Sunday, October 14, 2007

TV: Murdering the audience


Though ABC can't provide laughs with their Tuesday lineup, they provide many laughs on Friday. That is a bit of problem when the program, Women's Murder Club, isn't intended to be a sitcom. It's supposed to be an hour long drama.

The series, based on the James Patterson series of books, is about four alleged adult women. There is a homicide investigator, a medical examiner, a prosecutor and (on the outside looking in) a reporter. The first three work together gladly and giddily. So much so that the reporter will ask, "Do you three have a thing?"

If they did, it might actually be interesting. If the three women were involved in a menage a trois, it would mean they had lives. Instead, only the medical examiner, Claire played by Paula Newscome, has what passes for a happy love life. The prosecutor, Jill played by Laura Harris, is torn between two guys and seems intent upon making a snap decision out of fear that she will become the homicide investigator.

The homicide investigator's lines are recited by an alumni of the Dick Wolf School of Rote Memorization, Angie Harmon, who mainly seems to get cast so that people will recall the Rogers & Hart classic "Johnny One Note" from the musical Babes In Arms. She's not much of a "babe" and, though armed, appears to have no idea of how to hold a gun. In fact, she reminded us of the bit Cheryl Ladd used to do all the time, where she'd send up Charlie's Angeles by pretending to aim a gun, ask that everyone wait, toss her hair a few times, then return to gun pose and declare, "Alright, freeze."

Possibly it's not fair to just note that Harmon's awkward handling a gun when she's awkward throughout. The woman was never a successful runway model and her lack of grace explains why. Simply walking across a room on camera appears to be a physical challenge for Harmon which may explain why she eagerly dispenses with acting challenges all but once in the first episode that aired Friday night.

Whether she's questioning a suspect, avoiding her ex-husband, chatting with her friends or noting that a woman has just died and fallen on the roof of her car, Harmon gets each word out in the same flat tone and with all the warmth of Kate Mulgrew.

Rather surprising when audiences are supposed to be vested in Harmon's character. We're not supposed to like her so much as pity her. Lindsay got so involved in her work, we're told, that she destroyed her marriage to Rob Estes' character (heads up to reader Stella of Rhode Island, Estes is a series regular, not guest star). Now the reality is that TV women often have trouble with relationships because writers aren't comfortable providing female characters with the one or two scenes (generally in bed) of them with a husband or boyfriend -- the kind that they repeatedly serve up for lead male characters. A wife of a male lead can exist off screen without a second thought but writers tend to get nervous when it comes to female leads and need to 'ground' them with excess baggage never required of the men.

The reality of Women's Murder Club is that Harmon's zombie like walk through each scene makes it impossible to believe Lindsay could ever get too involved with anything -- be it a job or a partner. Her acting isn't helped by the really bad writing. At one point, referring to the dead woman who landed on her car, Harmon will recite a line about how they weren't close and didn't get along. At another point, she will refer to the dead woman as her friend. That would be troubling if spaced over the hour, when it comes in the same scene it's just jaw droppingly appalling. The scene in question is where Lindsay's speaking with the fourth woman, Cindy played by Aubrey Dollar.

Dollar provides the only excitement from the four leads. That may be due to the fact that she's actually acting and that, as the outsider of the four, she's actually interesting. Harris and Newsome perform their roles but are stuck with reassuring the audiences (constantly) of how wonderful Lindsay is as an investigator, a friend, a person and presumably future Nobel Peace Prize winner. Has so much backstory ever appeared in one episode?

On primetime, no. On daytime, yes. Pre-Luke & Laura, Tuesdays and Thursdays were soap time (any soap) in which two characters sat at a kitchen table with a cup of coffee and recapped everything that happened. Women's Murder Club does that with Lindsay, Jill and Claire repeatedly only instead of over a cup of coffee, it's usually over a corpse. In fact, the show seems intent on popularizing Korpse Klatches. There's something really sad about writers who think that in the midst of an autopsy, the thing to give viewers is "OH MY GOD"s over whether Lindsay still loves her ex-husband and whether he still loves her and will she return his phone call. But then there's something pathetic about a show that needs to constantly explain everything.

