Tuesday, December 22, 2020

TV: VARIETY and Leonard offered just one interpretation

If you missed it, last week Leonard Roberts wrote a column for VARIETY.  If you missed it, the reaction has been that Ali Larter is a racist who got him fired from HEROES.  Ali is all things evil and Leonard is a victim.

That's one take.


It's certainly what VARIETY ran with.  In fact, we fault VARIETY more than we do Leonard because they published his garbage.  It should have raised alarms from the beginning.

It opens with:

“Daddy, why are there wood boards over all the store windows?” my eight-year-old daughter Evan asked as our family walked our dog along Venice Boulevard. Two-and-a-half months into the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the streets were quiet, as a curfew was in place. Stores all over Los Angeles were being boarded up after looting had followed a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in nearby Santa Monica the day before.

“Well, the store owners have decided to cover the windows just in case,” my wife said. Before Evan could say “in case of what?” I interjected with, “Because people get scared when Black people demand things.”

"Stores were being boarded up after looting."  The daughter asks, "why are there wood boards over all the store windows?"  By his own writing, it's because "stores were being boarded up after looting."  But what he tells his daughter is, "Because people get scared when Black people demand things."

He's real good at taking basic facts and stamping on conclusions -- especially if the conclusions are the worst possible ones he can arrive at.

We'd feel bad about the world if our career was one long failure too.  Robert Leonard isn't a has-been, you have to have been known first to later become a has-been.  He's a never-was.

And there are many reasons for that and some of them may have to do with race.  We'd be happy to explore that had he not decided to lead the online mob against Ali Larter.

The two were in the TV show HEROES.  He was an actor in the cast and she was a star -- he only appeared in 14 of season one's 23 episodes while she was in 21 of season one's 23 episodes.  He seems bitter about that, doesn't he?


We were asked about it all last week, about his column.  What did we know?  We don't know Ali and we don't know him.  We do know Tim Kring (and we'll get to why Robert was fired in a bit).  We do know several actors in the cast -- including Milo Ventimiglia, Adrian Pasdar, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Jack Coleman, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Zachary Quinto and Malcolm McDowell.  We do know Bryan Fuller, Michael Green and Natalie Chaidez who wrote the three episodes in question and Ernest Dickerson, Paul Shapiro and Greg Beeman who directed the three episodes in question.

Before we get to those three episodes, let's look at what Robert Leonard wrote:

Episode 6 began filming in August 2006. D.L. Hawkins was in an interracial marriage with Niki Sanders, a white woman played by Ali Larter. The script suggested D.L. and Niki had a volatile relationship — and it wasn’t long before art was imitating life, with me on the receiving end of pushback from my co-star regarding the playing of a particularly tense scene. Coming from theater, I was familiar with passions running high in the process of bringing characters to life, so I later gave her a bottle of wine with a note affirming what I believed to be mutual respect and a shared commitment to doing exceptional work. Neither the gift nor the note was ever acknowledged.

On another occasion, during the staging of a bedroom scene, my co-star took umbrage with the level of intimacy being suggested between our characters. In a private rehearsal, Greg Beeman, our director, asked if she was willing to lower the straps of the top she was wearing and expose her bare shoulders only above the sheet that covered her, in order to give the visual impression she was in the same state of undress as me, as I was shirtless. My co-star refused Beeman’s request, and I was instantly aware of the tension on the set. I remember instinctively checking to make sure both my hands were visible to everyone who was there, as not to have my intentions or actions misconstrued. Despite Beeman’s clear description of what he was looking for visually, my co-star insisted she was, indeed, being asked to remove her top completely, and rehearsal was cut. She then demanded a meeting with Beeman and the producers who were on set and proceeded to have an intense and loud conversation in which she expressed she had never been so disrespected — as an actress, a woman or a human being.

Later, she found me and said she hoped the “discussion” could stay between us. I didn’t know how that was possible, given said “discussion” was had at elevated levels on a soundstage in front of the crew. Also, my co-star never once thought to include me, her scene partner, in any part of a “discussion,” in which I would have gladly participated. So I found the appeal to my sense of solidarity after the fact strange and somewhat hollow. Nonetheless, I assured her I was fine with getting the work done in any way she and Beeman could agree on. We completed the scene with the straps of my co-star’s top clearly visible, resolving the matter to what I believed was her satisfaction.

