Sunday, April 02, 2006

TV Review: What happens on Vegas will bore you to tears

NBC's train wreck of a Friday night now features Las Vegas (recently moved over from Mondays). Sandwiched between Conviction and Dateline, it has to score points on the "by comparison" scale at least. Right?

Wrong. The motto of the city these days is "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." What happens on Las Vegas? Men do a lot of staring, women do a lot of nothing. Who would have thought a show about Sin City could be so dull?

It probably doesn't help that the show stars former soap personality & internet nude fave Josh Duhamel -- or that it frequently guest stars Cheryl Ladd. Duhamel seems to think that his out of control hair adds an element to his otherwise bland characterization. Well we all have our self-delusions. Cheryl Ladd, with dyed dark hair, plays the role so many accused of her living in the pre-Charlie's Angels days -- dull appendage to an important man. To say that she doesn't appear to be stretching may be an understatement.

Friday night, she mispronounced "booty" (making everyone watching wonder exactly how old she was supposed to be -- the dark hair has aged her). It's not as though the word is unfamiliar to someone her age. Or maybe her character is supposed to have missed the whole shake-shake-shake-shake-your-booty disco phase/craze of the seventies? Possibly the character instead spent her time singing background vocals on recordings of a Saturday animated cartoon?

When not offering her daughter 'pearls of wisdom' (yes, she honestly told her adult daughter that no man would buy "the cow" if he could get the milk for free), she also whined a great deal about the state of her marriage and made a lot of Harriet Nelson faces ("Oh, Ozzie!") as her onscreen husband left her (repeatedly -- and we don't blame him) to rush back to work. Her work won't shock anyone (the way some gasped when first seeing Poison Ivy) but the sparkle from Charlie's Angels is gone (as is the kitsch of One West Waikiki). Though the performance is nothing like the strong contribution she made to a television film, we couldn't help thinking that the title of that TV movie summed up the current state of her career: When She Was Bad.

She is very, very bad. That's all the more obvious since she's paired with Caan who actually attempts to turn in a performance. Duhamel doesn't. He seems to have grasped that this show is nothing but a landlocked Love Boat. (We saw this show in the eighties, it was called Hotel.) So he moves around a great deal, scrunches his forehead even more and seems about as interesting as a stick of butter (not being used by Marlon Brando).

His character? Well his prototype, at any rate. Exactly what decade is he supposed to be living in? Like Ladd's character, his Danny McCoy seems to be occupying a time space other than current day. There's a subplot (the whole show seems to be about subplots) where he and Mike Cannon (James Lesure) pose for a charity calendar. Rumor is a scene was in the script that was supposed to provide those in the audiences who want to Do-A-Male named Duhamel with a flesh scene as he posed shirtless but he nixed it out of weight concerns. True or not, after all the build up to the photo shoot and all the talk that goes on after, it's glaringly obvious that a scene is missing (either due to writing or due to an actor, who has a tendency to bloat, not wanting to film it).

But offscreen, he poses for the calendar. Wearing the promise of nothing but a pair of 'patriotic' shorts. (Danny's supposed to be Mr. July.) After the photo shoot? That's where the audience comes back in, after. Danny learns the apparently shocking news that some males might want to gaze at the photo while they fantasize that they could Do-A-Male. That doesn't just shock him, it creeps him out.

This is the sort of homosexual panic that hasn't been seen since another Danny first learned that his brother (Jody) was gay on SOAP in the late seventies. And it's not one scene. It's the thrust, so to speak, of the subplot. Danny and Mike fret. They worry when some of the women laugh. They get "ribbed" about it (although what Caan's Ed DeLine says to Mike goes beyond 'ribbing' and is actually the sort of thing that should lead to an official work place complaint). Danny and Alex worry how many calendars will be produced, speak (repeatedly) of their embarrassment.
Let's clear something up that may not have occurred to Danny or the writers, some man fantasizing about Danny doesn't make Danny gay.

But instead of focusing on the robberies in the residential suites (hotel lingo for suites set up for long term guest), the thing that Caan's character is obsessing over and walking out on Cheryl Ladd repeatedly as a result (well, that and her bad acting probably have him running for the door), Danny and Mike just focus on the calendar. How can they stop it! Finally, they decide to write a check for $5,000 and buy up all the copies. (All five hundred.) But the thing is, as the show stumbles through the last lap, they didn't get them all. Female employees of the hotel wave them around. (The only time that the audience gets to see the actual photos -- blink and you'll miss it but, if you don't, notice that unlike Lesure, Duhamel ends up wearing a t-shirt as well as shorts. Men wear far less on the beach. But this was the photo that launched the panic.)

It was all so lame, so backwards and so offensive. Made all the more so by a guest (you know the hotel has to have guests) who's a photographer and also what some would term a "flamer."
He's busy figuring out how to get bellboy Henry to touch him. (A shoulder and neck massage appear to be the answer.) He's flitting all over the place, screeching and sneering at the staff (except for Henry -- he whines to Henry). Remember the robberies? It's okay if you forgot, Lesure and Duhamel's characters frequently seem to forget them.

