Sunday, April 30, 2006

TV Review: Without a Point

Wednesday morning at five o'clock as the day begins
Silently closing her bedroom door
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more
She goes downstairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief
Quietly turning the backdoor key
Stepping outside she is free.

The Beatles set it all so clearly, so dramatically. (In "She's Leaving Home" off Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.) CBS' Without a Trace can't get Lennon & McCartney, but could they get some real writers? (Probably not. Writers don't like constantly having to incorporate "elements" and this is a Jerry Bruckheimer show.)

Without a Trace plays like Without a Point.

Big picture: the show is about the FBI hunting down missing persons. This being TV there is "closure."

Thursday night, watching the show from start to finish, if you had the stomach for it, you may have been left to wonder, "Why bother?" But missing isn't the thrust of the show. It really has as much do with missing persons as the Ben Affleck-Josh Hartnett Pearl Harbor had to do with Pearl Harbor.

What the show has to do with is office banter that strives for the machismo high of the Top Gun locker room scenes but never gets there. So you have a dead rat being used to tease a co-worker, you have a lot of low key "Sez you!" moments. What else? You got the soap/sap element. The only thing resembling an actual plot in the episode.

Anthony LaPaglia stars as Jack Malone. If you're remembering the strong chemistry he had with Ally Sheedy in Betsy's Wedding, let us set you clear: since then his talent has shrunk while his physical being has expaneded horizontally. Gravely mumbles appear to be all that remains from what was a promising early career. Possibly he's saving the real acting for a Fraiser reunion special?

Jack Malone's divorced. His wife has moved on. Though he's dating, he can't bring himself to remove his wedding band. (His youngest daughter will do it for him this episode.) Jack's dating Special Agent Anne Cassidy. Though FBI, she apparently didn't get the office dress code memo which might explain why she's wearing a see through blouse to work. That's the least of the actress' problems.

Cassidy is played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. MEM can act. That's never been a problem for her. She's just never been able to catch a break. People thought she had when she won the role in Class Action opposite Gene Hackman. Another actress wanted that role very badly. So badly that she phoned newly installed 20th Century Fox head Joe Roth to personally campaign for the role. She lost the role to MEM. It might have seemed as though MEM's luck was finally changing but, although MEM got the role, Julia Roberts, the other actress, landed the career. Which is why Roberts is on Broadway currently and MEM has a reoccuring role on this piece of crap.

Making the best of a bad situation, which has long been MEM's M.O., the performance isn't phoned in. But there's only so much she can do opposite an actor who seems content to deliver every line in the same manner while occassionaly widening his eyes for a close ups.

How talented is MEM? Her performance is a performance. Badly written dialogue doesn't stop her. She crafts it to the character and makes an awkwardly written phrase into an awkward moment for Anne Cassidy. When the script reads "Anne enters the room," she does that acknowledging the other characters and fully aware that we're supposed to think this is real life.
It's a point lost on the writers, but it is reality. For example, in real life, people don't walk into a room, ignoring everyone they walk past, focus on on one person, and say, "Let me tell you about my day." Nor do they greet one another over and over with verbalized plot twists. (Writers for Without a Trace should be taking notes.)

If MEM had more scenes (she only has two), we could probably work up a half-way decent review. She's that good. She always has been. Law of averages, at some point she'll catch a break. We don't see it happening on this show.

Mainly because nothing happens on this show. This week's missing person? Kelly Murphy. By the end, she'll be ready to return to her family. If we seem blah, it's not that we're heartless. (Although we have been accused of that, so feel free.) It's just the show's so busy laying on the twists and turns that they somehow forgot the audience needs to care.

Should Kelly Murphy be reunited with her family? She's fifteen. So you may think yes. First, you're told about her brother Jason. He killed himself. Jason, like Kelly, was an ice skater. Reaching for the tissues? Their father, Pete Murphy, is their coach. Jason killed himself in a road rage episode brought on by 'roid rage (don't say Bruckheimer doesn't pay attention to tired topics!). Pete's a little intense and we see him and Joanie (Kelly's mother) at the rink with him snarling at Kelly for a bad showing in a competition.

It gets worse. Kelly's tired of skating. She doesn't want to skate anymore. She's been on steroids too, we learn later, and her deceased brother supplied her with them. She has a boyfriend who is apparently so in love with her that when the 'roids pusher wants to scare Kelly, the boyfriend's the perfect person for him to get to hang a dead (and headless) rat in her locker. (In one of the many office scenese revolving around the dead rat, writers and cast will "cute" it up by naming the rat "Binky.") So her father's pushing her to skate and she doesn't want to. Her brother's dead. Her boyfriend is willing to help intimidate her. Is this really the environment she needs to return to?

