Sunday, July 10, 2005

TV Review Summerland scores, Two and a Half Men annoys

Summerland, don't it wash the body wash down.

While The OC kids work it real hard to find a problem and the One Tree Hill gang mistakes infantile for daring, the WB's Summerland comes off like a real show. There are plots. There are characters. The characters speak to one another, not at one another.

We had to empty the contents of a lot of body wash to find one genuine drama geared to pre-teens, teens and adults but low and behold it does exist. Summerland doesn't deserve the "body wash" label. This isn't a show that postures or pretends. It's an old fashioned drama. If that's your kind of genre, then Summerland is your kind of show.

Lori Loughlin stars as Ava, a woman who's trying to keep it together and do the right thing. (Yes, we liked that too.) To nutshell the show, Ava's sibling died and she's now raising three children. Call it Party of Four but realize that she's got help from friends. (or think of it as Family Affair: 2005 with a sexy parental substitute and the Mr. French role spread out among three friends -- none of whom dresses as a butler.)

Shawn Christian plays Ava's friend Johnny. He's also someone with whom she's been more than friends in the past and, in the episode we watched last week, someone she wants to be more than friends with again. The tension leading up to Ava to tell Johnny (who'd just moved in with another woman) that she wanted to be a couple was stronger than anything we saw watching the body wash operettas.

We were actually interested in the developments there. Partly due to the fact that the writers know how to create tension and partly due to the fact that Loughlin and Christian know how to act. (Loughlin apparently knows a great deal, she's billed as co-creator of the show.) E-mails came in on the need for us to weigh in on Chad Michael Murray's "chewy" nipples and Big forehead's pits, on the laid back group of adults playing high schoolers on The OC, but we've only had three e-mails on Summerland.

We're not sure whether that reflects ratings but for those looking for a show to get caught up in, we strongly urge you to sample Summerland ("only two new episodes left!" trumpets the ads on the WB). We'd also strongly suggest that Shawn Christian get a hair cut and quick. Why anyone would want to work a modified Peter Brady look is beyond us. It's also beyond the rules of time for Christian, at his age, to carry the look off. Once you get over the misplaced mop top, you realize that not only can he act, he's actually hot. Don't hide that under bad hair, Christian.

We didn't see a weak performance in the cast. The juvenile leads (played by people not staring down thirty -- which is shocking after One Tree Hill and The OC) actually have talent. That includes Jesse McCartney who plays Braden but sadly didn't utilize his 60s mod hair we'd seen in the music video. McCartney turned 18 into April which makes him fair game in our book if he embarrasses himself. But he didn't. He can act. (He can't, however, sing so let's hope he gets that out of system quickly.) Kay Panabaker, Nikki, turned 15 in May and we'll bend our rules on not commenting on actors under eighteen enough to note that a) she knows what to do and b) what's with all these actors coming from Texas? We noticed that with The OC and One Tree Hill but didn't comment on it. But this is the third time we've come across this so we'll just toss that question out there.

Penabaker has the strength (and the youth) to pull off the "Fell in Love With a Boy . . . who happens to be gay and can I change him?" scenes. (She's quickly set straight that no, she can't.)
Merrin Dungey plays Ava's friend and roommate and though the writers would be smart to stop leaving her personal life offscreen, Dungey's talented enough that many may not notice. She's playing Susannah here but some may know her as Franci on Alias. (When Franci died . . . Correction, when real Franci died and then later fake Franci as well, so did our interest in the show that really wants to convince you Horse Face is the new hot look. Possibly the absence on that show of female regulars under forty is required to make that argument?)

Rounding out the regulars are Ryan Kwanten, Ava's surfer friend Jay who helps out, and Taylor Cole as McCartney's love interest Erika. (Note that Cole is 20 and, ask yourself why again, from Texas.) There are honestly more sparks between Kwanten and Cole than between Cole and McCartney. We're not sure that was intended. And possibly with Jay acting as Braden's surfing coach it was part of the usual "focus on sports, son" argument.

Which brings us back to Loughlin. Playing the substitute parent of Braden, Nikki and Derrick, she's believable. She's more than that, she's good. She knows how to use her body and her voice to bring a character to life. We note that because when we did our review of CSI Miami a number of e-mails came in how mean we were to poor Emily Proctor. "She's trying to be a serious actress!" huffed one. With that tinkly, helium voice? In those cleavage sporting blouses?

Maybe the defenders of The Dukes of Hazard: Reunion!'s former Mavis missed it, but she's playing a crime scene investigator not the brave "honey" who's suing Hooters because they fired her due to her age (in a Lifetime movie that we're sure is in the works and no doubt called Not Without My Boobies!). Loughlin's got a body. We're sure its been disrobed in the past on Summerland and will be in the future (we really think that as soon as Christian's Johnny gets a haircut, Ava needs to celebrate by hauling his ass into bed).

