Sunday, December 17, 2006

TV: What About Rosanna?

Last week, we (Ava and C.I.) noted the failure of any new era of acting to take hold. Ty summarized five e-mails that disagreed with that. They didn't disprove that (we'd been happy if they had). They noted an actor or actress. There are many wonderful actors and actresses but there is no new era.

Sean Penn didn't come up in the five e-mails which surprised us because he's one of the best actors working today and he explores avenues that don't lead to vehicles. Penn hails from a crowd that could have helped create a new era but the sad fact is that there weren't many actors among that crowd. Tom Cruise has . . . cruised through one vehicle after another to the point that when he actually attempts to play a character the advance on it is like a Garbo ad: Tom Acts! After Penn, the only one who went the art route was Emilo Estevez.

The rest pursued one vehicle after another with their bad acting on display in a desperate bid for success. Well, not everyone took that 'approach.' One on the edges thought he could sleep his way to stardom -- didn't quite work out that way.

The Penn crowd (we'll avoid using the term ___ Pack) had males firing blanks, but the women were something amazing to see. Of all of them, only Demi Moore still has a film career that interests the studios. That's a real shame because, while we think she's much more talented than she's ever been given credit for, we're also aware that she was far from alone. Elizabeth McGovern gave some amazing performances. Ally Sheedy had a fearlessness you rarely come across. And of course, there's Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Any beliefs that a new acting era took hold end with JJL. The bravery, the brava, of her performances can't be constrained in vehicles (see Backdraft or Road to Perdition), they need space for art (see just about anything else). While the actors came off like they were doing one screen test after another for TV Dad, the women were amazing.

One of those women was Rosanna Arquette. With the TV miniseries The Executioner's Song, she gave the sort of performance that, in better days, would have led to a string of films. The clue to why that didn't happen may have been revealed unintentionally in a Rolling Stone profile where the (male) writer couldn't shut up about how the European version included nudity. Yes, Rosanna Arquette has breasts. That's really not what created an amazing performance.

In Baby It's You, she demonstrated that her abilities weren't confined to the mini-series genre.
But she was up against the same thing that women of her generation were -- the backlash. Too young to be the middle aged "bitch" or the "happy wife," there were no roles for them. The Slugger's Wife, seen today, is junk, garbage and any other negative judgement you want to apply to it, but the reason every actress under 35 wanted the lead in that film (Rebecca De Mornay landed the role and did better than most could have) was because there were so few roles written for young women. You could be the girlfriend in a vehicle and not a great deal more.

One of Arquette's films started a craze that didn't benefit actresses. Desperately Seeking Susan (which Arquette did all the acting in) deluded many into thinking (a) Madonna could act and (b) there was a market for pop tarts. This led to many studios wasting time and money on far too many films (that never got made) that would star, for instance, a Tiffany or a Debbie Gibson while the actual actresses stood around wondering exactly when it was going to be their turn? Arquette's career was hurt further by her involvement in Radio Flyer which started out one thing, sucked up everyone's time, then was reshot (with new actors) and bombed in its watered down version far worse than the original could have.

Despite all of that, Arquette's always made an impression. Like Jennifer Jason Leigh, she usually has to do it outside the studio system. After Hours, Pulp Fiction, New York Stories can stand with Baby It's You and remind you just how amazing she is. Studio fare? In vehicles like Nowhere to Run and Hope Floats, she's given far more than they deserved, and avoided embarrassing herself, cementing a respect in the industry that, unfortunately, hasn't translated to the roles she deserves.

What does any of this have to do with TV? Arquette is a regular on TV now. You may not know that. Many don't. Her show's in the second season and hopes that TV would give Arquette the break films refused to vanished before the series premiered.

The show's title is What About Brian? and every bad thing we heard about it last year, before it started airing, turned out to be true. It was, honestly, unwatchable last year (and audiences took note). We like Arquette, we know her, even so we couldn't sit through that crap.

A friend who's writing for the show asked us to take another look this fall and we did.

It's actually better. That's largely due to the fact that Arquette's been given the space to create. Her character, Nicole, also has a storyline. But before that happened, we were impressed enough with one scene, Arquette solo, dancing, that we agreed we'd review it but told our friend, "You're not going to like the review."

The biggest problem with the show, a problem ABC realized only after shooting started, is that Barry Watson is not good looking enough to get by on that. He can't act. It's the same non-performance he gave on 7th Heaven, it's the same non-performance that sunk Teaching Mrs. Tingle. He is the worst actor working on television today and that is saying quite a lot.

