fleming, played by the elegant James Frain (“True Blood”), with yellow contact lenses and endless chess metaphors. “I describe him as a psychotic James Bond,” Wheeler says.

There’s nothing halfway about “The Cape.” Either you’ll jump right in or you’ll give up immediately. I think it’s about time a drama embraces a super power that’s long been forgotten: showmanship.

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