Sunday, June 24, 2012

TV: The fickle fate of stardom

The thing about stardom is that it just isn't fair.  And that's not a detail that's secret by design, more by delusion.  At a certain age -- say 30 or 40 -- most men and women with no filmography to speak of will give up the years of table waiting and find another path.  Lily Tomlin's Margo Spelling was a resourceful version of this realization in Robert Benton's The Late Show while Jane Fonda's Gloria Beatty offered a more tragic outcome of this realization in Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Still many people pursue stardom -- for a variety of reasons including art, money, popularity, childhood issues -- though few will achieve it.   In the fall of 1973, Donny Most and Anson Williams probably thought they -- at least one of them -- stood a good chance at it since they were playing series lead Ron Howard's best friend.  But then ABC put Happy Days on the air in January of 74 and the star was the little extra who surprised everyone: Henry Winkler as the Fonz.  Suddenly, the writers had to scramble to beef up Winkler's part (and get him out of the windbreaker and into a leather jacket).  On the same network a few years later, Joyce DeWitt repeatedly thought stardom was just about to find her.  First up, when Three's Company debuted in 1977 and John Ritter was the network's designated star, DeWitt hoped she could ride the coattails but Suzanne Somers was the breakout star.  When Somers left the show, DeWitt thought her day would come.  Instead, everyone was  more than fine with giving newcomers and guest stars the build up which led to awkward, and sometimes vicious, moments for DeWitt and others.  When Shell Kepler (famous to General Hospital fans as Amy Vining) scored with viewers at the end of season five and ABC felt she might have something similar to Sommers, DeWitt made clear she wasn't being Chrissy Snow-ed again.  Instead, Kepler was brought back for a two-parter in season six and treated like dirt by DeWitt who saw to it that most of Kepler's lines got cut before filming.  DeWitt would hang around for eight seasons waiting for the call from stardom that never came.

Right now the phone's ringing for Josh Henderson.


If you're asking, that's your first clue that you're out of the loop.  In the last three weeks, Henderson's become the industry buzz for his portrayal of John Ross Ewing III on TNT's Dallas.


Dallas is a continuation of the CBS TV prime time soap opera that began life as a 1978 mini-series, followed by nine strong seasons, four where it lagged and then two TV movies (plus a TV movie prequel).  It's the show that made Larry Hagman a star.  Hagman was already famous and well known and liked by the public as Barbara Eden's co-star in I Dream of Jeannie.  But it was the role of oil tycoon J.R. which allowed Hagman to become a star.

And it wasn't Hagman on his own.  The death of the show with viewers tracks with the disappearance of the other star of the original series: Victoria Principal.  Hagman and Principal drove the mini-series allowing others (including Linda Gray and Charlene Tilton) to just stand around doing nothing.  Principal had the star power to immediately grab the audience and have them rooting for her as she stood up to J.R. That dynamic is what turned the mini-series into a TV series.

Forgotten in all the hoopla that would come a few years later with "Who Shot J.R.?" is the fact that Principal carries half the mini-series (Hagman the other half).  Producers Leonard Katzman and Phil Capice understood that but had different notions of how to use the two stars.  Katzman thought the show worked best with Pam suffering while Capice thought the stories were better when Pam was able to stand up to J.R.  Regardless, there was a realization that the polar opposites of J.R. and Pam were the show and that their conflict drove the show much more than the Ewing oil dramas that were so quickly forgotten.  Who's in charge of Ewing Oil this week was far less important than  J.R. insisting to Pam in one episode, "I've despised you ever since the day Bobby brought you home" or Pam offering in another, "You have no heart.  You have no feelings.  You can't be hurt like other people, but you have one soft spot, one weakness and that's Ewing Oil, the only thing you've ever loved."

Katzman loved women as victims, Capice loved strong women.  After the mini-series, the show's finest seasons is the 1985-1986 season.  Capice will be ousted at the end,  Principal will have a reduced role as she prepares to the exit the show and the CBS show will never again be a weekly must-see.  Principal was a strong woman and whether Pam was being victimized or overcoming, that strength couldn't be hidden (nor did viewers want it hidden).  That made her a standout for TV at that time and especially for Dallas.

