Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Wednesdays Are New and Often Entertaining at ABC

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Bob Dylan famously noted in "Like a Rolling Stone" that: "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose." ABC, which had a dearth of hits at the end of last season, took that advice to heart, assembling a Wednesday night lineup made up entirely of new shows, three one-hour dramas, all arriving, for different reasons, with a high-profile and a lot of buzz. (Two of the three offerings appeared on my list of five new programs I was most looking forward to seeing.)

The new ABC Wednesday night kicks off with "Pushing Daisies," which has to be the show that most divided critics over the summer, with one camp hailing it as the next big thing, while the rest viewed it as treacly, smug and precious beyond belief.

Directed with an affection for colorful, storybook visuals by Barry Sonnenfeld, and laden with mannered dialogue that falls somewhere between film noir and a Hal Hartley film, "Pushing Daisies" centers on Ned (Lee Pace), a pie shop proprietor, who can bring people back to life by touching them. As in any fantasy, there are rules: Once Ned works his magic, a second touch kills the subject forever. And once he does bring someone back to life, he has 60 seconds to kill them, otherwise someone in the area will bite the dust instead. But in so many ways "Pushing Daisies" is not a typical fantasy, combining elements of romance, comedy and crime procedurals, touched off with the 21st century accessory of an overriding murder mystery that plays out over the course of the season.

For now, at least, you can find me in the camp of the show's admirers, mainly because of the clever characters and the actors who play them. Ned supplements his pie income by working with Emerson (Chi McBride), a gruff private detective who is the only person that knows about Ned's gift. When Emerson hears of a murder case with a reward, Ned brings the victim back to life just long enough to find out how he/she met his/her maker. Emerson and Ned split the ensuing reward fifty-fifty.

Their routine is interrupted when Ned brings back to life his childhood crush, Chuck (Anna Friel), who was killed on a cruise she was sent on under shady circumstances. But after Ned wakes her, he doesn't have the heart to send her back to the beyond. Part of the problem is that Chuck didn't see who strangled her. More importantly, as a child, Ned discovered his power, first by bringing his dog back to life (who still lives with him, all these years later), but later by saving, then accidentally killing (with a second touch), his own mother. And when Ned saved his mother, Chuck's father was the one to pay the price. Ned wants to tell Chuck, but he cannot bring himself to do so.

Chuck and Ned quickly feel an attraction (he did save her life, after all), but, of course, they cannot touch, or Chuck will be killed for good. It's a great set-up. Romance stories need a barrier to the couple getting together, and there isn't a bigger impediment than death (just ask everyone who profited from “Ghost”). There is a moment at the end of the pilot episode when Ned holds his own hand to simulate holding Chuck's, and she then does the same, that represents the reason why the critics (and viewers, I'm sure) are so split. Some people will find it overly sentimental, while others will melt. I liked it. It was a sweet moment, mainly because Pace and Friel both bring an effortless humanity and heart to the mannered characters.

The supporting cast is excellent. Kristen Chenoweth adorably plays Olive, Ned's pie shop employee, who has a crush on him. Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene play Chuck's aunts, who raised her after her father died. The former synchronized swimmers became agoraphobic after Kurtz's character lost her eye in a cat litter accident (yes, it's that kind of show).

The overriding murder mystery (who killed Chuck) isn’t really absorbing. But I found the writing sharp and clever, and the characters engaging, interesting and funny, which is enough to keep me coming back to the town of Couer d' Couers (this quirk-fest loves naming things with repeated words) to see what these wacky people are up to.

Next up on Wednesday nights for ABC is a new show with a familiar character, the "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off "Private Practice," which moves down the West Coast from Seattle to Santa Monica with Dr. Addison Montgomery (no longer Sheppard). "Grey's" creator, Shonda Rimes, has said that she envisions the characters in "Private Practice" as the grown-up counterparts to the high school-like gang at Seattle Grace Hospital, but I find the Santa Monica crew to be even more childlike.

