Sunday, March 18, 2012

TV: What people will watch and what they won't

ABC's Missing does a number of things right off the bat, including establishing the character and the series immediately. Those aren't minor points as any who suffered through NBC's Prime Suspect can attest.


That show was saddled with a one-note actress (Maria Bello) who appeared to have graduated from the Ali MacGraw Fine Acting Institute which she, no doubt, attended on the Candice Bergen Flared Nostril Scholarship. Prime Suspect was an attempt to remake a British series starring Helen Mirren and that could have made for an entertaining show were it not for the fact that Maria Bello was bound and determined to play her one-note tantrum in scene after scene and the writers had nothing to add.

In the UK version, Mirren was a victim of sexism in the first season. In the US version, they wanted you to feel for Bello while never really letting her be a victim of sexism. Her biggest problem when it came to getting along with her colleagues had to do (a) with her rude attitude and (b) with the fact that she may have slept her way up to the position of detective. Supposedly Jane was a talented detective but if she did sleep her way in (the sex wasn't in dispute, whether or not it got her promoted was), you're not really going to feel too sorry for her if co-workers aren't dying to go on assignment with her.

Apparently to explain the fact that Bello wasn't able to shade or subtext, we were told in the first episode that Jane was attempting to stop smoking, as if that would explain the angry cyborg on the screen before us. With her live-in lover, she was just as exasperated and angry. Near the end, this rating hemophilliac paired Bello with a small child -- an orphan who was being targeted for death -- and you still didn't get another side of the emotional iceberg.

Some wondered if the problem was that there was nothing feminine about Bello in Prime Suspect? The bigger problem was there was nothing human about Bello's character.

Missing kicks off with Ashley Judd's Becca on a morning run, passing friends to whom she explains her son and husband are out of the country. We cut to Vienna where her son Michael and her husband Paul (Sean Bean) are getting ready to return to the United States and Michael's trying to fit too much into a backpack. Paul agrees to carry the soccer ball. Then Paul dials Becca and they have what appears to be an interesting conversation (she's willing to try for a second child) when he hands the phone to their son and remembers or 'remembers' that he left the soccer ball behind. On the phone with his mother, Michael gets out of the car to get the ball and the car explodes apparently killing Paul.

Flash forward ten years later and Michael's off to Rome to study. A series of quick scenes with Becca and Mary (Aunjanue Ellis) as Becca receives text and calls from Michael follow and then nothing until she's informed he's been dropped from the program in Rome because he's missed three lectures and he moved out of his dorm two weeks ago. Becca realizes something's wrong and heads to Rome and we're ten minutes into the show.

It's at that point that we learn Becca was a formidable CIA agent. We discover that, thankfully, not from one long talky scene after another, but by what Becca does -- investigating, going head-to-head with what appears to have been an assassin, etc. A throw-away-line speaks volumes as the current CIA attempts to figure out Becca and what she's up to, "Those are the ones we've got to look out for, the thinner the file, the better the agent." It's in that scene that we're first primed for Keith Carradine who will surface in later episodes, he was her mentor Martin Newman.

Whether it's Richard Gere, Meryl Streep, Jack Lemmon, Sally Field or Harrison Ford, Americans are long conditioned to seeing the star go to great lengths to find a child. So there's no believability gulf. Equally true, the show's tailored for Ashley. No other American actress could pull this role off because no other American actress has starred in Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy, High Crimes and Twisted.

With Ashley, there's no need to play the Jodie Foster card -- the character had a father who . . . -- or to throw on a ton of backstory or, worse, explaining why a 'girl' would be interested in or know this or that 'manly' action. We accept Ashley as a woman of action because she's played that part successfully.

And part of the reason for her success is her own immense talent (never underestimate her, Ashley Judd's a powerhouse actress) but it's also because a long line of women came before including Monica Vitti, Diana Rigg, Pam Grier, Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis, Bridget Fonda and Angelina Jolie are among the actresses of the last decades who've successfully tackled the notions of what a woman can do.

When Prime Suspect crashed and burned, there was talk that the country just didn't want to see a woman in strong role but as Missing demonstrates, the issue was the actress not the notion. In other words, Prime Suspect trapped you in an elevator with a crank snarling loudly into a cell phone while Missing takes you on an escape.
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