Sunday, March 04, 2007

TV: In Case of Emergency, Laugh!

The punchline that started around 1987 and had a strong run throughout the 90s was "Watching Mary Page Keller." That was the response to, "What are you doing this weekend?" It was a running bit in some circles (not unlike the game of "If I had a Geffen . . ."). It was never a judgement of Page Keller's talents (she was often quite good). It was, however, a way of noting that she was in a number of shows that tanked. It started with Duets, continued through the likes of Baby Talk and began to refer to even her guest episodes. We bring it up because we hope that's not about to be the fate of Lori Loughlin.

Around the time Loughlin was becoming an audience favorite as Nicole's kid sister Jody on The Edge of Night, Page Keller was drawing some attention as Sally Frame on Another World. It's around the same period that Meg Ryan was an audience favorite as Betsy on As The World Turns and Demi Moore was one as Jackie on General Hospital. So it's easy to look at Page Keller's career, in comparison, and wonder what happened? But the reality is Janine Turner was a minor nobody on General Hospital around the same time, and who's seen her lately? Better question, who's missed her?

The point is, it takes a lot of work to make a post-soap career. (That reality may be why Susan Lucci's elected to remain with All My Children for over thirty-five years.) Lori Loughlin's got it. But can she get a hit?

Full House gave her one and she gave adult viewers of that show something to do besides groan. During that time and since, she's done enough women in crisis telefilms to fill a Lifetime marathon and numerous guest spots on sitcoms and dramas. Most of all she's done two series that should have brought her more attention than they did.

One was a sitcom, Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central) in which she played "Lori Loughlin" (a sitcom version of the famous actress, she wasn't playing herself) and did some outstanding work but, for some used to Rebecca on Full House, "Lori" may have been too much for them. A real shame because she really put herself out there in that role.

The other was a WB series and, along with giving a strong performance, her chief crime that led to the show's cancellation was her refusal (as star and producer) to make the standard body wash operetta all the netlets were offering then (UPN had One Tree Hill, Fox had The O.C.). The show was Summerland and, not only was it watchable, it was enjoyable. But it existed in a world where there were people of color and, on a soundstage, where there were actors of talent.

Now she's back on ABC (Edge of Night, Full House and Wednesday 9:30 et al aired on ABC) in a new sitcom called In Case Of Emergency that the Water Cooler Set sneered at as they deployed their deathly prose-praise to prop up the really disgusting The Knights of Prosperity.

How bad do you have to be to be slammed while trash is praised?

If that was your question, you still haven't grasped the Water Cooler Set. They're not interested in being entertained (or in facts, we're still laughing at a DVD review of Family Ties that shouldn't have passed a basic fact check). They need a show that provides them with room to pontificate and look trendy.

So In Case Of Emergency got snubbed because it's actually entertaining. Loughlin plays doctor
Joanna Lupone. The role could be a step backwards, but she's utilizing some of the freedom she explored in her last two series to provide quirks to the "Dream Girl" role and hitting some of the unexpected notes that made Rachel (played by Jennifer Aniston) so enjoyable on Friends.

Louglin's character is pursued/lusted after by David Arquette's Jason Ventress. Arquette has his own charm that you either like or you don't (we like) but it succeeds best when he's paired with a strong actress (such as opposite Courtney Cox-Arquette in the Scream films) so he's lucky to be opposite Loughin in this show as his character works off some community service hours at the hospital.

The main locale for the show is Harry Kennison's house. Kennison, played by Jonathan Silverman, lives there with his son Dylan (Harry's a single father) and more recently, friends from school, Jason, Sherman (Greg Germann) and Kelly (Kelly Hu). Jason worked at his uncle's company prior to its Enron-like meltdown. Sherman's a semi-famous self-help guru whose wife walked out on him. Kelly, the valedictorian of their high school, now works at a massage parlor (in the seediest sense -- what Frank assumed sister Phoebe did on Friends). All four have hit their first bump in life and the 'emerency' leads them to re-bond.

Germann's Sherman is prone to binges -- binge eating, binge spending and binge crying over the fact that his wife left him. For those who remember his Richard Fish on Ally McBeal and, have caught that show's Peter MacNicol's caricatured and overdone performance on NUMB3ERS, never fear -- Germann's created a character and not a psych case study. That may be a surprise because Sherman is a basket case, but the performance is grounded.

Kelly Hu became the first Asian-American Miss Teen USA in 1985. Since then, she's had to make her way in the world of entertainment. Her character, Kelly Lee, is an achiever who hasn't had the breaks and reunites with Harry in the first episode when they have sex during his "massage." The hooker with the heart of gold? Hu's too talented to play a stereotype and, fortunately, the writers have grasped that. Instead, Kelly's wounded like all the leads but also the most realistic.

Which brings us to Harry. We've never enjoyed Jonathan Silverman. We didn't care for his character on Gimmie A Break, we didn't care for his lead character in The Single Guy, we didn't care for his film work (including starring in the Weekend At Bernie's films), so our initial reaction to reviewing this show before it aired was, "We'll take a pass." But friends with it kept insisting so we gave it a chance. Silverman has always struck us a guy who is average enough to not threaten (male) network exec's (or Neil Simon) and got cast often for that reason and that reason only.

So one of our biggest surprises was the fact that we enjoy Silverman as Harry. He's very good. And that's partly the writing and partly the fact that Silverman's found a role he can excell in. (And, we're sure, also the benefit of many years of acting.) Harry's a less aware cousin of the character Jason Bateman played so well on Arrested Development. He spends the majority of his time caring for others which usually allows him to avoid addressing his own problems.

This can lead to some zany comedic highs such as multiple scenes with Hu and, more recently, some hilarious scenes with Jane Seymour as Donna Ventress, mother of Jason. Seymour demonstrated her strong flair for comedy (and will do so again on the episode set to air March 14th) as she seduced her son's best friend whose discomfort only aroused her more. In that storyline, Silverman had a lot to convey, often with little or no dialogue (and no "on the nose" dialogue) and probably hit one of his best moments when he volunteered to tell Donna her brother had died again. There was what his character was saying and what his character was thinking. In under twenty seconds, Silverman got it all across.

So you've got a strongly written show, a strongly cast show, one that produces actual laughs (often in unexpected places -- such as Loughlin's perverse expressions during a Barbi memory) and the Water Cooler Set sneered. Are we surprised?

The same set that pushes dull as an intentional sardonic commentary has lost the ability to appreciate real laughter. If you haven't, if you've watched the bulk of so-called sitcom offerings on display this year and longed for a show that could bring back the giddy highs that were once NBC's Thursday nights (highs only 30 Rock currently achieves), this is a sitcom for you. And if there are enough of you out there, Loughlin's got a well earned hit. If not, she'll move on to another project and be fine. The real concern is what this will mean for the immediate future of sitcoms. The standard used to be that you had to be funny. When the Water Cooler Set works themselves into self-amused laughter over whimsy or stoops to praising the tired proceedings on King Of Queens (as The New York Times recently did), it's completely up to the television viewer, at this point, to save the sitcom.
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