Sunday, March 25, 2007

TV: "She's been dead for 10 years!"

NBC offers a lot of nostalgia. If it weren't for the Bruckheimer franchise, they'd beat out CBS for network most looking backward. So watching Thursday night's Raines, we weren't at all surprised by the nagivation of old waters.

If you're a Friends fan, you may remember season five, "The One With Joey's Big Break." In that episode, Joey's landed a role in an independent film that he just knows will make millions because his character falls in love with a woman only to learn "She's been dead for 10 years."

That's how "Meet Juan Doe" played out. Raines is a police investigator and the episode climax was when he explained to guest star A Martinez that the "Juan Doe" Martinez shot, thinking "Juan Doe" was a a hit man, was actually A Martinez' son! The whole thing had a "She's been dead for 10 years!" feel to it.

Jeff Goldblum's the star -- which doesn't happen very often these days. He plays Michael Raines, a cop whose partner died and he's been haunted with flashes of death ever since. This is supposed to play like "visions" and people are supposed to think he's crazy. Those who remember the first season of Crossing Jordan when Jordan used to talk through/re-enact murders with her father to solve the case or, for that matter, any season of Profiler, will wonder about the "crazy" part?

What Raines appears to do is to have a conversation with his subconscious which manifests itself in the form of which ever victim of the week. At one point, in last week's show, it would be really helpful if Raines could speak Spanish. Were these really visions, Juan Doe could have fed him what to say. Instead, Juan Doe offers up the only line Raines remembers from two years of high school Spanish.

We're not arguing that he's the sanest person in the world, but his "visions," such as they are, are psychologically rooted. It's actually a variation on Columbo reconstructing the crime. The show suceeds or fails on how much interest there is in learning about the victim -- as opposed to solving the crime. For some viewers, this may all feel a bit too "special episode"ish.

The show's going to rise or fall based on how much time they give Madeleine Stowe's character. There are a number of reasons for that including, most obvious, she's playing the police psycholgist that Raines is seeing. Another obvious reason is that this is Stowe. Stowe's a strong actress, true, but her best moments have consistently been the moments not in the scripts. In Short Cuts (her finest performance), it's not the dialogue, it's the bits she came up with while inhabiting her character. That's true of all her performances, including the awful Unlawful Entry which she brings alive when the camera's anywhere near her. In Stowe, the show's very lucky to have an actress who's not of the Recite and Rote school. But on the three episodes we've seen, she's been wasted and seems to largely exist as the Captain Harold Dobey to Goldblum's Starsky & Hutch.

Goldblum's not a bad actor. He is an actor that shades and goes inner. There is honestly no way to build a successful TV show around just that. He can be part of a mix, he can be part of a team, but Goldblum solo lacks the intensity to pull in viewers. The casting of Stowe could have fixed that if everyone behind the camera grasped the problem. In Tenspeed and Brownshoe (which ABC toyed with years and years ago), he was the reactor, to Ben Vereen, over and over. He does it very well. But that's second banana or ensemble material. It's not anything that pulls an audience in.

Richard Gere, who is a complete opposite in every other way, also has that problem. That's why a match up with Debra Winger or Julia Roberts results in sparks and box office, but Gere carrying it all on his shoulders leads to his 'dancing' roles (King David and Mr. Jones) that send audiences running from the multi-plexes. There's no revelry in those characters because Gere is too inward to put it across convincingly. He needs a different type to bump up against (Edward Norton is another example of an outward actor, it doesn't have to be a female).

Watching Goldblum squint a great deal through three episodes, we were especially reminded of Gere -- both actors, through their eyes, convey a reluctance of their characters to engage with the world around them.

The show moves to Fridays this week and we'll note there are a plethora of worse programs you can watch on Fridays. The problems that exist most likely will not get fixed. That's because NBC was unsure of the show before they started airing it. For basic cable, it would probably be a treat. For network television, it's just too bland and lifeless. It's like watching a Fred Astair film that doesn't co-star Ginger Rogers, Audrey Hepburn or Judy Garland. You can appreciate Astair's talent, you don't gasp in horror, but the magic's just not there.

That pretty much sums up the problems with Raines. If it is cancelled, we'd strongly encourage the next Goldblum show not to build an entire program around Odyssey With Jeff. It's not going to work, it never will. And the proof of that currently airs on NBC -- where a concept has been mistaken for a fully realized television show.

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