While that was my first episode, my co-star had been working on “Heroes” for over a month, and she’d shot another scene that called for Niki to seduce Nathan Petrelli, played by Adrian Pasdar. After watching the episode, I asked Pasdar if there had been any concerns similar to what I witnessed during my episode. He replied to the contrary, and mentioned her openness to collaboration and even improvisation. I pondered why my co-star had exuberantly played a different scene with the Petrelli character involving overt sexuality while wearing lingerie, but found aspects of one involving love and intimacy expressed through dialogue with my character, her husband, disrespectful to her core. I couldn’t help wondering whether race was a factor.

Robert Leonard is, at best, obtuse and we can't believe VARIETY printed the above garbage.  He may or may not have experienced racism on the show but what he wrote above is not accurate.

We're dealing with three episodes in the above, not two.  It's episode four through six.  In episode three, "Collision," Ali and Adrian have the scene Robert Leonard is referencing.  In episode six, "Better Haves," he and Ali are in bed.  We're being kind and including the episode he forgot, episode five "Hiros."


What takes place in "Hiros"?  A videotape of Niki and Nathan having sex is shown -- approximately four seconds of a video is played in the hotel room for Niki -- two seconds and then another two seconds.

Now we don't know Ali and our point here is not to say she's a wonderful person.  She may be the biggest bitch in the world -- a position many on the internet took last week.  She may not be.  But what Robert describes doesn't add up and is open to interpretation.

She's so mean to poor Robert, he insists, having this conversation in front of him but not including him.  The two are staging a scene with a director -- actually, the director's trying to stage it without their input.  Ali's objecting, in front of him.  Is there a reason he's not coming to his screen partner's defense?  It's not just the job of a woman to insist that she not be treated like a piece of meat on a set, it's the job of everyone involved.

An actress was asked to 'lower her straps.'  That's not what happened, he's lying.  He knows damn well that the actress had to move under the sheet.  Ali begins the scene laying on her stomach.  She then has to turn over and then she has to sit up in bed.  That alone would worry many actresses in a skimpy camisole that's not going to stay up once the straps are lowered -- there's nothing holding the camisole up but the straps.  And that's not the end of it.

Ali didn't play Niki -- excuse us, she didn't play just Niki.

Ali played Niki and Niki's alter-ego Jessica.  And Jessica's in that scene too.  Watch the episode.  After Niki sits up, she looks in the mirror and sees not just herself and DL, she also sees Jessica.  Explain to us, please, how Jessica and Niki appear in that scene -- as staged -- with Niki topless?


One has the sheet to cover them, the other is off to the side and doesn't have a sheet to cover them.



Oh and then there's the lie about the loving couple.

I pondered why my co-star had exuberantly played a different scene with the Petrelli character involving overt sexuality while wearing lingerie, but found aspects of one involving love and intimacy expressed through dialogue with my character, her husband, disrespectful to her core. I couldn’t help wondering whether race was a factor.

Is he that stupid or that much of a liar?

Again, Jessica is the alter ego and she doesn't like DL.  Niki's not too fond of him either.  She set him up.  She's the reason he went to prison.  Where does he get the idea, where does Robert get the idea, that his character and Niki are a loving couple?  That's his character's first episode and he shows up and grabs Niki from behind -- that's the scene that the two had conflicts over -- and then to be in bed with Niki.  If he's worried about racism, we think he should have been worried when his character's initial encounter with the woman he's married to involves him threatening her.  We'll come back to that.

Over and over, he's obsessed with Adrian Pasadar.  But look at the scenes Ali had with Adrian in those two episodes.  In the fourth episode of the series, Jessica returns to the hotel room after Niki walks out because she can't sleep with Nathan (because she knows it's going to be recorded to blackmail Nathan).  When Jessica comes back in, she removes her dress and is in her panties and a bra.  She is not naked.  She was uncomfortable as the scene was being blocked.  Adrian was supposed to take off his tie.  Adrian did that but also came up with the business of having his shirt unbuttoned and open.  There was give and take and the two worked together with the director to come up with staging that did not leave the actress feeling exposed or humiliated.  In the four seconds that were aired of their making out in episode five?  Adrian came up with the idea of his back being to the camera and Ali being in front of him -- so that his nude shoulders and back blocked her body from the camera.