Apparently someone was concerned that African-American Claire being friends with White Lindsay might confuse some or frighten people so audiences were treated with a scene where Claire reminded her that they were friends because Claire always tells her the truth -- even when Lindsay was 'destroying' her marriage.

There was so much backstory in the first episode that we honestly fear they may soon run out and be left with discussing when they first got their periods while they go over a crime scene.

In one of the most honest moments, Claire will ask that they both shut up and discover that a corpse did not meet death by hanging but was strangled first. She will note this discovery while informing them see what happens when they back off and let her do her job? That the reality doesn't sink in for Jill or Lindsay makes us up hope ABC's online promotion includes posting job performance evaluations for all characters.

Sticking to the soap opera, Rob Estes' character, the audience learns, is not only Lindsay's ex-husband, he's also just become her boss! And, get this, whether she loves him or not, he's about to remarry. That plot point leaves no impression because Harmon's such a lousy actress that discerning her character's emotions is like trying to unravel what Ali MacGraw's Brenda was supposed to be thinking from scene to scene in Goodbye Columbus.

Harmon stumbles around on various sets, reciting her dialogue in that wooden manner, and utilizing the same blank facial expression except for one scene which truly is horrifying. Lindsay 'destroyed' her marriage over a serial killer and he's the one who got away. To make sure audiences grasp that, though the Women's Murder Club is just as hollow and badly acted as any of Dick Wolf's attempts, this is a soap opera, the last scene will include the shocker that the serial killer is now active again as they discover a corpse with his signature trademark -- the (female) victim's mouth is sewn shut. (Since women are being silenced, we have hopes that 'he' will actually turn out to be editor and publisher of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel in a cross-marketing branding. vanden Heuvel silences women by publishing so very few.)

Harmon apparently felt that this scene was the one where she needed to do more than recite. So she turned her back on her two friends (reporter Cindy was roped off from the crime scene) and attempted to have her wooden face register some emotion. The results were more horrifying than seeing the dead corpse with the mouth sewn shut.

She can't change her emotions in the middle of a sentence without going through a sort of Jekyll and Hyde contortion of the face, so that when one wants to indicate that she is going from sorrow to joy, one must cut away and then back.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was referring to Joan Crawford but, had he lived long enough, he could have been talking about Harmon. Her nostrils did this bizarre thing as she tried to get her eyes to tear up and her jaw was doing something underneath the hand she clasped to her mouth that was equally strange. We have no idea what she was attempting to convey but seriously question whether it's in the normal range of human emotions.

There's nothing normal about Women's Murder Club. It lacks the charm of The Snoop Sisters, it lacks the complexities of Columbo, it lacks everything you can think of including a lead actress. It's rather amazing that Steve McPherson sees himself as so hands on, so about the elements, and allowed this series to air as is. Setting aside the washed out look (which hardly telegraphs suspense), the washed out lead is such a huge problem that when we called friends with the show the first question was, "How bad are you going to go after Angie?" Everyone knows she's the biggest flaw, the biggest drawback and what kills what could have been an amusing show.

Her non-acting is far from the only problem. (Though we did keep asking if we were remembering wrong -- hadn't she said she was done with TV? Yes, she had. But films were quickly done with her. Hence her return.) This conception of professional women -- all four are professionals -- as giddy gossips is insulting. But Terri Hatcher in the role of Lindsay could provide enough warmth that viewers might over look the insults (the way they have with Desperate Housewives) and still tune in. Harmon has no warmth, has no acting abilities. Too long in the tooth to continue being cast as "the girl," she needed some way to use her masculine good looks to bring in money that would fill the coffers for the 2008 elections. Those who caught her non-act Friday, regardless of political party affiliation, are forgiven if they contemplated writing a check to the GOP just so Harmon would take her tired act elsewhere. The real victims of Women's Murder Club are the viewers who bothered to watch.
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