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Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy
100 Things to Love and Hate About TV
By Ken Tucker
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Ken Tucker
All rights reserved.
The Greatest Soprano: Edie Falco and Carmela's Manicure
In a series marinated in the Mob machismo of its male stars — and has there ever been a male star more imposing than James Gandolfini's bear-with-the-heart-of-a-snarling-puppy-dog Tony Soprano? — The Sopranos's most complex, emotionally nuanced character is its female lead, Edie Falco as Tony's wife. In the pilot, Carmela is adither about a party she's throwing; she acts as though she prefers to remain as ignorant as possible about the details of her husband's occupation as long as the cash enables her to keep their Jersey mini-mansion spiffy and her manicure gleaming. What could have been an ambivalent, even weak role became, via Falco's sad, tragic glances and fleeting but volcanic temper flare-ups, a crucial alternative to the series' men-screw-up-and-screw-over/women-fuck-or-die ethos.
Who knows whether creator David Chase planned it this way or began to see it as the cameras rolled, but Carmela quickly transcended the laquered-hair crime-family harridan enshrined in Martin Scorcese films. By The Sopranos's fifth episode, "College," Falco had a poignant subplot in which she invites the family priest — Father Phil, a smarmy moocher — over for dinner and a movie. Carmela's loneliness often manifests itself as a desire for compliments and to learn more about culture (two areas in which her husband is woefully wanting), and so she was easy prey for Father Phil's raves for her cooking and his half-baked auteurist theories. They came close to kissing — a triple Catholic sin, I would calculate — but Carm came to her senses. Toward the end of that first season, she observed the cleric exhibiting similarly creepy behavior on others, and righteously tells him that he exploits "spiritually thirsty women."
On her career report card, you might say that Falco plays well with boys: A few appearances on the grungy Homicide: Life on the Street cemented a friendship with producer-writer Tom Fontana, who took her to HBO and a recurring role in his male-dominated-to-put-it-mildly prison series Oz. Director-writer Hal Hartley used her in two of his male-menopausal films, and John Sayles, one of the movies' strongest writers for women, wrote her a role in his 2002 Sunshine State. An experienced stage actress, she has appeared in off-Broadway and Broadway productions including Side Man, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, and Shooting Gallery.
But Falco will always be best known for The Sopranos. Carmela only grew more central to the show as her marriage grew weaker and her two children entered noxious adolescences. Tensions peaked at the end of the fourth season, when Carmela and Tony had a rattle-the-plaster argument that pushed both actors to their finest, most subtle yet explosive performances to that date. By the fifth season, Tony and Carmela have separated, and she roams the house as though it's an abandoned castle, forced to be both nuturer and protector, resenting both roles. A sucker for love and book-learnin', she entered into a queasy relationship with her son's guidance counsellor (David Strathairn), as written, a far too hasty, hard-to-believe attraction, but once again, Falco redeems the writers' material for the way she quickly scribbles down the teacher's book recommendation — Flaubert's Madame Bovary, of which she's clearly never heard — on a scrap of paper, promising, "I'll stop by Borders on the way home and get it." And says it in such a way that you know that, unlike her mob-wife friends, she'll also read it.
The Most Overrated Writer in Prime-Time History: David E. Kelley
A boomer Boston lawyer who used his law degree in court for three years and in the TV industry ever since, David E. Kelley is the ambulance chaser of the airwaves. He's never met a cultural hot-point he hasn't tried to haul into a script to make a quick buck. You name it, he's perverted it: Capital punishment, pro- and con-; religious beliefs versus hard-headed science; teachers having sex with students on Boston Public; corpulent people ridiculed (a recurring theme in all his shows); Ally McBeal's Fish (Greg Germann) jonesing for the neck wattles of Judge Jennifer Cone (Dyan Cannon); Randy Quaid, on The Brotherhood of Poland, NH, putting a crimp in his married-sex life because he has a "Katie Couric fetish"; and the Fonz's fetish exposed: Henry Winkler, playing a dentist on The Practice, likes to watch women in spike heels squish cockroaches.
Kelley is the L.A. Law producer who sent semiregular tough-"bitch" attorney Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) spiralling down an elevator shaft to boost the series' sagging ratings and get the star characters making "splat" jokes well into the next season. He's the guy who invented the bucolic, Mayberry-like town of Picket Fences and then populated it with verging-on-the-perv characters like a guy who broke into people's homes only to take baths. He had Mandy Patinkin bite off the tip of a costar's finger in Chicago Hope to settle an argument. All right, that last one doesn't sound too out of character for anyone who's seen the frequently over-the-top Patinkin in concert — I think Patinkin would probably do that if his piano player plinked a bum note. All of Kelley's shows seem to start off with the crisp, well-ordered intelligence of an impeccably composed legal brief but sooner or later devolve into a succession of cheap stunts and surreal running gags, like Ally McBeal's dancing baby (a water-cooler topic for a day; a tiny big bore for subsequent months).
