Sunday, May 10, 2015

TV: Jane and Lily Debut while Dave Bows Out

Stevie Nicks observed in "No Questions Asked," that "it's hard to be civil and it's real hard to be nice."  It's like she summed up the motto of truth tellers and possibly TV critics in that couplet.

Last week was the week programming choices begged that questions be asked.

Take Grace and Frankie which debuted on Netflix.

With very little fan fair.

Oh, series stars  Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin  worked the press, promoting the series.

Netflix just didn't do their part.

Friday morning, the series started streaming at Netflix, to promote it at The Common Ills, we made a point to visit the website.

The large, sliding and multi-screen at the top of the page (taken off Sunday) featured . . . Harold & Maude among other things.

We love Harold & Maude.

And the film was written by Colin Higgins who co-wrote 9 to 5 with Patricia Resnick and who directed 9 to 5.  That was the huge box office smash, remember, which starred Jane and Lily (as well as Dolly Parton).

Harold & Maude was directed by Hal Ashby who also directed Coming Home -- the film Jane won her second Best Actress Academy Award for.

All of these connections could have and should have made it easy to make one of the sliding images Grace and Frankie.

They did that when Daredevil began streaming.

But the day Grace and Frankie debuts, users have to search for the show, which was what we had to do to obtain the image.

By Friday evening, Netflix included it in "New Arrivals."  Not in the front of "New Arrivals" -- where the film Noah, for example was -- but if you scrolled through "New Arrivals," you could find it.

Netflix has 13 new episodes to promote and . . . chose not to.

Netflix has never, ever been so clumsy with new episodes of a TV show.

So it's hard to believe it was an accident and looks more like Netflix chose to bury the series -- the one that Jane and Lily spent all week on the major networks promoting, all week speaking to various print outlets, etc.

The sitcom is at its most pointed when it shows how older women are ignored by a youth obsessed patriarchy and who knew Netflix was part of that problem?

Our problem was Jane.

Jane gave a full bodied performance in the film Monster-In-Law in 2006.

She followed that with acting success in Peace, Love and Misunderstanding and ...And If We All Lived Together (both in 2012) and on Broadway in 33 Variations.  These were strong and full bodied performances that any actor would be proud of.

Along with those highs, there were also serious lows like Georgia Rule where she delivered a wooden and clenched performance that recalled some of the most ridiculous performances by Katharine Hepburn at the end of her career.  Then she appeared in Aaron Sorkin's latest bit of misogyny entitled The Newsroom and she delivered monologues -- talky, long winded monologues -- in a self-righteous manner that, if Sorkin possessed any insight, wouldn't have made her look like a self-righteous prig.

Soapboxes don't make for drama.

It's a point Jane grasped when running IPC films (later Fonda Films) and producing films like Coming Home, The China Syndrome, 9 to 5, Rollover and The Dollmaker.

But it's a point she completely missed as she mistook a clenched fist, an unyielding hectoring for drama.

To be clear, there are women -- and men -- like that.  And Jane's played them very well before but this wasn't her playing such a character.  This was what she and Sorkin mistook for intelligent and involved.  Jane's Leona Lansing had about as much depth and layers as Jack Webb's Joe Friday.

The Hepburns ended their film glory sadly.

Katharine was one ridiculous disgrace after another culminating with her weird moments in Warren Beatty's Love Affair. People have been kind but the reality is that Hepburn trashed her legacy repeatedly in the last decades of her career.

Audrey Hepburn was cast in an unplayable role in her final film (1989's Always) but her charm and dignity kept it from being an embarrassment.

Instead, it was just a bad role.  (And her previous film, Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed found her in excellent form.  So Always was just one bad film at the end of her career and not part of a decline the way Katharine's body of work was.)

Which goes to another problem -- there aren't a lot of strong roles for women after a certain age.

So the good news for Fonda fans is that Grace is a great role for her and that she succeeds in it.

No, she excels in the role.

Where the sitcom falters is it's not what people were hoping for.

Last fall, Jane began referring to it as something other than a sitcom.

People didn't like that.

For good reason.

Before there was Bridesmaids, there was 9 to 5.

In fact, that comedy even predates Thelma & Louise.

While the three women weren't allowed to kill the boss -- Fox thought that would be too much -- the film did go places that films starring women didn't get to go before.

You would not have a Thelma & Louise,  Bridesmaids, The Heat, etc. without 9 to 5 which ruled the box office.

So the notion that the hilarious Lily is reteaming with Jane and in something less than laugh out loud funny didn't make people happy.

The first episode won't either.