But in a moment when they are briefly focused, Lesure and Duhamel interrogate this guest who's at the hotel to photograph the residential suites. They don't fail to show how creeped out they are by his "flaming." They work at a hotel in Vegas and they can't handle being around a gay man? Do they go into hiding when Cher brings her lounge act with dancing boys into town?

It's not the photographer. He's not the robber. (In what must be an homage to Helen Hayes' exit scene in Airport, the photographer exits the hotel on a gurney after consuming bad shrimp.)
So the average TV viewer is probably thinking the thief must be guest star Robert Wagner (of It Takes A . . . fame and Hart to Hart). It's not Wagner. It's an actor who the audience sees in one scene prior to his being busted. Las Vegas can't even handle cliches well.

Robert Wagner was a pretty boy back in the day. In fact, in his youth, he was one of the most handsome men in the entertainment world. But unlike many of his pretty boy peers, he actually had talent. He still does. It's a small screen talent, and one suited for light comedy roles in film, but it's talent and it's not to be sneered at. In all of his too brief scenes, he demonstrates that he didn't win over audiences as the lead in repeated TV series on looks alone. It's a lesson Duhamel should learn. Quickly.

Wagner and Caan connect onscreen, even though they are saddled with hideous dialogue. (Caan's toast line, rumored to have been authored by Caan, raised the level somewhat). Wagner also connects with Nikki Cox who is the only one on the show other than Caan who turns in a performance. As written, Cox's Mary Connell does nothing. She follows the photographer around, she's one of three women who tease (repeatedly) Lasure and Duhamel about the calendar. The writers don't appear to be interested in the character of Mary which is a real shame because Cox not only has the talent to connect with the audience, she uses it. (We won't say "wisely" because no one using it "wisely" would be on this show.)

She was onscreen (with no real storyline) a bit more than Vanessa Marcil who people continue to mistake for a star. (Julia Ormond was mistaken for a star in the 90s -- Marcil connects with the audiences about as well as Ormond did.) Marcil's storyline? She's the one who informs the boys that gay males look at the calendar. She's also looked at the calendar in the past herself so how the calendar suddenly becomes billed, repeatedly, as a "gay calendar" is anyone's guess. Possibly, along with Christmas and other holidays, it notes Liberace's birthday?

Marcil would be smart to show up more rested on the set (there are those rumors again) because when all you have to offer is your looks, and they aren't that great to begin with, you need to work twice as hard to pull off "pretty."

Molly Simms appears to be attempting to pull off an imitation of Sandra Bullock. She fails. Her big scene is with her mother (Ladd) who advises her (yes, let's toss it in again) that men don't buy "the cow" when they can get the milk for free. This is during a golf game between mother and daughter and when Simms scores, she does a little dance that immediately demonstrates 'twas not 'free love' that left "the cow" unbought.

That grace-free moment may be missed by viewers intent on watching how hard Ladd works to avoid squinting or moving a facial muscle while being shot in (heavily filtered) sunlight. By the time Simms' starts dancing, even an actress intent on providing no facial evidence of age can't help but grimace. (Ladd looks like a modern day Jane Wyman when she grimaces -- too bad she can't act as well as Wyman.)

And that's the billed cast. Who would have guessed that a non-Charles Nelson Reilly and non-Charo guest-starring television episode could repeatedly serve up so much bad acting? It makes Hotel, in retrospect, look like an Actors' Studio production.

Caan's character doesn't live at the hotel (he and Ladd have a house). But then it doesn't seem like anyone does. Bit players show up at the beginning for a big scene only to never be seen again. Worse yet, for the tourism industry as well as the audience, other than Caan and Cox, no one on the show seems to be living either.

The boys (Duhamel and Lasure) spend a lot of time craning their necks as women walk off. They never do anything about it other than share a we're-so-naughty glance. Marcil storms in and out of scenes in a manner she hopes is very Joan Collins but instead comes off like "Peanuts, get your red hot peanuts!" Caan's stuck acting opposite brick walls with the exception of his time onscreen with Wagner. Cox also has a wonderful moment with Wagner. Her character mentions that she's going to be interviewed and Duhamel is apparently attempting to figure out how many calories a reaction shot will consume which leaves Wagner to fill the screen (which he does wonderfully). Cox's reaction is completely in character and you're thankful, for once, that the writers haven't given her lines.

Because the only thing standing out, other than the the lousy acting, is the bad writing. It's not just the dialogue, it's the entire script. There's no forward motion. When the man who has been burglarizing the suites is revealed, it's meaningless because there's been no attempt to interest the audience in the storyline and with one tiny scene prior to being i.d.ed, the audience has no investment in the character.

By the end of the episode, you have to remind yourself that the series is set in Las Vegas and not Duluth. In Vegas, maybe a nude calendar (the subplot that took up the most time) would cause some panic, but a calendar where a guy's wearing a t-shirt and shorts wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

Neither does the show. In English, Las Vegas translates as "the fertile plain." On TV, it translates as the barren field. Apparently what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas because, if this show's to be believed, nothing much ever happens. Certainly nothing worth sharing.
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