Known for his old-school work ethic, famous for writing entire seasons of shows in longhand on yellow legal pads, Kelley is a control-freak freak. I was once told by a writer who's since gone on to create shows for NBC and HBO that the year he spent on the staff of Picket Fences was "the most boring period of my life — you'd write a scene based on Kelley's story idea, and then he'd take it away and rewrite it completely. Or he'd just cut you out completely — you learned nothing. Having a writing staff was a needless expense for the network." Kelley hit a career high point during the 1999 — 2000 season when he managed to wedge five shows onto the air: Chicago Hope on CBS, The Practice and Snoops on ABC, and Ally McBeal and Ally (a curious half-hour version that edited the series as pure sitcom) on Fox. During this period he became the first producer to win Emmys for best drama (The Practice) and best comedy (Ally McBeal) at the same ceremony.
Beloved in Hollywood, an industry town where an East Coast pedigree and a star wife (Michele Pfeiffer) excuses a lot of self-indulgence as long as the latter is productive labor that snags media attention, Kelley is the most overrated, highly decorated scribe in Los Angeles. His feature films Mystery, Alaska (1999), Lake Placid (1999), and To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996) have been squishy flops, and 1999's Snoops, girl-girl private eyes complete with "nipple cams" for surveillance work, and 2002's Girls Club (girl-girl-girl lawyers) reiterated his career-long obsession with squabbling, preferably catfighting women. These shows disappeared after a mere few episodes.
Don't get me wrong: TV could use its own prime-time Marquis DeSade, a producer-writer who'd really get into the muck of human (and sometimes animal) sexuality. But Kelley is such a company-town man that his thematic quirks never lead to any interesting or revelatory point. They're just gimmicks, gussied up with well-structured plots and snappy dialogue. He gets good performances out of actors early on in his shows' runs — think Kathy Baker in Fences or Peter McNichol as a pesty lawyer in Chicago Hope. In the initial editions of McBeal, Calista Flockhart was an adroit ditz, not the cartoon she later was forced to become. He even knows how to switch professions and doctor an ailing show, allowing Robert Downey, Jr., to bring welcome earnestness and wit to McBeal and letting James Spader deploy his arsenal of smooth-smuggie mannerisms to great effect in the cast-decimated 2003 season of The Practice.
But sooner or later, Kelley always succumbs to the cute, the cutesy bizarre, the coyly controversial. He's like so many of his characters: a master of the fascinating come-on, he never goes all the way.CHAPTER 2
Jennifer Garner's Red Wig
The image that stuck in everyone's head after they saw the pilot of Alias was the hair that was stuck on Jennifer Garner's head: a flaming-red 'do that resonated with anyone who'd seen the movie Run Lola Run, and anyone else who had a pulse. Series creator J. J. Abrams is a young master at making comic-book imagery take on flesh-and-blood substance; at combining superheroics with soul-rattling emotion; of treating the TV screen as though it was a movie screen, filling it with color and action and the sound of clever chatter. The scenes we all loved in the pilot were the moments just after Garner's Sydney Bristow, a CIA double agent, has mourned the murder of her fiance. Abrams makes sure every sight, every sound, every gesture has a motive — it's what distinguishes him from an entire generation of young filmmakers who are big on visuals and short on storytelling skills. In this case, he has Sydney — now on the run from the baddies but also, simultaneously, running straight toward them to seek revenge — dyes her hair red to throw off her pursuers. It's a trick. Who'd seek out an exhibitionist, who swivels her pert bottom through a crowded airport, drawing stares for the way her crimson tresses waggle to the rhythm of her hips?
If the script says dye job, we know from seeing Garner in natural-brown-hair repose that this was a wig, and all the more blazingly erotic later on, when, shackled to a chair, tortured (pliers, teeth, blood), she and her hair flip themselves over in an impossibly thrilling move to land squarely on top of her torturer, turning the tables — er, chairs. It's what made Alias the most galvanizing new show of 2001.
Abrams had been deeply involved with hair before Alias.Asone of the creators of Felicity, he'd had to take some responsibility for the fact that when actress Keri Russell cut off her Titian curly locks, ratings dipped alarmingly. Hair may even have been on his mind when he cooked up the show that would make Jennifer Garner (a fleeting bit player on Felicity) a star: "One day I was in the Felicity writers' room," he told me. "And I said, sort of as a joke, 'The greatest thing would be if Felicity was recruited by the CIA, because then she could be going on these secret missions, living this life that she couldn't tell [her boyfriends] Ben or Noel about, dismantling bombs.' Of course that couldn't happen in Felicity, but it could be another show."