The only comic gold in the first episode is Lily.

More than anything else, the show needed a studio audience.

If it had one, Sam Waterston wouldn't be mincing.

The immediate reaction from the studio audience would have forced Waterston to reconfigure his character.

Did no one have the guts to tell the actor to stop it?

Did no one have the guts to tell him that he was portraying an offensive stereotype?

He's all popped-eyes, raised eyebrows and high pitched voice.

That's how he plays his gay character (Lily Tomlin's ex-husband).

It's insulting.

Martin Sheen, by contrast, doesn't feel he needs to reconfigure his voice or pop his eyes.

Watching Waterston mince it up, you're not only offended, you're also asking yourself, "Wait?  No one knew he was gay?"

Because that is the premise, that Grace and Frankie have no idea their husbands are gay or having been having a 20 year affair.

Martin succeeds as the awkward Robert who knows he loves his partner Sol and wants a big wedding to make up for all their years of hiding.

Also succeeding are cast members Baron Vaughn (Frankie's adopted son Bud), Ethan Embry (Frankie's adopted son Coyote), June Diane Raphael (Grace's daughter Brianna) and Geoff Stults (Grace's son-in-law Mitch).  Brooklyn Decker struggles in the role of Mallory (Mitch's wife, Grace's daughter) but that appears to be a writing issue.  When the soap opera elements of her role (Coyote is in love with her and, at some in the past, she was pregnant by him) are dropped, such as when she's helping Bud and Coyote plan a bachelor party for their fathers, she holds her own.

But the hinted at backstory between Mallory and Coyote is killing Decker's performance.

Season two better stop teasing and get specific on what the issue there is.

Lily Tomlin comes into her own immediately.

In the very first episode, she's hilarious.

And she only gets better as the series continues.

That's Lily working at her best, layering and deepening as she continues a portrayal.  It's why, for example, it is always a joy to see her in a performance of The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe.  She's never fixed in the role, she's always exploring, always expanding.

And when she's given a chance to do that on TV (such as when she played Kay on Murphy Brown), she is something akin to a revolutionary actor, she's Brando, she's Stanley, she's all the greats and so much more including Monroe -- believe it or not.

Frankie is not Lily's first sexual character.  Ernestine, for example, is all sexual tension, that's why she coiled so tightly.  But Frankie is a very sensual character and Lily inhabits her and reveals an aspect she really hasn't explored previously in her career.

Tate Taylor directs the first episode which features possibly the best visual of the series.  An overhead shot of Lily and Jane walking on the beach.  Lily's rooted in her character's earth mother sensuality.

But Jane?

Her halting steps -- due to the sand and her knee replacement -- make her look like some animated Barbie doll walking across the beach.

And Grace is a wind up doll.

At that point, that's really all she is.

Fueled by anger and who knows what, she's made it through life.

But she hasn't lived.

And it's Grace's moments of realization -- and sometimes terror -- over that fact that draw you to the character.

This could have so easily been overplayed.

Fonda could have gone overboard and 'critics' who know little of acting would have eaten it up.

But she trusts her talent enough not to go overboard or overly broad and Grace ends up a complex character and one who is very funny.

It takes Fonda some time to find her own opposite comedic genius Lily.

But while Fonda is known as a dramatic actress, she's also had a string of success in comedy and as she roots around in her character, she finds her comedic footing.

By episode six, the series is delivering laugh out loud moments consistently.

We noted Lily's sexuality, we should note Ethan Embry.

Ethan really fills out a pair of pants.

Not just in the seat.

We sought out feedback as we streamed the episodes and friends who are straight women and gay men repeatedly noted the crotch of Ethan's pants.

They also noted that now that he's losing his hair, he's getting sexier.

Maybe that will give you another reason to check out the show.

(He looks awful in episode 11 which flashes back several years to a time when he still had a full head of hair -- the wig is ridiculous.)

But whatever reason you latch on to, make a point to watch.

This is a very strong show.  This is a rewarding show.

The writing has been slammed by some in The Water Cooler Set.

We actually praise writing with one exception.

Lily's Frankie gets upset when Brianna uses the word "bitch."  She's okay with the c-word.  But Frankie does not want "bitch" used.

The problem there is that in other episodes (including the first one), Frankie is using "bitch."  She calls a woman a "bitch" when the woman doesn't respond appropriately to Frankie's question if Ben & Jerry do more together than make ice cream.

Now maybe that moment with Brianna was supposed to be a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do moment?

Could be.

But with that exception noted, everything else builds.

