Sunday, November 11, 2012

TV: The frightening and the fascinating

Like us, you might have thought Ellen was the first big name actress to come out of the closet as a lesbian.  Apparently, though, it wasn't Ellen that came out and risked her career to be honest about who she was, it was Lily.


See, Lily Tomlin's repeatedly given interviews promoting the new show Malibu Country and, if asked, in these interviews, she keeps insisting she was always out.  We like Lily.  But, thing is, we like the truth a hell of a lot more.  Not only did Ellen have the guts to be honest, she paid for being honest.  She was attacked for being honest.  ABC put a warning before every episode of her sitcom as though being gay required a warning.  GLAAD felt they could pile on Ellen and a spokesperson (Chaz Bono) went on The Tonight Show to declare Ellen too gay for TV.  Too gay?  From GLAAD.

She lost her sitcom, her attempt at a CBS sitcom went nowhere (it lasted one season and was actually funny --  and, when briefly put on the Monday line up, it delivered an audience).  A turn in a huge children's movie, a hilarious stand up tour, wowing everyone as host of the Emmys and breathing life into the talk show format allowed Ellen to come back.  But it could have gone a different way.  And even though it's a happy ending, that doesn't mean it was an easy climb.

Ellen suffered and emerged.  It's not only dishonest to lie the way Lily has, it takes away the courage Ellen had to show to get where she is.

In the late 90s, while Ellen was coming out, Lily was in the closet.  In the nineties, she narrated The Celluloid Closet -- a documentary about the portrayals of gays and lesbians in films.  And she led a number of people to believe she would be using the project to come out.  When she didn't, she ticked off a lot of people.  It was noted then, for example, that while she was in a closet, there had been classified ads in the back of The Advocate for years offering her pubes for sale.  Ted Casablanca interviewed her at that time and kept providing opportunities for her to come out.  She played dumb.  Over and over.

It wasn't until a number of LGBTs  were outright disgusted with her and had been slamming her in the press for several years that she finally came out in an interview with US magazine in 2001.

So her whole 'I was never in the closet' declarations of late have shocked many who remember things like a lawsuit that went to court in the eighties over a documentary that had been agreed to but that contained backstage footage that Lily (and partner Jane Wagner) decided might reveal too much.  There was also the pretense of a romantic relationship with John Travolta when the two starred in Moment By Moment

Within the industry, Lily wasn't closeted.  But to claim that she was out to the public?

No.  That's a lie.

And her staying in the closet, didn't and doesn't make her a bad person.

It does show you how in place and firm the closet was and how brave Ellen was.  Lily deserves credit for coming out in 2000, but that doesn't mean she can rewrite history.  In fact, it's embarrassing that she tries to.

And embarrassing is Malibu Country.  Each episode just gets worse.  We didn't want to say that.  We didn't want to call Lily out for re-writing history either but somehow the two seem interrelated because there's a lot of fake to that show as well.

It didn't have to be that way.  Over on CBS, one of the season's best sitcoms debuted at the end of September. Monday night staple Partners stars Michael Urie, David Krumholtz, Sophia Bush and Brandon Routh.  It's from the creators of Will & Grace, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan.

Like Will & Grace, it revolves around two friends with one straight and one gay.  Unlike Will &  Grace, both friends are male.  Joe Goodman (Krumholtz) and Louis McManus (Urie) are partners in their architecture firm and have been friends all their lives.

Unless Joe ends up realizing he's gay (he's not gay at present), we really hope there's no hidden sexual attraction on the part of Louis  towards Joe.  We saw that twice in Will & Grace -- not only did Grace (Debra Messing) date Will (Eric McCormack) and get engaged to him in college, Jack (Sean Hayes) also carried a torch for Will.  We've seen that.  And the only way it would be different and novel would be if Joe were the one to have a realization.

Besides, what gay man could want more than Wyatt?  A nurse who's supportive and encouraging, caring and sensitive and who happens to look like Superman since he's played by Brandon Routh.  You would think Superman Returns had done the box office of Howard The Duck the way Routh's had to build his way back since that film.  He's made interesting choices and probably, on TV, did his best previous work on Chuck.  Now he works with James Burrows.