The daydream became Alias. "I had a lot of concerns about the tone of the show," Abrams says. "For it to work in a world of Charlie's Angels and Austin Powers, if the show was satire it would lower the stakes considerably. I also didn't want the show to be so self-serious that it became like you were laughing at it." He achieved it: no camp, real emotions. Well, some camp — once they heard and felt the response they got to the red wig, Abrams and his writers proceeded to use the spy excuse to put Garner in a weekly S&M fantasy outfit: rubber minidresses, too-small maid's uniforms, and what seemed like a different hair color every week, including shamrock green.
It's the red one that got things going, though. It symbolized both the passion and the fun that Alias was going to be. You could say that a series that came a season later, 24, must have been inspired by Alias — after all, 24 also features dense huggermugger plots, and its central figure, Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer, spends a lot of time,
like Garner's Sydney, bound and shackled. No one ever wants to see Kiefer Sutherland in a red wig — that's a one-way ticket to Bozoville. But everybody wants to see Sydney Bristow in a red wig.
Star Trek Sucks
It always sucked. In any of its various incarnations. NBC was right when, in 1969, after three seasons and poor ratings, it cancelled Gene Roddenberry's mush-brained, wooden-dialogued, sub — Rod Serling — style sci-fi parable for intergalactic equal rights and the inspiration for millions of idiot cultists wearing pointy "Spock" ears at comic-book conventions and in movie-theater lines. Damn syndication afterlife reruns! Pop culture never needed William Shatner, and it especially didn't need the "knowing," self-parodying Shatner he's become. All the spin-offs of Star Trek suck, too. Even Patrick Stewart, a decent but stiff and inexcusably peevish actor, who should get down on his knees and thank the God Show Business every day that he was cast in one of these career cash cows, because otherwise no one would be casting him in X-Men and his Christmas Carol one-man shows wouldn't be packin' 'em in. Really, if you want science fiction, read Tom Disch or Philip K. Dick. The last time I watched an entire episode of Star Trek was when I was in high school and Paula, a girl I had a crush on, liked to get stoned and watch Shatner-and-Nimoy-era Trek reruns. I thought it sucked even while I was stoned; my only other coherent thought was that Paula had beautiful hands.CHAPTER 3
Ricky Nelson Subverts Himself in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1964
Ricky Nelson married Kris Harmon in 1963. In keeping with the semirealism for which his father, Ozzie, the series' onscreen chuckling, doofy dad, former jazz bandleader and also the behind-the-scenes shrewdie producer-director, strove, Kris was immediately integrated into the series, just as older brother David's wife had been dragged onscreen a few years earlier. Everyone in the Nelson family not only earned a paycheck, they earned their SAG card.
Most of the time, Ozzie and Harriet (1952 — 1966) was as harmless and comfortable as a vintage Archie comic book, complete with "gee whiz!" exclamations from the boys, and a parade of Bettys and Veronicas slinking through episodes as the guys' malt-shop dates — yes, there was a permanent malt-shop set, built primarily to score easy food jokes off of the series' own Jughead, Rick's roly-poly best buddy, Wally, played by the delightfully weird, giggly Skip Young.
Things changed somewhat in the late '50s, when the real-life Ricky fell under the spell of Sun Records, New Orleans R&B, and Elvis Presley in particular. If Elvis was the Hillbilly Cat, Ricky was the Hollywood Kitten — he even hired Presley's guitarist, James Burton, to back him. Rick parlayed his rosebud-red lower lip, his vacant erotic gaze, and pleasantly flat voice into a hit single in '57 — a cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'." Ozzie, not so much of a jazz snob that he didn't recognize a good commercial thing, tacked a Ricky performance onto the end of an episode that aired that year having nothing to do with the plot. In essence, Ozzie Nelson helped invent the music video.
In the deceptively ordinary 1964 episode entitled "Kris Plays Cupid," Kris and her friend, Ginger (Charlene Salerno) plot to provoke Wally into proposing to Ginger. We get a wonderfully kitschy look at Ricky and Kristin's home: They eat dinner watching TV like zombies, seated at chairs into which are built trays to hold plates, like grown-up school desks. There's a lot of foolishness as Kristin and Ginger conspire to lure Wally into Ginger's grasp, this despite the fact that Wally has found a new blonde to date. The episode ends with another comic-book echo. Commenting blandly on Wally's actions, Ricky says to Kristin, "You know the old saying, variety is the spice of life," at which point Wifey actually picks up a frying pan and chases him out the door.
The story is over, but wait: Ricky, dressed in a suit and tie, his familiar guitar with his name embossed on its body, has appeared with his three-piece band to sing a song. It's business as usual, until you start listening to the lyric Nelson sings. A self-penned ditty called "A Happy Guy," it's a concise but rockin' little number in which Ricky disavows a 9-to-5 job and a white-picket-fence life, pronounces his disdain for wearing a businessman's suit and tie, and announces his true desire: "to pick up and go / Where the four winds blow," and that's why (and here he rounds his way into the choral title phrase), he's a happy guy.
Excerpted from Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy by Ken Tucker. Copyright © 2005 Ken Tucker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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