These are facts and we're really pissed at Robert Leonard for his ignoring them and even more so at VARIETY for printing his column as is.

HEROES?  The reason we were asked about it was because we called out the program's sexism from the start in "TV: Heroic Would Be Pasdar in a Loin Cloth."  Excuse us, we called it out before the start.  We thought the pilot had aired when we reviewed the show.  We actually published the day before it aired.  Here's the opening of that piece:

Ever play like you had a super power when you were a kid? Maybe you could fly? Maybe you could talk to the dead? Maybe you had premonitions? Watching NBC's Heroes, it's obvious that Tim Kring wished he had a super power as a child and, apparently, it's the sort of power that pops up in letters to Penthouse Forum. How else do you explain the two female characters?

Take for instance teenage Claire Bennet (played by Hayden Panettiere). She's a cheerleader. Don't worry, you didn't have to pay attention to every line of dialogue to search out that clue. Someone decided to make it much easier and have her wear her cheerleader uniform throughout the first episode. Now, understand, she's not at cheerleading practice, nor is she shown at any games. She just likes to wear it day-to-day, or some creative 'genius' figures a skimpy skirt is what every woman doing stunts would wear. When she walked through fire in it, we were honestly surprised someone didn't have the 'bright' idea to 'strategically' burn it.

Then there is Niki Sanders (played by Ali Larter). She's a mom. She's a working mom. And like any working mom who wants her young son to have a good education, she borrows the money for private school from the mob. We do that too. But for milk money, we usually go to the Vatican. After you get over the stupidity of that plot twist, you're still left with what working mom does for a living. Which is?

Let's let you guess. She's a working mom, she's a single parent. Maybe you're remembering Linda Lavin's Alice and thinking "waitress." Or maybe you're remembering Bonnie Franklin's Ann Romano or Judith Light's Angela and thinking "advertising." You're wrong.

We'll help you out by telling you what she wears to work, okay? Bra and panties.

Bra and panties. That's it. Sometimes, if the patrons have enough money, a little less. That's because she's a computer worker. No, she doesn't repair them. No, she doesn't enter data or program them. What she does is internet porn. A worthwhile vocation, we're sure, and one that keeps the spine supple judging by the number of times Larter, on all fours, stuck her ass in the air.

But Phyllis Schlafly can breathe easy, she works out of the home.

Now having seen a teenager run around in a cheerleading outfit the whole episode and gotten to see Niki work it in her bra and panties at the start (by choice, Madonna, by choice) as well as be forced to 'perform' by the mob near the end, you might wonder how much male flesh was on display?

But if you wondered that, you're thinking of another NBC, a NBC that captured ratings, won time slots and offered up hours and hours of entertainment. Those days are long gone. Having lost out to CBS, NBC doesn't know what it is and it's perfectly comfortable displaying women like meat on the hoof if it means they might be able to come in second in the overnights.

Masi Oka's character's name is Hiro Nakamura which is strange because we didn't realize that was Japanese for "Tim Kring." Hiro's super power is the manipulation of time and space which allows him to pop up anywhere. (On American TV, that translates as NYC.) And like the creator of the show, he can think of nothing finer to do with his powers than pop into the ladies' room.

Getting the picture? Good.

If the show can get past the leering quality, this is one to watch.


The set was not a good set for women.  So, yes, Ali -- any actress -- was hesitant to entertain the crew by pulling the tiny straps on her camisole down so that the boys could get a free peep show as she rolled around on the bed and sat up.  Adrian and Milo both worked with their co-stars and the directors of the bed scenes in the first season because the directors did want more flesh -- more female flesh.  Milo, for example, successfully argued for the sheet to be raised higher than a director wanted in one bed scene.

The ungenerous view of Robert is that he was just in it for himself and didn't give a damn about anyone else's feelings.  That might be true but we prefer to go with he didn't have enough knowledge to care.  He didn't know his craft, he didn't know that you need to work with your scene partner, you need to support them, you need to help them find a space of comfort.  He thought you just learned your lines and showed up and called that acting.