Addison was one of my favorite "Grey's" characters, a strong, funny and beautiful woman surrounded by a lot of immature people. That Addison is virtually nowhere to be found in “Private Practice.” While Addison, at Seattle Grace, was a world-renown neonatal surgeon, at the co-operative practice in Santa Monica, she, like all the women in the office, has been reduced to a whiny, neurotic basket case.

The pilot opens with a guest appearance by Seattle Grace's chief, Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.), who is upset that Addison has given her notice. Richard tells her that she is too good to throw away her career by trading the state-of-the-art facilities in Seattle for the backwater co-op in Santa Monica. By the end of the first episode, I agreed with him, which is not, I'm sure, what Rimes was going for. In Santa Monica, Addison is constantly uneasy and uncomfortable, spending her time wallowing in self-pity and taking it out on the alternative medicine guy at the practice, Pete (Tim Daly in deep, dark, soulful, introspective, handsome mode, making Patrick Dempsy's McDreamy look like a circus clown), who kissed her in the "Grey's" episode from last year that acted as the show's de facto pilot.

And how can Addison, who was such a good mentor to the interns at Seattle Grace (when she wasn’t kissing one of them), be so rude to William (Chris Lowell, who spent last year on "Veronica Mars"), the practice's receptionist and a midwife in training (much fun is at his expense by Addison because he says he is in a "midwifery" class, but not only did I not find “midwifery” that funny, it made me like her less that she was so mean and found it so entertaining). Where Addison was the first to give a chance to an ambitious intern in Seattle, she refuses at first to let William help when she has to do a cesarean in the office. If you are going to spin off a character from a hit show, why change her? And for the worse, no less? I don't get it.

The other women working with Addison aren't much better. The practice's queen bee, Addison's old friend Naomi (the great Broadway talent Audra McDonald, who here is just asked to look constantly depressed), spends all her time pining over the husband who left her, the practice's general practitioner, Sam (Taye Diggs), who coincidentally lives next door to Addison's new place. Naomi, like Addison, is an expert in her field (a fertility specialist), but she is also a basket case, locking herself in her bathroom and eating from a whole cake. She is jealous of Sam to a point that seems beyond unhealthy. When his friends get Sam a stripper (invading Addison's home to watch through the window), even after Sam ends up diagnosing the woman rather than ogling her, Naomi reacts like he just sent a busload of children off a cliff.

Naomi (as well as Addison, for that matter), could use the aid of a psychologist. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the one in the practice would be of much help, since Violet (Amy Brenneman) is even more pathetic than her co-workers. She is obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, who has moved on to another serious relationship, to the point that I'm quite sure he would have no trouble getting a restraining order. It's hard to take Violet seriously as a healer of patients with mental problems, knowing that she is a set of night-vision goggles away from a trip to the loony bin. Violet seems more like a character in a ripped-from-the-headlines Lifetime movie, rather than a member of an ensemble spun off from one of the top-rated dramas on television.

Even the only strong woman on the show, the chief of the local hospital, Charlotte (KaDee Strickland, late of the David E. Kelley flop "The Wedding Bells," who again seems to have ended up as a positive presence in a less-than-great show), is her own kind of basket case, the heartless hard-ass who demands respect. For a show written and created by a woman, it's hard to believe how all of the women are the embodiments of negative stereotypes.

As you watch "Private Practice," you'll probably just want to yell at these women and tell them to grow up and get on with their lives. They're attractive, and they're successful doctors. It's hard to feel sorry for them.