Linda Gray was busy learning her way (in the 1983-1984 season, Gray becomes a first-rate actress) and Charlene Tilton's too busy dating and whining (most infamous whine was about meeting her hero Barbara Streisand who blows her off but Tilton manages to save everything -- including the tray which she has laminated -- Streisand ate on in the studio commissary) to worry about acting.  Women were treated like crap off screen unless they were strong and smart like Principal.  It's why so many of the Knots Landing actresses loathed cross-over episodes with Dallas (and why there were so few cross-over episodes between the two).

And it's why Donna Reed was treated like crap.  Barbara Bel Geddes wanted a check.  That's all she ever wanted her entire career.  She gave the same performance -- the same pathetic performance -- in Vertigo that she did in Dallas.  There was a subtext of I-hate-men in that performance, whether it was staring at the outside of Jimmy Stewart's apartment while Kim Novak is inside or the glares her Miss Ellie gave Jock.  But that undercurrent was always cloaked in a faux maternal glow that was especially creepy when aimed at actors her character was supposed to be romantically attracted to or romantically engaged with.

By the time she got to play Miss Ellie, the woman who never tired of insisting she was wrongly caught in the Red Scare of McCarthyism just wanted her check more than ever.  And Miss Ellie largely reacted to all the backstabbings as if she were zonked out on qualudes.

Health reasons forced Bel Geddes off the show but everyone wanted to keep Miss Ellie.  So a search was on and Academy Award winner Donna Reed was selected.  Before she signed a contract, Reed had been very clear about how she'd play Miss Ellie.  She wouldn't play stupid and she wouldn't play doormat.  With Jock long dead and off the show, the producers liked the idea of someone who would stand up to J.R. and Reed was signed for three seasons.

Quickly Katzman and Reed were in conflict because of their concepts of women.  Reed was playing the role as she said she would -- and Miss Ellie was actually a better character.  But Bel Geddes suddenly wanted back on the show and Donna Reed was fired after only one season (she and Hagman also didn't get along).  A real shame because Reed was leaving an impression and like Morgan Brittany, Priscilla Pointer and Susan Howard, making a mark on the show.  Shoving Capice out of the picture results in the death of strong women and Pam's departure means the end of any relevance for the CBS show.

'What about Patrick Duffy?' some will ask.  We went through all of that to explain what about Patrick Duffy.  He's a likeable personality and a famous TV actor.  He's not a star, not even a TV star.  While the show aired on CBS, Duffy was convinced that Bobby needed this or that.  Eventually, he was insisting on a dark side.  When nothing resulted in what he wanted (stardom), he left the show.  Big money and a year of reality brought him back to the show.

Duffy's not a bad actor.  He's most writers' dream of an actor in fact.  Duffy is faithful to the text and attempts to enhance it.  He will not subvert it.  He will try to be true to the page.  And that means he's never giving a bad performance.  Even in the worst episode of The Man From Atlantis, Duffy is believable.  But the refusal to go against the grain also means Duffy's never left any lasting mark.

What about the new Dallas?

We offered all of that to explain the new Dallas as well.

Like Josh Henderson, the busty Jesse Metcalfe got attention in the last decade by playing a gardener on Desperate Housewives.  In fact, Metcalfe got far more attention from that turn than did Henderson.  And with the TNT series, he probably assumed he'd be the star.  He even gets top billing.

But Metcalfe, playing Pam and Bobby's grown up son Christopher, is more like Duffy than Principal.  Metcalfe has faithfully followed one script after another -- even bad ones.  He's a good looking man who frequently hits all the right notes but he's not a star.

The other star in the cast is Jordana Brewster who plays Elena Ramos, current lover of John Ross and ex-fiancee of Christopher.  She's sort of in the oil business with John Ross (they're supposed to be partners) but also helping Christopher with his pursuit of alternative energy.  Which means a lot of boring talk with Metcalfe about methane but she supplies a sexual undercurrent to those scenes that keeps them alive.

John Ross and Christopher are at odds.  And John Ross doesn't just want to bet on oil, he wants to drill on the family ranch Southfork.  This brings the CBS castmates in because Bobby's not letting anyone violate Miss Ellie's will and wishes that no oil rigs ever grace Southfork.  When John Ross refuses to back down to his uncle, it's Ewing warfare yet again.

Where's J.R.?