But just as we didn't buy Melanie Griffith as a cop in A Stranger Among Us (or as someone who could pass for Jewish or, for that matter, human), we didn't buy Little Miss Squeaks as a crime scene investigator. Loughlin's voice doesn't bring to mind Lauren Bacall or Demi Moore, but it is an adult woman's voice. It's also a no nonsense voice. ("No nonsense," not "nagging." Patricia Heaton fans -- both of you -- take note.) With Kim Delaney having short circuited, Leah Ayers having vanished and Demi Moore moved on to the big screen, Loughlin may be one of the last 80s soap stars still working in TV. When she joined the Full House cast, the show seemed a little more reality based (and the cartoonish elements all the more obvious). Since then, she's not disgraced herself in the various women in crisis films she and others have starred in. But at the start of this decade, she did something that caught our attention -- she played "herself" in Wednesdays 9:30 (8:30 Central). The show lasted about an eye blink. But while it was on, she sent up her own image. (Something Jennifer Grey tried to do but failed at in It's Like, You Know . . . Grey's finest performance may still have been given in Ireland even if it was seen by few.)

It's the sort of risk that various actors wanted to take on TV in another time but few even consider these days. Summerland comes with its own risks for Loughlin. Fronting a show that's going after the youth audience can tap the strengths of strong performers. Look at poor Catherine Hicks who once held so much promise and, believe it or not, once convincingly portrayed Marilyn Monroe. So we were curious if Loughlin would stand around on the sidelines, like some sort of aged Natalie Wood, crying out "Don't race him, Jimmy!"

She doesn't. She carries the show. And that's the other thing about Summerland. It's not cast with rejects from Mobsters (and other films that were seen by even fewer people) who pop up from time to time for no real reason other than to bore the audience. The adults on this show are a part of the show and don't leave you saying, "Oh, that's why they never made it in film."

We're not fans of the format. But we'd be willing to watch Summerland again (especially if Christian got a hair cut). We didn't feel preached to or talked down to or insulted by Summerland. It's a solid show that is easy to get caught up in. It left us with hope for TV.

So much hope that we thought, "Let's grab another show." Sadly, we grabbed Two and 1/2 Men. Nothing will destroy your hopes that TV might pull itself out of the crapper quicker than an episode of Two and a Half Men or, as we like to think of it, I'm Not a Total Sleeze and Quit Saying I'm Gay! That pretty much sums up this Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer show that the TV listing assures us is a "sitcom."

If there are laughs to be found in grinding a hamburger patty into Sheen's hairy armpit, if, this show destroys them with it's deadened delivery and reoccuring theme of "Mom loved me more!" With Heather Locklear to knock the wind out of his sales, Sheen's smirk was almost palatable. But that was Spin City and Cryer is no Heather Locklear. With the minicing Jon Cryer beside Sheen, it's as though you're watching a reality version of All in the Family with Sheen as Archie and Cryer as Edith.

Pretty in Pink was 1986. Since then Cryer's starred in five TV bombs. But make no mistake, he's saved the stinkiest for last. Anyone still with goodwill towards Cryer as a result of Ducky Dell prepare to kiss it goodbye.

As they milk the "Mom loved me more" bit, we're also treated to Charlie Sheen phoning it in or else attempting to recreate the "sparkle" of a Burt Reynolds appearence on Dinah! Possibly, it is the latter because someone's got to love Sheen for them to think he's doing anything appealing here. It makes as much sense as the desire to continue to attempt to push John Cusak as a romantic lead despite the facts that have audiences have screamed "NO!" repeatedly.

There Sheen is each Monday night leering at the camera, making entendres about sex (not double entendres, the show can't handle that level of complexity), yucking it up at fart jokes and generally treating any woman under fifty as his own personal mattress. Now granted, that narrative got Sheen a ton of play in the tabloids for most of the eighties and nineties, but at least the tabloids had the decency to act shocked." CBS wants you to find it amusing.

If there's any luster left at the "Tiffany Network," this show will surely tarnish it. It is a "hit."
Coasting on Raymond's coattails, it managed to get designated a hit. But Raymond's gone and there's nothing here that will draw in audiences. What passes for humor isn't strong. The Desperate Single Women angle is about as "fresh" as Desperate Housewives. But they milk it via a neighbor who's supposed to make stalking "cute."

That's how you know it's TV -- because they pass "stalking" off as cute. In real life, stalkers don't usually get mistaken for "cute" nor are they generally female.

We're not sure what's going to kill the show first, the loss of a lead-in to hand viewers to them or the fact that Sheen's offscreen antics may no longer have the buffer of Denise Richards. Probably not a good idea to build a "family sitcom" (no matter how leering) around a man more famous in the nineties as a client of Heidi Fleiss than for anything he did onscreen. In fact his rap sheet is far more impressive than his filmography. Let's just deal with the most recent "hits:" Arrested for assault in 1996, arrested for battery in 1997, hospitalized for an overdose in 1998 and fresh off probation as the decade began, Sheen's colorful, not so distant past may have blotted away memories of the zombie walk through performances of Major League II, Terminal Velocity, The Arrival and the lot but they didn't make him a good actor.

How much does CBS want to get behind this show now that Swinging Sheen is single again? How much are they willing to stake the network's future on it? There are grumblings that the wrong show was moved to Wednesdays (Still Standing) and concern that one new tabloid headline could make the trash seem far less funny. We'd say those are good concerns and possibly the answer here would have been to never have put this crap on the air.

And while considering that, we'd add a question of our own: How much does CBS hate women? That's the question we're left with after watching Two and a Half Men.
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