Sunday, September 26, 2010

TV: It Takes Two

The first two minutes and thirty seconds of Undercovers play like Foul Play, Casino Royal, North By Northwest and Deceived as spy Leo Nash goes running, jumping and fleeing . . . and then we're in catering drama. And this new hour long TV show is supposed to be oh-so-cute but it's oh-so-bad. The worst may be that Gugu Mbatha-Raw thinks she can bark when she's really not written as a barker. When not barking, she goes into nagging.


Since she's playing one of the two leads, Samantha Bloom, that's a big problem. Did no one explain to her the need for lightness in a romantic comedy? It's as if Tyne Daily were cast as Jennifer Hart instead of Stefanie Powers. Boris Kodjoe plays Steven Bloom and he's hitting all the right notes for romantic comedy. As we watched a cafe scene that was supposed to be light and playful culminate with Mbatha-Raw asking, "It takes a honeymoon to buy me a rose?", the problem was obvious: Mbatha-Raw and her awful voice. When Jane Fonda, in her Acadamy Award nominated performance for The Morning After, goes deep voiced in the midst of con that's not working to ask, "What about Vegas? You fly to Vegas?" it's funny. But among the reasons it's so funny is that's not how her Alex speaks normally.

But there's Mbatha-Raw bearing down on every line, unable to speak on the breath, shredding her vocal chords to the point that it's painful to listen to her speak if you've ever studied voice. Well not every one of her lines. At one point, she asks, "Who's he with?" That line reading? It's where her voice should be in nearly every scene. It would not only make the line readings sparkle, it would allow her to better fit with co-star Kodjoe.

Were Mbatha-Raw playing a supporting character -- say Francie on Alias -- we're sure many people would applaud her 'gutsy' performance. But guess what, this isn't a supporting role, this is a lead. You play lead in a TV show to be a star, not to be a quirk.

Steven and Samantha Bloom are an African-American couple and this is TV's first action show revolving around African-American characters and first romantic comedy show. The press would have you believe that a lot is riding on this show. It's not. Cosby was a massive hit. The kind that comes along once every twenty years. And yet the only real attempt to ape Cosby was CBS' short-lived Charlie & Company. So any pressure that anyone involved with the show feels should really vanish. Yes, it would be wonderful if Undercovers was a huge hit and, being a huge hit, suddenly shows debuted on the Big Three with African-American leads. (Shows, not "other shows," Mbatha-Raw is British and self-labels Black. Boris Kodjoe is Austrian.)

However, that's never been the pattern. So if expectations are weighing anyone down, they should let them go.

There are, however, a lot of problems weighing down Undercovers. For example, it is not just that Mbatha-Raw drags the scenes down currently, it's that she just doesn't match up with Kodjoe.

Last month, there was a big panic about the show. A friend with it asked us for input and we said flat out that the problem was Mbatha-Raw's delivery. We made it clear that they either recast the role or give her some real direction. We were blown off and some crack about feminists was made which really pissed us off so that was it on our input on the show until it aired on NBC Wednesday night. As the viewer reactions matched some of the critical response (critical response was largely confused as to what the problem was, viewer response nailed it as Mbatha-Raw), suddenly we were prophets and geniuses and our butts couldn't be kissed enough.

But we really still don't believe we were heard. We were listened to, but we weren't heard.

The feminist crack had ticked us off because we were presented with a show already filming, already in production, and we were trying to say what was best for that show. We didn't advocate for a backstory, for a subplot, for female characters to round out the show. We looked at the show as is and made the call that the female lead was played too real (viewer reaction is "butch") and that they needed to get the actress to lighten her performance so that she could sparkle. We have many feminist issues, for example, with Covert Affairs but Piper Perabo's performance wasn't among them (as we've noted "Annie's nothing but a cupcake. She's not a real character. So let's not pretend that she is."). In offering input on Undercovers, we were focusing on how to make the show work around the two leads cast.

Boris Kodjoe is a TV star, possibly the TV star of the season. If Undercovers crashes and burns (initial ratings underwhelmed) the industry talk on him should allow him several other chances to strut his stuff. He became a star in the first minutes of Undercovers when he was everything America wants of a male TV star. He was funny, he didn't take himself too seriously and he was sexy.

By contrast, Gugu Mbatha-Raw was just sexy. But not even as sexy as she could be because her voice was always either nagging or barking. The lines were not written to be that way. In one scene, if you paid attention, Boris was undermined by sticking to the script. His comment was basically telling her "Calm down, it's going to be okay." But she was using that flat harangue and there was nothing panicky about her delivery.

Our main input was that she was playing the role too cerebral and she needed to be taken out of Acting Studio 'motivation' and focus on sense memory if she's going to find her character. The character is light and lives above the shoulders, she moves with grace and leaves every woman she encounters wishing they were her. We're not saying carrying all that off is easy. Very few actresses can or have been able to. Audrey Hepburn is, of course, the template. But there have been others. On TV there was Stefanie Powers. The most recent actress to emerge with that quality would be Thandie Newton.

When one lead is coming off light, the other needs to as well or you've got no chemistry between the two leads. It's the difference between, for example, pairing up Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and paring up Fonda and Robert De Niro. (Or De Niro and any actress. Smart actresses long ago learned to say no to being De Niro's romantic costar because there's nothing to work with.)

Gug Mbatha-Raw delivers her line readings as rants when they're not written that way. And the effect on TV viewers is off putting. Not really a smart way to go when this show would depend on an older audience than, for example, Lost. If you're a working mother of one or more children, how much sympathy are you going to have for the nagging, ranting Samantha who has her dream job (catering) and her dream man and none of the obligations that spell R-E-A-L L-I-F-E?

When we were zeroing in on her line readings before the show started airing, the exasperated reply was that Mbatha-Raw was saying the lines as written. No, she wasn't. She was saying the words that were written but they were never intended to be rants and nags and barks and gripes. Her admonishment of the staff (an acting choice) in her initial establishing scene was completely wrong. Not just for the character, mind you, it was wrong for the scene. Seconds after that, she will be told by Steven that she's too nice on the staff and pays them too much (the staff includes her sister). Saying the lines as written in her establishing scene would have meant the audience nodded knowingly when Steven later complains.

She is not serving the text, she is not serving the script, she is not serving the show. She needs direction.

When we returned to that after the first episode aired, the first question was, "You're not going to write about this?" Actually, that may not have been a question. It may have been an order: "You're not going to write about this!" Of course we are. To weigh in on the show without doing so would be providing a half-assed review not to mention concealing from the readers some things they should probably know.

We were immediately hit with, "Well we're fixing things."

We hope they are. We really do. But we're aware this isn't 1970. Are the producers? CBS offered Mary Tyler Moore her own sitcom and the promise that they would air 24 episodes of it. (After viewing the pilot -- or, rather, after test scores on the pilot, CBS attempted to back out of the deal.) TV shows rarely get that kind of commitment these days. More importantly, MTM worked to make sure the pilot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was perfect before it was filmed. This idea that you can put a show on the air and then start fixing the problem? In what world?

And though the viewers will most likely note how off the lead actress is and how that performance harms the entire show, the reality is that an actor needs input and guidance and if Gugu Mbatha-Raw had gotten any, her performance wouldn't be so bad. (She's not a bad actress at all. She's just playing this part wrong.) And that doesn't fall back on her, that falls on the show runner. And failure to grasp that a romantic comedy depends upon two actors meshing their styles also falls on the show runner because, as Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston noted so long ago, "It Takes Two." Undercovers only has one.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }