Monday, January 19, 2015

TV: As The Millers sank, The McCarthys rose

 Jerry Van Dyke kept plugging away.


Failure on The Judy Garland Show led to failure on My Mother The Car to failure on Accidental Family  to failure on Headmaster to failure on 13 Queens Boulevard . . .

Finally, in 1989, he clicked on Coach. 

Is Will Arnett the new Jerry Van Dyke?

And if so, how much slack should he be cut?

We'd argue none -- but then, we've watched his work.

There was some confusion over CBS’ recent decision to axe The Millers and keep The McCarthys.

The move made perfect sense.

What didn't make sense, what never made sense, was axing Robin William's The Crazy Ones last spring but renewing The Millers.

Unlike The Crazy Ones, The Millers had no lovable lead performer.

In a supporting role, it did have Beau Bridges doing incredible work and making you believe you were watching a better show than you were.

Margo Martindale showed up as Margo Miller and gave the same performance she delivered in Justified and in The Americans.  

Problem was, in both of those series, she was playing murderous sociopaths -- one so awful in The Americans that you cheered Elizabeth (Keri Russell) beating the crap out of Martindale's Claudia in the first season episode "Trust Me." 

Despite still playing a sociopath on The Millers, she  was supposed to be the difficult but lovable mom.

It never worked throughout season one.  The actress wasn't coming across to the viewers.  A season two fix, giving her a best friend (played by Sean Hayes), improved things a bit but they never should have cast the woman to begin with.

It's not that the actress was straining under the weight of attempting to play the part – it's that she didn't even try to create a new character.  This is a role Swoosie Kurtz could have tossed off while getting highlights and a pedicure.  But it was beyond the scope of  Martindale.

The show could have survived that.

If that was the only problem, it could have survived it.

When an actor can't come across, you play up the others in the cast and let them define the actor who was unable to define her role.

But the only one able to act on the show was Beau Bridges. 

In fairness, Beau has more than talent, he has confidence.

So his underwritten role was never going to hold him back. 

Two other members of the supporting cast (Jayma Mays and Nelson Franklin) delivered when they were allowed to by the script but mostly they were after thoughts.

The focus was on one performer: Will Arnett.

And that’s a lot of camera time for someone who not only showed all they could offer in a single episode of Will & Grace ("Back Up Dancer" -- playing Karen's former lover Artemis Johnson) but also for someone who quickly wears out his welcome.

If a live action film of Penelope Pitstop is ever made, Arnett will be perfect for the role of Sylvester Sneekly.

Up to and until then, he’s someone who needs to be used in very small doses -- the way 30 Rock did with him as Devon Banks.

With Arnett, a dab will do you.

Anything more and you’re gasping for air because he doesn't so much captivate as he suffocates.

Building a show around him will always be problematic.

He’s just not likable.

So cast him as the ultimate villain!

That would only work if he had the depth to carry it off.

Time and again, he’s demonstrated that he doesn't.  Again, he showed all he had in a single episode of Will & Grace.

Will Arnett did have a hit show under his belt.

He was the third lead (third adult lead, anyway) in Up All Night.

And as the third lead, very secondary to Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph, he worked. 

Then came season two and Arnett’s preening ego and the re-plotted show lost all the humor as well as the audience it had built up.

With such limited talent, we don’t blame him for grabbing anything offered but we do fault CBS for casting him in the lead.

He’s not a generous actor and Margo Martindale was left on her own to twist in the wind as Arnett bulldozed his way through one scene after another.

The Millers gave you no reason to care.

The McCarthys are already neighbors and guests in viewers’ homes.

Welcome guests.

Laurie Metcalf heads the Irish clan and she’s a performer who truly comes alive in the sitcom format.  The Emmy winner has done outstanding work on Roseanne, the highly underrated The Norm Show, Getting On, The Big Bang Theory and now in The McCarthys.

She leads a very strong cast on the CBS sitcom -- one that feels like a family.

The Millers were never a family.  That was the other obstacle the sitcom couldn't overcome.

It was another oddity from Greg Garcia.  He pulled off Raising Hope (or, rather, Martha Plimpton did) but most of his shows have limited shelf life because they're freak shows.

If you're offended by that, be offended by the fact that he keeps creating characters he looks down on.

In show after show, he's making a point to insist he's better than these stupid idiots he creates.

And then he wants you to laugh at them.

Not with them.

At them.

Sean McCarthy is not a smart person.  But he's a person (brought to life by the strong performance of Jimmy Dunn) -- not a sketch. 

And he's a person you can recognize and relate to.

That's true of Ronnie of course. 

"Of course" because The McCarthys wasn't thought up in some b.s. pitch  seesion(“The ma’s a controlling bitch, the son’s a TV anchor . . .”).  It’s based on Ronnie’s life.

Or, rather, it's based on Brian Gallivan's life.

It's not autobiography, but creator Gallivan is openly gay and his family is in Boston.

Tyler Ritter's done a great job bringing Ronnie to life.  (Yes, Tyler is the son of the late John Ritter.)  And Tyler deserves a great deal of credit for his timing as well as his acting chops.  But anytime you've got a character who is real and relatable, you're not having to play catch up or create a grand backstory to try to make sense of the character.

It's an amazing cast which also includes strong work by Kelen Coleman and Jack McGee and, especially, Joey McIntyre.  (Yes, he is the Joey McIntyre of New Kids On The Block.)  Gerard is a real ass.  Sometimes, he's a smart ass.  Sometimes he's just an ass.  McIntyre has brought the character to life in such a way that even as you groan over Gerard's latest remark or stunt (or bringing his frightmare of a girlfriend -- Jessica St. Clair's Katrina -- for a family visit), you don't hate him, you don't dislike him, you don't turn him into Newman.  McIntyre's made Gerard a real person.

You care about all the members of the family because you know them or you are them.  

The Millers was built around who can say the most outrageously cruel thing to one another while The McCarthys is built around something more than bitchy.  And, most importantly, The McCarthys is laugh out loud funny.

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