Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Repertory television

Frank Weaver liked my suggestion of having Amanda Peet switch roles on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Frank has some other suggestions and comments on the show that you should check out.

Of course, American TV shows don't usually work that way. Three shows aired and I don't know how many in the can, the producers are pretty much stuck with the cast as is. Some characters will likely be written out of the show along the way, but it's usually the case that when a character goes, the actor playing the part goes too.

It's also almost always the case that when actors leave, their characters are done away with.

So if the producers of Studio 60 decide that Sarah Paulson's and Amanda Peet's characters aren't working out, Paulson and Peet will be looking for work. That's unfair, because what's wrong with Harriet and Jordan is only partly their faults.

But if Aaron Sorkin happened across this blog and thought to himself, By gum! This Mannion fellow's on to something. Amanda Peet would make a better Harriet! He'd have a very hard time selling the idea to his bosses.

Audiences won't accept the change, the suits would insist. It would confuse them and they'd feel cheated.

This goes into the What the hell do I know about it? file, but I'm not so sure.

I think people's imaginations are a lot more flexible than that. Plus, I think they enjoy seeing the changes.

First off, soap opera audiences are used to having different actors playing their favorite characters, so there's evidence that it can be done.

But not only can it be done. It is done, just not as regularly as I'd like to see it done.

Most famously, or infamously, there was the Dick Sargent in for Dick York substitution on Bewitched, but I'm thinking of the Jeeves and Wooster series, starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

In four seasons they had three different Madeline Bassets, four Aunt Dahlias, two Aunt Agathas, two Gussie Finke-Nottles, and two Lady Florence Crayes, the second one being the first Madeleine Bassett. Francesa Folan was woefully miscast as the squashy, soupy Madeline, but perfect as the imperious Lady Florence.

If I ruled the world, I'd give both Harriet and Jordan three or four weeks off---send Harriet off to film a movie, have Jordan busy with all the other shows on the network, that is, have her off doing her job, instead of hanging around to cheerlead for Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford---and then bring back Peet as Harriet, acknowledging the switch with, maybe, a joke about how she's stopped dying her hair blonde.

Steven Weber can tell the new network president how his/her predecessor lost her job.

This is more doable for Studio 60 because it's still building its audience and the characters aren't fixed in people's minds yet.

It's probably never a good idea to try to keep a beloved character while replacing the actor who made the character beloved, although I wonder if this might be easier to do than replacing the beloved character with a new and somehow different character who fills the same role on the show.

Cheers managed to do this not just once, but twice, and the show even got better when Woody took over behind the bar for Coach and then again when Rebecca replaced Diane as the object of Sam's desire.

MASH did it twice too. Colonel Potter never made me forget Henry Blake, but he was a great character in his own right. BJ Hunnicut was a vast improvement over Trapper, who never really developed into more than a shadow Hawkeye, which is why Wayne Rogers wanted off the show. But while Charles Emerson Winchester was a a good character, he never filled the void left by Frank. That, I think, is a case where they really needed two characters to replace the one.

Law and Order had a good run of luck replacing characters this way, but Dick Wolfe lost his touch after Carey Lowell left and it's been hit or miss, mostly miss ever since.

I have yet to see Law and Order this season, Friday nights being a bad night for television for me, which is another post, so I'm asking, how are Green's new partner and the new ADA?

Over on Criminal Intent, I think Eric Bogosian's going to be ok as the new captain, but he's a little too slickly smart and eloquent for a police captain. He comes across as a lawyer and I can't helping thinking he'd have been excellent as a replacement for Jack McCoy on the original.

I'd like to see him knocking Fred Thompson's Arthur Branch back on his heels. McCoy has become just as reactionary as Branch and Waterson is too tired to bring fire to the few scenes in which they disagree.

You can see how Branch would start second-guessing himself all the time around Bogosian.

But he's stuck as a second banana for now and meanwhile Julianne Nicholson as Logan's new partner is definitely not a graduate of the Cagney and Lacey School of TV Lady Cops. She may in fact be the least believable female cop in the history of television, although I don't really remember Peggy Lipton on The Mod Squad.

But she wasn't a real cop anyway, was she?

And, as Wolcott says, it doesn't help that folks behind the camera are in love with her and lavish her with close-ups "as if she were a cute snowcone with sprinkles."

There's a kind of Love this character or else insistence to it.

Something else has changed in the casting of Law and Order franchise. The original used to have what amounted to a repertory company of actors who rotated through the episodes regulary, now showing up as lawyer, a few weeks later as a witness, a little later on as a suspect. They were mostly working stage actors, used to creating characters out of gestures, postures, voice changes, and they made their parts distinctive. But their familiarity also contributed to their effect. We recognized them, but in that I know you from somewhere but can't quite place the face way of real life. When Logan and Briscoe interviewed on of them working as limo driver or a doorman or a construction worker or whoever he was this time we felt as if we were meeting a real person, someone we'd bumped into on the street, which made the streets of New York themselves come alive on the show.

It helped make New York City a main character in the series. As Wolcott says:

The black comedy of the L & O intros comes from the intrusion of mayhem into everyday New York routine. It's as if no one can run a simple errand without wandering into a crime scene. One second a Typical New Yorker is walking a dog along Riverside Drive or picking a kid up from pre-school, only to find an arm dangling from the dumpster, or the body of a tranny hooker draped over the hood of a gypsy cab. The reason the L & O franchise wears so well in reruns is because it doesn't try to upstage the city in which it's set.

I haven't recognized New York in the shows of the last few seasons, I don't feel like I'm there, and I think this is because all the secondary characters and bit players are cast with all the attention and care that goes into casting the background extras for a McDonald's commercial.

They seem uniformly bland as if pulled off the rack from a closet labeled "Normal people."

There are no normal people in New York City.

Barney Miller was another show with a repertory company. The same five or six actors played most of the entire population of New York, at least that part of the population that came through the precinct house. And producer Danny Arnold didn't seem to care if the same actor showed up three weeks in a row as three different characters. He trusted that the audience knew it was all make believe anyway.

I've rambled on long enough. I don't have much of point. I'm just saying.

One last example before I go.

I really liked it that Deadwood's David Milch brought back Garrett Dillahunt, who played the drunken loser and murderer Jack McCall in the first season, to play the slicker, smarter, more sinister and evil murderer Francis Wolcott in the second season.

I wish, though, he'd brought him back yet again for the third season, this time as a good guy. Or at least a semi-good guy.

Dillahunt, tall, skinny, capable of being really mean and nasty, yet also charismatic and even at his worst with the touch of a hero and poet about him, would have made an excellent Wyatt Earp.


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