The practice in "Private Practice," like the hospital in "Grey's Anatomy," seems beset by an ungodly volume of disasters. Naomi makes a point of telling Addison how the alternative practice takes pride in treating a small number of patients. Nothing short of an evil curse on the property can explain, then, how such a small pool of patients can produce such a high number of disastrous medical calamities. Their malpractice insurance must be through the roof. Hire a stripper for a doctor? Of course she is going to have a rash on her butt. Bring in a healthy pregnant teenage girl with a disapproving father? There is no doubt she will go into immediate distress, necessitating an immediate emergency cesarean with the lives of the mother and the baby in great danger. A man comes in to donate sperm for a fertility treatment? You almost hear yourself yelling: "Don't go in there!" just as he has a stroke and dies.
I had hoped that “Private Practice” would provide a “Grey’s Anatomy” level of fun, but with a focus on adults who were less self-absorbed. So far, that hope has not been fulfilled. Instead, the show follows a group of people it’s hard to care about. And that’s not a good sign.

"Dirty Sexy Money" finishes off the night. Billed as an update on the old-time soaps like "Dynasty" and "Dallas," the show follows the Darling family, kind of a more screwed up version of the Kennedy clan. Donald Sutherland plays the patriarch, Tripp, who presides over his brood while quoting literature and writing artistically crafted observations in his journal. His wife, Letitia (Jill Clayburgh), is more emotional, still reeling from the death of her lover, the family's attorney, Dutch. The kids run the gamut of dysfunction: Patrick (William Baldwin), the married state attorney general with senatorial aspirations, who is having an affair with a transvestite; Karen (Natalie Zea), the oft-married, insecure socialite, who knows her golf pro fiance is more interested in her money than her personality; the vacuous, partying twins Juliet and Jeremy (Samaire Armstrong and Seth Gabel), whose closeness is threatened when Jeremy takes up with Juliet’s ex-BFF (Juliet hates her because she committed the unpardonable sin of stealing her bangs); and Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald), a reverend who seems to hate everyone. Brian may be the most evil character ever to appear on network television (in his own way worse than the bad guys on "24" trying to destroy the world). He is a money-grubbing, angry, bitter, nearly sociopathic guy who, after his mistress dumps their sevenish-year-old son on him, tells the boy that his mother will take him back "if I have to shoot you at her with a cannon." Brian handles the situation by dropping the kid off at the family lawyer's office with instructions to get rid of him.

That family attorney is the show's protagonist, Dutch's son, Nick (Peter Krause). As the pilot opens, Nick, who runs a small public interest law practice with his loyal paralegal, Daisy (Laura Margolis), is dodging his father's lunch invitations. He thinks Dutch ruined both of their lives by dedicating his life to the Darlings at the expense of his own family. But after Dutch dies in a private plane crash, Tripp asks Nick to take over. Nick agrees after Tripp agrees to spend $10 million a year on Nick's charities, but he becomes disillusioned and quits. When he hears that Dutch was having an affair with Letitia and figures out that Dutch might have been murdered, Nick decides to keep the job to figure out who the culprit was, much to the chagrin of his supportive wife, Lisa (Zoe McLellan).

"Dirty Sexy Money" may have its roots in shows like "Dallas," but it is unmistakably modern. The show is edited in a quick-cut, MTV style that is meant, I'm sure, to keep the action moving along. And, of course, having a long-term, overriding murder mystery is certainly an of-the-moment element of the show.

Judging "Dirty Sexy Money" as night-time soap, it hits all the marks. The writing is clever (I particularly enjoy the running gag of the ring tones Daisy programs into Nick's phone for each of the Darling children), and the cast is top-notch. Although, watching Krause, who was the star of two of the most influential programs of the last 10 years, "Sports Night" and "Six Feet Under," you can't help think that he is seriously slumming here. But Sutherland is effective as the ambiguous family titan, Baldwin uses the family (Baldwin, not Darling) charm to make Patrick interesting, and Fitzgerald plays Brian without a single wink to the audience to soften the evil within him. "Dirty Sexy Money" feels as fresh as "Desperate Housewives" did when it premiered, and it certainly is more entertaining than "Desperate Housewives" is now.

"Pushing Daisies" and "Dirty Sexy Money" are off to good starts, and I guess there is always the chance "Private Practice" can find its footing. To quote another rock singer, Meatloaf, "two out of three ain't bad."