Where there is comedy, there is Jim.  He can't make a bad actor good.  He can make a good but uneven actor better.  Michael Urie's Louis started off spread a little too thin in the debut episode.  Working with Burrows, Louis is now a more developed character and one who compliments the cast dynamics.  As for Routh, if anyone can see comedy inside a performer and encourage it to come out, it's Burrows and he's done a great job encouraging Routh to give a different performance.  The first time you encounter Wyatt, you may not get how funny the character is.  But that's why you will laugh even louder the second time you encounter him.  It's not a play-to-the-audience bit.  It's a character role and Routh deserves huge applause for avoiding the temptation to break character, or the need to 'sweeten' up the beat with knowing wink.

Joe has a romantic partner and her name is Ali.  The two got engaged -- after Louis fixed a mess he created.  Ali's played by Sophia Bush and what a revelation she is in the role as well, and, thankfully, so far from One Tree Hill.  Her best moment is in whatever episode you just watched because, with each script, she's managed to break out.  In a show with a standout cast (which also includes Tracy Vilar from time to time as Ro-Ro, Louis and Joe's assistant), she's managed to stand out.  In a just world, she'd be Emmy nominated for this role.

The guys?  They're giving great performances as well but they are young and comedy Emmys tend to be an old man's game.  Check the nominees in any given year.  The show will be more likely to see a nomination for writing or for Burrows' direction than a male acting nod this summer.

With 83 nomination and 16 wins, Will & Grace, an all time great sitcoms, is one of the most industry recognized. It debuted in fall of 1998, shortly after Ellen lost her ABC sitcom.  As a result, there were a bit of nervousness over same-sex kisses so Will  pined over the boyfriend he broke up with before the show started and Jack talked about sex more than Blanche on The Golden Girls but had even less onscreen action than Blanche did.  Audience support would have to be very firm for the show before, seasons later, same-sex kissing took place (of a romantic nature)

Those were different times.  And, believe it or not, Sean Hayes was in the closet to the public in those days.  He was not out.  He would not answer the question.  Cher had accidentally outed him to the gay press, but it wouldn't be until 2010 that Hayes semi-seriously came out.  By contrast, Michael Urie was out publicly before he was cast as Louis on Partners.

Times have changed.  At least until you turn on Malibu Country.  Then you may wonder what year it is?  Not because it's a filmed before a live audience sitcom -- so is Partners. The show is just awful.  We hate saying that because, along with Lily, Sara Rue is also in the cast and a co-creator and executive producer is Dave A. Stewart.  Despite his past with Annie Lennox, sweet dreams are not made of Malibu Country.

The premise is that a faded country star named Reba ends it with her cheating husband and ends up leaving Nashville for Malibu.  She takes along their two teenage children Cash and June and her mother Lillie Mae (Lily Tomlin).  Her next-door-neighbor is Kim (Rue) who has a step-son Sage.  She's got no money coming in and Jai Rodriguez plays Geoffrey the assistant to a music label head.

Jai Rodriguez is an actor worth seeing on television, but there's no point to his role.  The label head does not want to sign Reba, Geoffrey explains in the first episode, he's not even there for a meeting.  Reba's ex is too powerful.  He doesn't want to risk offending him.  But because Reba might have some fame left in her, he doesn't want to risk offending her should she have a comeback elsewhere.  Geoffrey tells Reba she needs a hook and a song.

That should have been the end of Geoffrey unless the label signed Reba.  Though the label hasn't signed her, Geoffrey's now showing up in Malibu to chat with Reba.  In what world?

There are many more serious problems but if we thought Dave Stewart could get one thing right, it would be that the assistant to a label head who wants to move up in the world is not spending all his free time hanging out with someone his boss doesn't want to sign.

Now if only that was the only problem with the show.

The biggest problem with the show is, of course, Reba McEntire, who still can't act, who still mugs ridiculously and who still presents like the worst child actor asking "Ain't I cute?" before the director can even yell "Cut!"

She's yet again playing a wronged woman whose husband cheats on her so she leaves him and she's yet again playing something named Reba, so maybe she thinks it's okay that she's still giving the same (bad) performance she gave all those years ago on the sitcom entitled Reba.  In fact, the only real difference is that now her character's overtly homophobic. 

On the earlier sitcom, every season seemed to have at least one episode that existed just so Steve Howey's Van could discover gay people.  On this show, there are two gay characters -- Geoffrey and Sage.  Geoffrey already has had eye rolling from Reba.  Her comments about Sage have been outright homophobic.