That was the problem, by the way.  He can't act.  There is no chemistry between him and Ali, true.  But he's also not sexy, he's something.  But no one's sure what.  It's why, in the second day of shooting, the bed scene, the director was pushing for skin.  There was nothing coming from Robert Leonard.  He was not giving anything.  They had hoped for sexual heat or even sexual menace but instead he was just "flaccid" as we were told.  We watched the three episodes again and, yes, he was that inept.  That scene, the standing in the dark living room, strange that he doesn't note all the attempted blocking that went into that.  All the re-staging.  The talks to him about how he's supposed to be passionate in the scene, how his character desires Niki.  You never get that.  It should have been a simple scene but it was a difficult shoot and it's because all Robert could play was dripping sincerity.  He was a school boy groping a full-bodied woman. 


Low energy levels.  That's the word we were given when we were told, years ago, that Robert Leonard was being written out.  We had hopes for DL and thought that maybe better writers could make the character more interesting.  When we found out he wouldn't be returning, we were told the reason was low energy levels.  He didn't deliver the strong performance the character required.  We thought about it and we had to agree that was the case.


Reading his column, though, another thing stood out.  From the column:


One of our last publicity obligations that first season involved a photoshoot for Entertainment Weekly, in which cast members, based on their characters’ relationship on the show, were featured on collector’s edition covers. The release of the covers was to coincide with the network’s upfront presentation for the 2007-2008 season in New York.

Upon arriving backstage at Radio City Music Hall for a rehearsal, I caught my co-star’s eye. “I’m hearing our cover is selling the least of all of them,” she told me. It was the first and only thing she said to me that night and I believed the subtext was clear: I was tarnishing her brand.


Was Ali blaming him for the sales of the cover?  We have no idea.  Again, we don't know Ali.  We do know people at ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and they were complaining before the covers came out.  Robert insisted upon wearing a t-shirt.  A rumpled, loose t-shirt -- the kind that they make fun of in that ad where the couple's out on the date and the woman says to the man that he looks "very comfortable" in that sad and saggy shirt.  Oh, and it was pink.  They tried to talk him out of it at the photo shoot (not Ali, who didn't seem to care one way or another) but he was bound and determined to wear it.  He looks ridiculous in his frumpy and, honestly, girl-ish t-shirt.

He wore pink to Radio City Music Hall as well.  That's when "Down Low" started.  The jokes that DL stood for "Down Low."  That DL was secretly gay.  

Now the people behind the scenes at HEROES didn't have a problem with gay actors or gay characters.  Zachary Quinto was known to be gay and that wasn't an issue.  Thomas Dekker was 19 and a member of the cast.  They knew he was gay and they attempted to write his character that way which led Dekker to bolt the show -- his management advised him that he'd be type cast if he played a gay character.  The problem for DL was that there was no way to make him gay.  He was always on the periphery of the series and if DL was gay who needed him to stay on the show?  That might cause more Pasdar jealousy, it may not.  But Adrian's character, unlike DL, was at the center of the show.  He was Peter's brother, he was Claire's father, he was Linderman's target and Angela and Arthur's son.  DL didn't have that.  He was connected to Niki as her estranged husband and to Mykah as his father.  DL was a minor character and the actor performing him needed to deliver.  If he didn't -- low energy or jokes in the industry about the character being on the down low -- he was gone.

That's what happened.

His column points the finger at Ali and the internet ran with it.

But here's the thing on that. Ali didn't create the show and she wasn't a producer.  Racism didn't get him fired.  He was fired because he was expendable and that went to the bad performance he gave.  But even if Ali was a racist -- we were told she wasn't, some who told us that said she was a bitch, some said she wasn't a bitch, all agreed she wasn't racist -- that didn't go to her. 

Tim Kring made the final decision.  He made the decision to fire Ali Larter as well, seasons later.  That wasn't sexism.  That was a decision he made based upon what he felt was right for the show.  He'd already killed off Niki in season three.  She was brought back as Tracy (Niki's sister -- also the real Jessica's sister, not Niki's alter).  And then she was killed off again.

It's amazing how the online mob has gone after Ali until you realize that it's another round of Bash The Bitch -- an American pastime we've long noted.  Robert Leonard didn't do anyone any favors with his factually weak column and VARIETY is even worse for publishing it.  Sometimes a fired actor is fired because they didn't deliver and it's just that basic.

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