Sunday, February 20, 2011

TV: Seven Layer Bad

Criminal Minds Suspect Behavior is CBS attempt to turn CM into the new CSI but while them there CSI hills may have gold in 'em, the CM hill appears to contain nothing but pyrite. How bad is the show? It's so bad we considered taking a pass on it but it's so bad that we just couldn't.


About the only thing the show has going for it is Kirsten Vangsness who is carrying over her Criminal Minds' role of Penelope Garcia the computer genius. Despite the fact that she only interacts via a cheesy web cam, every time Penelope's onscreen, you can feel the show lift.

The rest of the time it mainly treads water.

Forest Whitaker has repeatedly demonstrated that he can act and that he can direct. What he apparently cannot do is birth a non-written character. The script says he's playing Sam Cooper, the head of this FBI Beahvioral Analysis Unit. Sam Cooper. Names are pretty much all the writers have thought of. You realize that as the rest of the cast comes into view, there's brainy Gina, atheletic Mick, intense Prophet and intuitive Beth. We kept waiting for Alexander Cabot and Sebastian the cat to show up but then were forced to admit Josie and the Pussycats had much more complex characterizations.

What the show has in Beau Garrett (Gina) and Mick Rawson (Matt) is two actors fresh enough that the scripts don't matter yet. The series can probably coast on them through May. Later scripts will hopefully provide Forest with something to do other than stand around like Mr. Roarke welcoming this episodes guest starring victims onto Fantasy Criminal Island. If and when the scripts get better, the show will rise. It will not, however, soar.

Like a lifeboat with too much weight, the show has a few things that need to be tossed over. Michael Kelly is not going to connect with most audiences. It's as though he's carbo-loaded on physical tics in order to make up for what wasn't in the script but all it's left him with is a bloated feeling and an inability to play normal. In fact, it would appear that Prophet not only got his own character background and motivation, but everyone else's as well. He's too much and when the camera goes in for a close up, it's frightening. All that busy work might work on stage but he needs to tone it down for TV.

As bad as the writing is, as bad as Kelly's wired and over-caffeinated performance is, the show's absolute worst feature is the actress playing Beth. Excuse us, the personality who mouths some words when someone asks Beth a question.

Janeane Garofalo is the personality trying to play Beth.


For months, we'd heard the rumors about the problems on the set and put it off to her dissatisfaction with the scripts. Forget the scripts, with Janeane the problem is all her.

Stand up comics don't always make for actors because actors do more than deliver lines sardonically. They have to, for example, inhabit a space. Ideally, they inhabit it realistically.

What the hell was that near the start of the first episode when Beth and the team go to the home of a family's whose young daughter has just been kidnapped? Was Beth supposed to be playing airplane as she moved across the front yard? What's with the hands and arms? Who walks like that? Certainly not the character of Beth.

Supposedly Janeane can't get along with Beau Garrett and when those rumors started surfacing, we thought, "Typical. Two women on a show so somebody has to insist that they can't stand each other." But it's not just rumors and what's really, really bad is that the conflict between the two actress -- the characters are not supposed to have any conflict between them -- made it on screen in a scene in the first episode where everyone gets out of a car and, as they walk to a crime scene, Beth and Gina bump into each other and then the actresses stiffen up and both go off in different directions. That wasn't scripted. That wasn't blocked. And there was no attempt to even offer an "excuse me" -- just two "damn her" expressions caught by the camera.

We're not sure how much that moment registers. We're willing to bet that most haven't heard about how difficult Janeane's supposedly being on the set. (Supposedly, she told one producer she walked off of her Air America Radio show and she's not afraid to walk off this. Our suggestion to the producer? Let her.) But even if CBS viewers haven't heard the rumors, they have to notice that it's not normal for two people to collide together onscreen without either exchanging a kiss or being greeted by a laugh track. Is it roller derby or yet another CBS crime drama?

While Penelope is forever communicating with the other team members via webcam, it's Janeane's Beth that seems walled in and unable to interact with anyone. In fairness to Janeane, there's no character on the page. In fairness to her, she's much better in the second episode. Sad for her, she's much, much worse in the third.

Not being a real actress, Janeane has nothing to fall back on. While Forest's training can make you wait for something to happen (something that the scripts forget to provide), Janeane's left to her own devices and all she's apparently got is to act like she did doing guest spots on Keith Olbermann's show. So instead of interacting, she lectures everyone around her. It wasn't that entertaining on MSNBC and it's hideous on this show.

When not speaking, she's like a really bad Saturday Night Live skit and, if your eyes stay on her in a wide shot, you see Janeane (not her character Beth) looking around, cutting her eyes to Forest Whitaker and exhibiting some of the most awkward facial and body movements. In fact, she's so bad in her role that the show could attract a following just as a train wreck.

She has no clue how to build a character (or a performance) but she also has no clue what to do when she doesn't have a line. This not being one of her previous projects, she's not providing narration and commentary every second and others actually do get lines. Watching her facial expression when other actors are speaking, it's not clear whether she's counting beats before her next line or if she's just visibly resenting the fact that she's not been given a monologue.

Speaking to one producer with the show on Friday, we were told that it was obvious we were going to write about the fear factor, how CBS tries to scare the audience with these shows, because what we pointed out over five years ago was all the Water Cooler Set suddenly 'discovered' last week in one review after another. Well we'll gladly link to "TV: TESR Investigates" (CSI) and "TV Review: CSI Miami" (CSI Miami) but we're not rewriting those pieces. Time does move on and if you stand still and just keep repeating yourself, you're worse than dead, you're Janeane Garofalo trying to act.

And it is bad, it is really, really bad.

It is so bad that it is layers of bad. Take the final scene of the first episode.

They've solved the case and are back at 'headquarters' (a gym) when the FBI Director (Richard Schiff) shows up to upgrade Prophet's status with a promotion. Apparently, the show exists in some alternate universe where 9-11 never happened and FBI Directors have time to drop in on every team personally when not cutting ribbons at super market openings. But before the Director informs the team of Prophet's promotion he makes it look like he's going to fire Prophet because, 9-11 never having happened in this alternate universe, FBI Directors have a lot of time on their hands and use it to work up pranks.

So the scene starts with them walking into the gym where they're surprised to find the Director who makes noises about Prophet handing in his badge. Instantly, Beth's getting off a half-line. In fact, Janeane gets it off too quickly because this scene is all about pregnant pauses. It's line. Long pause. Line. Long pause. Line. Long pause. . . . Now if the team really thought Prophet was going to be fired would they start to object and then stop and fall silent and then start to speak and then fall silent? A throw away scene that should have moved quickly instead was paced as though it were the fourth act of Chekov's The Cherry Orchard and Varya and Lopakhin still can't admit their feelings for one another.

So the premise is unbelievable (FBI Director stopping by and FBI Director playing pranks) and the execution is unbelievable but we said "layers." We meant more than just two layers of bad.

Once everyone learns the FBI Director is just funnin' and Prophet got promoted, what follows is one of the strangest non-verbal interactions you may ever see. Now they are in a gym and there is a floor mat so it might make sense -- in some tribal culture, somewhere in the world -- for everyone to start jumping on Prophet and taking him down to the mat. But should such a culture exist, we believe even those natives would find Janeane's 'acting' choice rather strange. While everyone else appears to be having fun, she's making bizarre movements as if she's wounded while grinning madly. The only thing to compare it to is when Jodie Foster's Nell first enters a grocery store.

CBS' Criminal Minds Suspect Behavior airs the last hour of prime time on Wednesday nights and be sure to bring the tortilla chips because the network's serving up seven layer bad.
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