Sage may not be gay.  Reba was outraged to catch him and her daughter June kissing -- practicing, they insisted, so they'd be ready when they fell in love.  Now Cash has caught Sage practicing with another girl. We spoke to a friend with the show who stressed Sage might not be gay.  If that happens, we said, if he suddenly becomes not gay and this was some scam for him to kiss his female classmates, that's offensive and Reba's remarks about Sage are actually even more offensive. 

What is so wrong with having gay characters, our friend asked us?

Nothing at all except it's 2012 and we've seen the wacky gay on the outside -- the neighbor, the co-worker, the acquaintance, etc.

And there's something so insulting about we-move-to-California-and-discover-gay-people. First off, you can't be responsible for as many hurting after the break up songs as Nashville is without grasping that love comes in many forms.  Second of all, Janis Ian rebuilt her career in Nashville and did so out and proud and Chely Wright has come out while k.d. lang long ago proved that a great artist was a great artist and sexuality only mattered in terms of the charisma (which k.d. has always had) brought  on stage.

What you're not getting, our friend told us, is how Reba McEntire has this huge fan base and this show is exposing them to gay people.

We're not sure how Reba's homophobic remarks help anyone.  We're also not sure how having a kid next door who might be gay or a Geoffrey who is gay helps?

Again, we've seen it all before.  A step forward would have been for one of Reba's children -- Cash or June -- to be gay.  And the scene where Cash was asking Geoffrey about being gay was offensive, even more so than all the Van-discovers-gay-people scenes of Reba's first sitcom. 

How was this helping gay people, we wondered?  How was Reba's fan base that everyone presumes doesn't know a single gay person helped by a scene where her underage son is talking to Geoffrey whose remark indicates sexual interest in Cash?  Were we watching a sitcom or NBC's To Catch A Predator

Which brings us back to Lily.  This is the show she chooses to be a part of?

For years, after she left Laugh-In, Lily wanted her own TV show.  She went through all the networks in the seventies trying to get one (CBS, ABC and NBC).  It never panned out.  In the sixties, CBS suddenly cooled on a Zelda spin-off from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  There were rumors (true) that actress Sheila Kuehl was gay.  The network was fine with keeping her a part of a hit show but they weren't willing to spend the money to develop a show around her.  A decade later, the rumors that Lily was gay and the fear that, in the midst of a series run, she would be outed or come out kept the networks from putting one of America's funniest comics in a weekly show.

So Lily did movies and TV specials and even guest spots.  Then, finally, in 1996, she joined the cast of the hit show Murphy Brown.  She would be part of an ensemble cast  of an established show.  She played Kay Carter-Shelpley for two seasons.  It wasn't a great role but Lily made it interesting.  She'd go on to play Deborah Fiderer on The West Wing -- another minor part and one that was far less interesting (but Sorkin's always had difficulty writing for women).  Margot on Will & Grace was so minor that many aren't even aware she was part of the cast.  This was followed by a brief stint on Desperate Housewives.  Then she finally did her best TV performance yet when she played Marilyn Tobin on Damages.

All of those TV shows are ones that were established already by the time she joined the cast (even Laugh-In was already a hit when she debuted on it).  Malibu Country is the first time she's established a role as part of the original cast.  Lillie Mae, sadly, isn't much of a character.  We have no idea why the hair looks the way it does.  If that's supposed to be country, someone should have grasped she just looks like Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) when Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) rips the wig off (Vally of the Dolls).  We're failing to see how that's "down home."  Lily's injecting a great deal of Judith Beasley into the role but neither that nor Lillie Mae's use of medical marijuana is creating a character.

After all these years, you'd think a show could be created around Lily Tomlin.  Barring that, you'd think a new show could at least make Lily an important part of the series.

Instead, this is a paint-by-numbers, generic sitcom and Lily's acting talents are wasted.  The show's never sure of what it is from one moment to the next, it never makes sense and you're left wondering mainly why Reba's remaking her last sitcom?  Rue's playing Barbara Jean, daughter June is just daughter Kyra, son Cash is now son-in-law Van . . .  If an original idea popped up on the set, you have a feeling everyone would suffer cardiac arrest.

After she left the TV show that made her a name, Lily would often note that she was glad to have been on Laugh-In because, while it wasn't her style of humor, it was a popular show.  She's lucky in that Malibu Country has proven to be popular (so far) in the ratings giving ABC a Friday hit.  But if Lily thought Laugh-In was slumming, pray tell, what does she make of Malibu Country?

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