Sunday, February 03, 2008

TV: Nah-nah-nah, Hey-hey-hey, Goodbye

We swore we wouldn't cover entertainment television until after the writers strike ended. But we think we're okay with one program. It's been off the air forever but, last week, they appeared to be burning off an old episode -- probably due to the writers strike.

They paired it with a new show and we are breaking the rule by covering it but it's kind of a call-and-response, the way Veronica's Closet was supposed to be the flip side of Seinfeld back in the 90s on NBC's semi-Must See TV Thursday line up.

Bully Boy's State of the Union

We think the first sitcom was supposed to be at least a season cliffhanger due to the amount of money that was spent on production values. They had a ton of extras and the set looked like an airport hanger badly decorated to convey class. We kept waiting for the drama, like when Dynasty went full out with the wedding of Michael and Amanda only to have the episode end with everyone gunned down. This being a sitcom, we didn't expect gun fire, but did expect something to take place -- maybe a unzipped fly being noticed in the middle of the speech, an old girlfriend showing up possibly pregnant, Niles having a heart attack or a special coming out episode.

But all that happened was Timothy Bottoms spoke and spoke and spoke some more. It didn't seem like it would ever end which probably did capture the real life, ongoing occupation of the White House. Yes, it was Make Room For Bully. We hadn't seen it in ages.

We wondered if the episode was new and not being burned off?

In lots of ways, the writer(s) seemed to have dusted off an old script. Such as having a plethora of extras play the cabinet, the Supreme Court and the entire membership of Congress. After that homage to Pamplona in September of 2001 -- the Running of The Congress -- we really couldn't picture that, in this day and age, post-9-11, all of those people would be expected to turn out for a rote speech. For safety reasons alone, if not the fact that the US is an alleged democracy, you'd think there wouldn't be the need for the entire branches of the federal government to show up as though King George, and not Bully Boy, was speaking.

Looking at the extras, we didn't see one who resembled Dirk Kempthorne -- and with that name in DC, you better believe you'd stand out. So we assumed no one was playing the Secretary of the Interior and that, should some Moldavian terrorists show up to kill off Lady Ashley Mitchell because the producers didn't know how to tell Ali MacGraw she was fired, Dirk Kempthorne would be running the entire show. In which case, the nation would lose not only all elected and appointed representatives but also the ecology. A little dark for a sitcom but we all know that the creative energies tend to lag around season four and that, by the time season seven rolls around, they're pitching anything they've got or can steal.

The biggest belly laugh came early on when Timothy Bottoms, playing the Bully Boy of the United States, declared, "As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history. We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens. And so in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free peoples to make wise decisions, and empower them to improve their lives for their futures."

That was funny. At a time when the public wants US forces out of Iraq but the administration refuses to listen, hearing Bully Boy proclaim "that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens" was a laugh riot.

Especially when he later followed it up with this, "Any further drawdown of U.S. troops will be based on conditions in Iraq and the recommendations of our commanders." Which is it, trust "the most reliable guide for our country . . . ordinary citizens" or turn the whole thing over to the military -- as if the framers didn't put the military under civilian control?

That is the erratic nature, the say anything, from one moment to the next, Bitter Sweet Symphony that has made up this century thus far. As he moved on to the topic of Iran, we felt we were hearing the 2003 State of the Union address with "Iran" substituted for "Iraq." But if that were true, and scab writers were dusting off old scripts and updating them, they made Bully Boy look like a real asshole since hours before the speech was supposed to be delivered, the US military had announced the deaths of 5 US service members in Iraq and he never even mentioned that in his speech.

We were thinking back to the laugh line about Iraqis being grateful US forces were in their country. And how a real comedic writer could have tried to find a humorous line for Bully Boy about the over 2 million Iraqis who had been displaced externally, something like: "As we move forward, Iraqi civilians leave. I call it Texas Flush. And it is a good thing. I believe in flushing. Otherwise things get nasty."

The only thing funnier than that loony line delivered straight would be seeing at least half the extras rise to their feet applauding which, for the record, seemed to happen repeatedly and seemed to alternate between that and the full body present delivering standing ovations. We thought it indicated either sloppy work on the part of the casting director (extras aren't supposed to draw so much attention to themselves -- they're background, not foreground) or else the director had instructed them to move up and down quickly to liven up the static nature of the episode.

For real humor, they should have sent the disgruntled pair of Rudy G and Bernie Kerick in to swipe everyone's chairs between standing ovations. A sort of non-musical chairs and we could picture the hilarity as Trent Lott and Arlen Specter engaged in a slap fight over who got the remaining chair. That would have been funny.

Instead we got two actors playing the roles of president of vice Dick Cheney and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- seated behind the Bully Boy while he was speaking. Right away, we realized the Dickster was being played by character actor Wilford Brimley and he was using some of the excess glowering that was judged over the top by Sydney Pollack during the filming of The Firm. It was over the top in that film but as the president of vice, it was perfection.

"Who's that in the Sally Field hair?" we wondered as we attempted to pin down the actress playing the role of Nancy. Then it hit us, it was Bonnie Bedelia. We loved the moments, right after the speech started, when "Nancy" and "Dick" would look at each other and smile ever so charmingly. That's one of those bits that only actors can provide, not extras. In those warmly exchanged glances, they indicated to America why there would not be an impeachment as long as Pelosi controlled the House.

After awhile, possibly his bran was kicking in or his Quaker Oats, "Dick" ignored her and stared straight ahead -- often while making a show of grabbing for his glass of water. We found that more than a little unprofessional as well as unbecoming. Then we noticed "Nancy" flipping madly through pages in front of her. We sort of pictured Bedelia grasping -- at last -- that she had no lines and was mere decoration for the proceedings. Quite a come down from the Oscar nomination high of Heart Like A Wheel. As if to draw attention to herself and to create a little physical action, "Nancy" stood up dramatically to start an ovation when Bully Boy referred to Sudan. Though it may have offered a better view of her bad outfit, we also think that Bedelia Thought Like a Square since there's no way Pelosi would really disgrace herself in the final moments of the 53-minute speech by hopping around excitedly like Jenny Garth in What I Like About You. Would she?

As Bully Boy finally finished speaking and Timothy Bottoms began to mingle with the assembled, we were thrown for a minute by what came on screen: an 'analysis.' Then we remembered Katie Couric had played herself on Will & Grace so why not a guest shot on Make Room For Bully? But who was the loser they got to play Bob Schieffer? He looked like a pop-eyed Bob Barker and offered the nuttiest of 'expertise' -- suggesting the actor was out to make Schieffer look like a total wack job. We imagine you were laughing with us when "Scheiffer" offerd this 'analysis': "George Bush likes politics. I mean, look at him, right now, he's signing autographs!" Indeed. That is the standard and why our own personal favorite politician has been and remains Jill St. John.

Couric offered that viewers at home were wanting real analysis and not just factoids. In an attempt to mock or embarrass Schieffer further, the actor playing him nodded his head along with that and then quickly added "I must say" that Bully Boy was "interrupted for applause" seventy times. Just the sort of factoid that added nothing to the discussion. Watching "Schieffer" grin at the camera in that deranged manner, we had to wonder what poor Bob thought if he caught the broadcast?

We didn't have much time to ponder because the network was trying out a new show, An American Response. Though not normally fans of the rescue show format, after the sedate and hopefully series finale of Make Room For Bully, we could use a little action, maybe some sirens and smoke. But the only fire we saw was in a fireplace and we realized that either we were watching an extended commercial for Duraflame logs or else someone was attempting to recreate FDR's fireside chats.

The main character, well, the only character, was a woman named Kathleen Sebelius and we quickly grasped from that nervous, masculine energy that it was Jane Lynch resurrecting her role of Christy Cummings in Christopher Guest's hilarious Best In Show.

What she lacked in action, she made up for in delivery giving just the right sting to the pompous words her character was reciting while wearing a blouse that appeared to have no buttons and to plunge to the waist. Obviously, we weren't the only ones disturbed by that since CBS blocked the bottom fourth of the screen with a red bar and a CBS logo. Lynch is really too good of an actress to go the bra-less T&A route and we had to wonder what that said about actresses today that Lynch would think that was how a governor appearing on national television would dress?

Maybe she was just attempting to spice up the vague dialogue which even her look-but-don't-touch, frosty demeanor could only do so much with. For instance, she declared, "As governor of Kansas, I am the commander in chief of our National Guard. Over the past five years, I have seen thousands of soldiers deployed from Kansas. I've visited our troops in Iraq; attended funerals and comforted families; and seen the impact at home of the war being waged." We couldn't figure out whether that was bragging (a resume being floated for higher office?) or if she was treating the illegal war like a faux pas.

But it disturbed us. As did her repetition of "join us" and "will you join us?" -- which spooked us so we expected her to begin chanting "One of us, one of us, one of us, one of . . ."

We like Jane Lynch. We really admire her work and the way she finds quirks in roles and fleshes them out. But with women already under attack these days, we just didn't think that creating a female governor who would be the butt of all jokes was the way to go.

An American Response left us wishing someone would check the show's pulse. Maybe, due to the writers strike, it's not fair to judge the offerings network TV does manage to get on air these days? Sitting through yet another Make Room For Bully drove home the message that the networks better get serious about sitting down with the writers and meeting their conditions. The only thing more dangerous than a Bully Boy would be an unscripted one which is why we've never begrudged the earphone he frequently wears so he can be fed his lines.
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