Before you answer, let's talk Joanie Murphy, the mother. All the scenes with Kelly, until the final one, are played in flashback. A character gets questioned and it's flashback time. Now you never see another side of Kelly, that's never the point. This isn't Rashomon, it's bad TV. So the point is to give the character being questioned a chance to play "I've Got a Secret." Joanie has a doozy of one.

In the flashback she narrates, she's in Kelly's room when her daughter walks in -- Joanie's caught with her hand in a drawer. What's she doing? She's taking $400 dollars from her daughter. What's a fifteen-year-old doing with $400 dollars in her drawer? We have no idea and we doubt the writers do either. But they probably tossed around numbers until they could all agree on that sum.

Joanie reveals that she's been shoplifting from a store since the death of her son Jason. The store won't press charges if she pays for the items. (Apparently, they don't want the merchandise back.) How much does she owe? A thousand dollars.

How much weight can they throw on one fifteen-year-old girl's shoulders? A bit more, actually. But let's stay with this scene to note that the writers have no clue. Joanie reveals that she stole, from the store, because of her grief over the death of her son. Now she's wised up. Does anyone think that attempting to steal $400 from her daughter demonstrates that?

Is it any wonder that Kelly wants to get away from her family?

How badly? One older man, whom they think she's pregnant by, gets cornered by the FBI. "Pregnant by?" Kelly's computer "log" shows that she had searched Planned Parenthood and the Council on Teenage Pregnancy. When the 'roid's dealer had his turn at "Here's What Happened," he explained that Kelly tried to blackmail him for $2,000. So, among the FBI agents, there's chatter that she may be pregnant. Apparently, you only go to those sites if you're pregnant. (Get us an EPT pronto!) No one ever mentions, for instance, that she might have a class assignment that required research.

Whatever she was doing there, she's not pregnant. Is she having an affair with this older man that she meets at his hotel? No. He's starting an athletic camp. They've spoken of her going to it. When he saw her, she showed up alone, desparate to leave right then for the camp. He wanted to talk to her parents, while she insisted they'd given permission for her to go. When he persisted, she said, if it was about money, they could work out a payment plan or maybe pay in other ways (as she stroked his hand and looked at him suggestively). He exploded at her and she left.

Where did she go? You don't have to wonder long. Dad Pete's ready for his go at "I've Got A Secret." He saw Kelly. While the FBI was looking for her. Looking for her because her parents had reported her missing. Kelly came to him to tell him that she was done with skating. She told him of (and showed him) a note her brother Jason had written. Her father dismissed it as "just words on paper." (Well, isn't that what most notes are?) She said it was proof that the car accident was no accident, that her brother intended to kill himself. (Why? We're not told. Nor is the note ever quoted.)

So there's Pete reunited with his daughter. The one he called the FBI to find. What does he do?
Throws her out. Tells her to get out. "Go!"

Which she does and, around this layer of pathos, we're pretty sure most of the audience still awake is wondering why she should get back with her family? Dad Pete, apparently not on 'roids, has rage issues. Mom's a thief whose recovery apparently includes stealing from her daughter. Her boyfriend's part of a scheme to frighten her. She no longer wants to skate. What, really, is there to go back to?

But the FBI tracks her down. Fortunately, a character tells the audience, "Her parents talked about this pond, this pond where her brother taught her to skate. Somewhere out in White Plains." It was really nice for the character to give out that information because the audience was never shown the parents talking about it.

That's the sort of short cut that's a hallmark of a Bruckheimer show. So they find her. She's thrown her skates into the pond. That's what her brother, she tells the FBI, would have wanted her to do. She and an FBI agent sit by the pond, in the dark, staring.

Someone thought it was a plot.

The cast? Eric Close is this decade's Pat Boone. (Which is why, even 'nude,' for broadcast TV, he couldn't find stardom in Now and Again.) Other than guest star MEM, there's no one worth noting. We'd blame all the actors but there's little actual acting on any show from the Bruckmeister, so who's to know how to divy up the blame fairly?

Can you act without anything resembling a script? MEM does but she's been doing miracles for years. At some point, we keep thinking audiences have to rebel against this present/flashback, And-Then-What-Happened structure. But this is CBS and rebellion for the majority of their audience is going to bed without their daily bran intake. "Honey, let's live dangerously!"

They play it just as safe when they turn to a Jerry Bruckheimer show that offers what passes for flash and no meat. Near the end of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, Mrs. Yepanchin says, "We've had enough of being carried away by our enthusiasms. It's high time we grew sensible." Watching the Bruckmeister's various franchises, we couldn't agree more.
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