In a nursing home, not speaking, not registering.  The loss of Ewing Oil to Pam's brother Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) and Southfork to Bobby appear to weigh heavily.  After learning he has cancer, Bobby begins re-evaluating his life and goes to speak to his basically comatose brother.  After going up against Bobby and needing help, John Ross goes to J.R.  As John Ross vents about how Bobby's planning to sell Southfork and turn it over to a conservation group, J.R. finally speaks.  He's been faking all along.  Apparently waiting for the day when someone realized they still needed J.R.

Hagman's delicious in the role.  And  show runner Cythia Cidre (who also wrote the TNT pilot) knows just when to bring him in.  Bobby's cancer is only dramatic enough for so long.  After that, a wallowing sets in and you really need J.R. right when he arrives.

"Son, the courts are for amateurs and the faint of heart," J.R. advises John Ross who's trying to figure out how to get what he wants.

What of Linda Gray?  Sue Ellen wants to be the next governor of Texas.  And just might become that. Her opening scene carries so much promise and then she's largely forgotten.  (It is just like old times!) Gray sold a later scene in the pilot by playing it with a barely restrained fierceness.  Even so,  you were still left thinking how abrupt and tacked on the whole thing felt.  In that scene, Sue Ellen explains to John Ross that Bobby selling off Southfork isn't a done deal, "Listen to me carefully, son.  I know you are disdainful of my connections but they are powerful.  Think of me as an ally.  I can help."  All that prepared for that moment was a brief reaction shot of a wary Sue Ellen at the dinner table as Bobby announced his plan to sell Southfork and a line of disagreement with Ann (Brenda Strong) in an argument that is dropped as they both see Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo) in her wedding dress.

That's one of the subplots.  Why did Elena and Christopher break up?  Why is Christopher marrying Rebecca?  Will Bobby sell Southfork?  What of the cancer?

The tumor's removed and Bobby begins drug treatment that will hopefully leave him tumor free.  Elena and Christopher broke up because of an e-mail he sent her.  Only he didn't.  And when he denies it, she's left suspecting John Ross sent it and stuck as Rebcca's bridesmaid at the wedding, watching Christopher marry another woman.  A woman who loves him and his money.  Tommy (Callard Harris) shows up for the wedding, he's her brother.  Or that's what they tell people.  The two are con artists.  They've spent two years plotting how Rebecca would land Christopher. That e-mail?  After Elena accuses John Ross of sending it, he hires a private detective who informs him Rebecca sent that e-mail posing as Christopher.

As for Southfork, J.R. and John Ross now want Bobby to sell the ranch.  Marta Del Sol (Lenor Varela Palma) is handling the purchase for her father's conservatory.  Only she's actually working with J.R. and John Ross.  And they're counting on the millions Vincente (Carlos Bernard) will be supplying them with in exchange for a steady supply of Southfork oil.

Two good things may immediately stand out about the show Cidre's now running: Women are more integral to the stories and the TNT show boasts one of the largest Latino casts in prime time currently or in the last two years.  But the main thing that should stand out is what fun it is.

The twists and turns will surprise you.  Brewster will add weight to the emotional scenes and, most importantly, to the let's-go-to-the-lab-and-develop scenes.  She's been in several movies but she's catching fire in this role and if enough people aren't yet talking about that, it's only because Josh Henderson is a super nova that's difficult to look away from.

As John Ross, he is the worst of J.R. and Sue Ellen (including his mother's problems with drinking) and the actor seems to have absorbed characteristics of Hagman and Gray.  He does a variation on J.R.'s naughty delicious grin and when he's actually listening to someone he holds his head in a manner similar to Gray when Sue Ellen's considering what's going on around her.  Sue Ellen, especially on CBS, always studied what took place a great deal more than she ever commented.  Catch especially those early around the dinner table scenes from the seventies and early 80s of the show.

And you can catch it on TNT or XFINITY.  One episode.   If you're a cable or satellite subscriber, you can log in at TNT and watch multi-episodes.  If not, they allow one episode.  They are running one week behind so, right now, that's episode two.  XFINITY puts new episodes up on Friday.  Again, only one episode is made available to those who don't log in with a cable or satellite ID.  But they have the latest episode.  Meaning you can catch episode two with TNT and then flip over to XFINITY for episode three. (You can also buy episodes from Amazon among others.)  To watch episodes when they first air each Wednesday night on TNT, second hour of prime time.

"Trust me, Southfork will be mine," John Ross declares at the end of the first episode. "And only mine.  The fun is just beginning."  Bad guy or not, you find yourself hoping he's right.

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