Sunday, October 22, 2006

Law and Order makes me want to apologize to Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson, who plays the born-again and inexplicable audience-favorite Harriet Hayes, the too wholesome Beatrice to Matthew Perry's neurotic Benedick, on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, has taken a lot of flak here, from me and most of my commenters.

It's the general feeling that Paulson's too cool, too self-contained, and too "smart" for the character she plays---you can see the wheels turning behind her eyes, and Harriet's charm has to be that she is spontaneous, even impulsive, and just can't help letting her feelings show. If she's at all calculating, then her faith is just an excuse to scold her castmates and bully the writers and her romantic longing for Perry's Matt Albie comes across as manipulation. Both were the case in the first four episodes.

The report from our roving correspondents is that she was marginally less annoying on last week's episode and even managed to be almost as charming and winsome as her character's intended to be.

Part of Paulson's problem has been the way her character's been written. I'm not as big a fan of Aaron Sorkin's writing as a lot of people are, Sorkin himsef included. But I think he is definitely at his weakest when he is writing for women, a weakness he shares with just about every American male writer.

But, finally, I think she's just miscast. If Studio 60 was an opera, it would be as if Sorkin had given a soprano the alto's part. Harriet simply isn't in her range, and she doesn't seem to have any idea how to approach the part except to try to change the key.

What I'm saying is that Paulson is not a bad actress, so watching her play Harriet isn't embarrassing, just frustrating.

Watching Milena Govich as the new detective on Law and Order is embarrassing.

Govich is bad.

Really bad.

She has no control over her voice, she doesn't know what to do with her body, and she has one facial expression, which is half a scowl, half a smirk.

She's not just stiff in front of the camera. She seems terrified of it. You can almost hear her telling herself, Don't look at it, don't look at the camera, pretend it isn't there...OH NO! I looked! Turn away!

It's a rare actress who knows how to play a cop anyway. Kathryn Erbe, who plays Eames on Law and Order:Criminal Intent, has it nailed. She succeeds mostly by underplaying Eames' toughness and by handling Eames' wisecracks with the deadest of deadpans.

It's as if Eames long ago figured out that the way for her to get by in the boys' club is to call as little attention to herself as possible and focus her male colleagues' attention on the case at hand which also focuses them on her detective work.

Eames is something of a tom-boy, but Erbe's method for playing a tom-boy comes from her understanding the secret of tom-boys, which is that tom-boys are not boys stuck inside girl's bodies; they are girls whose natural exuberance and physicality can't be contained within the bounds of traditional girls' play. They don't dislike playing at tea parties. They just get impatinet sitting still that long. A tom-boy doesn't climb a tree to be like the boys. She climbs it because she wants to. She doesn't play a sport like a boy. She plays it as herself, as well as her talent allows.

Tom-boys are attractive to a lot of guys, but not because a tom-boy can be one of the guys. What's beautiful about them is that they are so much themselves, which because their selves are female, often makes them more feminine at the same time they are acting most "masculine."

Erbe doesn't make Eames one of the guys. She makes her a woman doing her job well.

Erbe also does such a good job of downplaying her looks that it's surprising and disconcerting when in an odd moment when she lets her guard down and smiles broadly or when an accidental camera angle reveals that she is in fact beautiful.

S. Epatha Merkerson's Lt Van Buren is another gem of understatement. Merkerson found the key to Van Buren in the fact that Van Buren's a longtime mother and wife and she infuses her with a motherly practicality---I'll kiss your boo-boo after we stop the bleeding and get a Band-aid on it---and a wife's resigned amusement at the ways grown men can act like little boys.

The rest of her cop persona is simply a steady professionalism.

Govich is making the mistake that most young actresses playing cops or soliders or any part that's usually a tough guy role make. She mimics a male actor playing a tough guy, forgetting that most male actors playing tough guys are mimicking Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry or Yul Brenner in The Magnificent Seven. Basing your perfromance on someone else's pale imitation of a caricature is almost never the best approach to a part. But it's definitely a bad idea to play a caricature in a show that's main virtue over the years has been its realism.

Govich doesn't understand this, but I doubt that even if she did she could play the character another way. To talk tough all she can do is bark, and to look tough she just barks louder.

On Studio 60, Sarah Paulson might very well get better and better because she's a good enough actress that she'll find a handle on the part and because Sorkin and his co-writers are smart and will start writing the part of Harriet so that Paulson can play to her strengths.

Ironically, on Law and Order, Govich might seem to get better as the writing and directing continue to get worse and the show descends to her level.

For years now, since even before Jerry Orbach left, Dick Wolf has been hiring writers and directors who don't seem to know what show they're working on.

More and more Law and Order is beginning to remind me of another NBC hit, and it is not one of the other Law and Order franchises.

It's ER.

To be continued.

Important reminder: Live blogging of Studio 60 Monday night at 9 PM EDT with special guest hostess, Shakespeare's Sister!


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