If, like us, you're so tired of sitcoms where something's major one moment and then forgotten forever, you'll appreciate that the writers take great care to let events have impact.

We should also note that there are some outstanding musical choices throughout -- including songs by Aimee Mann, Joss Stone and Cat Power.

Watching Grace and Frankie, you realize how much is missing from so many sitcoms.

Monday night, other questions were raised.

That's when CBS did a 90 minute special/tribute to the career of David Letterman.

If it was supposed to make us miss him when he retires next week, it failed to do so.

Ray Romano hosted.


Because Ray doesn't have any other jobs right now.

He offered a curious look at Letterman.

It was one that overlooked Mary Tyler Moore who gave David his first real network exposure when he was cast in her variety show Mary.

Moore, in fact, would have made a much better host.

It's doubtful that Mary would have, as Romano did, wrongly declared that David tapes his show in the same studio where the world met the Beatles.

Mary, we know, would have realized that the Beatles were already known in England and Germany -- in fact all of Europe -- before they made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Only an uneducated idiot like Ray Romano would mistake an American debut for a world debut of a British band.

The special made liberal use of clips from Letterman's CBS late night program as well as from the NBC one that preceded it.

Cher was shown saying she thought David was "an asshole."  And, unlike when it was aired on NBC in the 80s, this time it wasn't bleeped.

Sadly, that was probably it for women.

They continued to appear in clips but not for anything of value.

A lot of music clips of no value.  Sonny & Cher broke up in the 70s as a couple and then as a musical act.  But they did one more performance together, on Dave's show.  They performed "I Got You Babe" one last time.  But that moment didn't make the special.

So much didn't.

Stevie Nicks and Tina Turner were seen -- but not heard -- performing songs -- about 15 seconds for each woman.

Maybe if either woman had flashed their tits, they would have had more time?

Drew Barrymore infamously did that and, of course, that made the clips.

We like Drew and that's part of her free spirit nature.

But watching all the clips surrounding that, where Dave oogled Janet Jackson's breasts or this woman's legs, or made sexual remarks, it was obvious that Dave is not going to be missed at all.

He came off as trashy, sexist and a bit of a lech.

With Bill Murray, Tom Hanks and a multitude of men, he could have conversations.  With women?  It was always sexual.

The not-so-special special failed to really note the best of Letterman.  Maybe that's because doing so would have pointed out the obvious: NBC was when Letterman was at his best.

"Dumb Ads," the monkey cam and all the other wonderful bits -- many with Chris Elliot -- were ignored to instead emphasize the unfunny CBS bits.

But the worst moment of all may have been pretending professional airhead Julia Roberts -- so dumb she didn't even read the scripts when she had her own production company -- was a series regular.

Julia came on to promote films.

She wasn't a regular and she sounds especially stupid (and drugged out) in the appearances prior to her long dry out.  (Had she continued acting immediately after Hook with other films, she probably would have died of a drug overdose before the 90s came to an end.)

And we don't normally note that or the sex rumors of same-sex relationships -- including with the Oscar winner, shhh -- but we don't normally have to deal with Julia.

Or lies.

Or Julia lies.

There was a female regular.

She boosted David's ratings.

Her appearances on his program were must-see TV.

She once serenaded him with Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You."

We're talking about Sandra Bernhard.

Long before Cher called Dave "an asshole," Sandra was giving it to Dave the way he always gave it to women.

Or are we supposed to forget that he mocked Nastassja Kinski so badly that she fled the set in tears -- and Dave and John Candy then spent the remained of the show mocking her for that as well?

Cher spoke to the truth, Dave was and is "an asshole."

And the special only reminded you of that while working so hard to deny it.

There was Dave, for example, using a wounded veteran to insist that the man closes all debate on the questions regarding war.

Dave likes to pretend he admired Johnny Carson but if he truly did admire the work Carson did he'd be aware that while Carson was conservative he was also respectful to those against war.  In fact, he had many words of praise regarding Jane Fonda's activism.

 But there was Dave, the man who used his program to glorify Rudy G "America's Mayor" and to sell war on Afghanistan and Iraq insisting that someone wounded in one of those wars meant that no questions could be asked.

Again, Dave was always "an asshole."

Which is why when the illegal Iraq War was finally questioned seriously on late night TV, it was The Tonight Show with Jay Leno that featured Bright Eyes performing "When The President Talks To God" and David Letterman.

Stevie's right "it's hard to be civil and it's real hard to be nice" when you're telling the truth.  But no one said being a critic was supposed to be easy.  After all, if you can't take the heat, join The Water Cooler Set in serving up p.r. copy as 'criticism.'

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