It probably doesn't help that his generic line readings and attempts to stare soulfully for the camera have "The WB" stamped all over them. At 32, he's too damn old to be thinking that teenage girls and boys are going to swoon over him and that will translate to a career. What it has translated to is a show that no one watches because he's not just playing a character on the show, he's playing "Brian" -- a wisp of a boy -- and the show's title is What About Brian? The audience has already loudly responded, "Who gives a shit."

Before the show went on air last spring, ABC suits talked about recasting or maybe having him cut his hair. (He needs to cut that hair but it won't make for a better performance.) In the end, they did nothing and audiences couldn't take the stink.

Last spring, America was supposed to give a damn (but didn't) about the triangle of Brian, Sarah and Adam. Adam's played by Matthew Davis and he's the only one of the three that bothered to act and sparked any audience interest. Sarah is, unfortunately, still played by Marjorie Seaver who appears to believe she's still on Saved By The Bell: The Next Generation. If there's anything worse than achieving 'fame' via Saved By The Bell, it's not-achieving it via the lame update. How this woman was cast as the romantic lead in a drama is beyond us -- she can't act and she's quite frightening to look at.

But audiences were supposed to be caught in Sarah's drama of "Should I go ahead and marry Adam or should I get back together with Brian?" This year, the powers that be have accepted that no one cares about Sarah and that audiences do not like Seaver. The triangle went bust when Davis got a lap dance (Adam is now married to the lap dancer). Now Seaver lingers in the background like Maggie Wheeler when ABC decided to turn These Friends of Mine into Ellen.

That's actually what ABC should do now. They should change the title of the show immediately and give Watson and Seaver parting gifts as they move on to the next project someone's idiot enough to hire them for.

Instead, Seaver's sidelined and they're hoping that William Devane, as Brian's father, can somehow make Watson appear to be a man and not the faded teeny bopper he is. It's not going to work and when the audience gets stuck with those scenes of Brian working for "Dad" and trying to hit big on the sales board, they're left to wonder what year this is supposed to be?

Matthew Davis, who was the actor the suits weren't sure of, may not be the world's best actor, but he's nailed the character of Adam and the only sour notes he hits now is when it's time for Adam and Brian to have one of those soulful scenes that reminds the audience how Watson is supposed to be the star of the show. Adam, an attorney, is with Summer, the exotic dancer, and the scenes are tailor made for the performance he gave in Legally Blonde. That's not an insult. That is to note that the writers have grasped his strengths. Davis could walk through the scenes, he's done them before, so he could Barry-Watson-it and just bank the check, but he's finding darker moments (and, in one instance, lighter moments) that make him one to watch in the future.

What's the future for What About Brian? Not very good. ABC was never sure if they wanted a prime time soap/trash or a quality drama along the lines of Family. (This indecision explains how non-actor Watson was cast in the first place.)

While decisions were being postponed, Rick Gomez and Amanda Detmer, as the now seperated couple Dave and Deena, left their intended second banana slots.. They did that by providing more heat than Sarah and Brian. They didn't get the 'drama' of running out on your own wedding (Sarah) or the non-stop close ups (Watson), but they proved that well acted characters could interest audiences. With Davis, Gomez and Detmer, there are the building blocks for a strong weekly hour of television.

Arquette? Nicole's now widowed. Last spring, she was married and pregnant. This year, she's just pregnant. Even before the funeral, we saw the soap line coming (her late husband may have had an affair). We shuddered fearing what she'd be saddled with. Wisely, the writers realized that when you have Arquette, you don't need to add on a great deal more. There was no need for Arquette to tell the audience what Nicole was going through, no need for a lot of bad dialogue junking up the scenes. Just point the camera at Arquette and get out of her way.

The generation that came of age between WWI and the Depression is often termed "The Lost Generation." We think that term applies to the young actresses of the eighties as well. Films never saw them as leading ladies, only arm pieces. It would be a real shame if, all this time later, even television couldn't provide them with the showcases their talents deserve. We've read several scripts and still marvel over, for instance, Rosanna Arquette's scene where Nicole is on the phone. What's on the screen, what comes through, is not on the page.

Giving her room to breathe has made What About Brian? watchable. Tossing to Davis, Gomez and Detmer has vastly improved the show. But unless ABC has the guts to follow through with the idea they flirted with before the show ever aired (firing Watson), Rosanna Arquette's doomed yet again to give an amazing performance in something that she's so far above.
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