Bull, Bash, Blonde Bombshells and a Sandy Bottom

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000

Stanley Tucci has turned up suddenly, surprisingly, in the cast of Bull, the first dramatic series from TNT (though it is ultimately a co-production of Warner Bros. Television, which has done this sort of thing before). A first original dramatic series or sitcom is a kind of rite of passage for a network; it says, We’re stepping into the ring with the big boys, and the presence of Tucci, a movie star with street cred, gives the declaration a certain gravity. He‘s not really the main player in this Wall Street ensemble piece, created by Michael S. Chernuchin (a Law & Order writer and producer), which concentrates, as seems to be the fashion, on a group of highly motivated, well-dressed, physically flawless young people. But he’s the one who might make you take it seriously.

Flattering what I take to be its target audience, Bull offers a world in which the young are good and the old bad. (Bad here means regulation old-school bigotry and rule-breaking chicanery -- the everyday moral blindness of Wall Street is not, so far, an issue. And making lots of money is of course, in and of itself, always good.) As the head of the heavyweight brokerage from which his hotshot grandson George Newbern and a crew of like-minded fellow Young Turks (including Malik Yoba of New York Undercover) defect in a fit of carpe diem, or carpe wampum, the always welcome Donald Moffat is a sober variant on the rich old slimes played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in Trading Places, a film paid homage here in a plot point concerning orange-juice futures. (That is about as witty as the show gets.) As a Machiavellian negotiator who, through some baroque machinations I couldn‘t quite follow, weasels his way onto Newbern’s new team -- at least I think that‘s what he’s doing -- Tucci is a more delicately shady character, and whatever fun will be had from this series will be had from whatever trouble he makes; whether he will turn out to be Professor Xavier or Magneto to the series‘ share-trading young X-Men only future episodes will tell. Unlike HBO’s The Sopranos and Sex and the City or Showtime‘s Rude Awakening, which are premium and not basic cable series, Bull is strictly PG in terms of language and skin, but the prime-time soaps of the Age of Spelling did fine with innuendo and little bit of leg, and Bull has the potential to be good and trashy, if it can keep to the low road.

The best thing about Neil LaBute’s Bash, which comes to Showtime in a filmed performance from the Southland‘s own Canon Theater, under the author’s direction, is the chance it affords the couch potato to watch real-time, uninterrupted, old-fashioned onstage acting. (Some might also consider this the worst thing about it.) Paul Rudd (The Cider House Rules), Ron Eldard (Men Behaving Badly) and Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal, duh!) are the players, and most of us know them from their TV and movie acting, which is a different kettle of fish -- not as athletic, in a sense. Done in bits and pieces. Not as inhabited.

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There is a joy in watching this kind of pro performance, one that has nothing to do with the material being performed, and whatever else are the merits and demerits of his playlets, LaBute has a sense of dramatic shape and a good ear, and his dialogue, though it naturally resembles more the way that people talk in plays than the way they talk in life, rarely lapses into unsayable poetry, as sometimes does Tennessee Williams‘ or Arthur Miller’s. And content aside, this anthology of three short plays -- each a confessional recollection, each delivered seated, with minimal props and physical business -- is in a formal sense particularly suitable for television, home of the big talking head.

Bash is subtitled Latterday Plays -- the author went Mormon while attending Brigham Young University -- but apart from some odd-sounding references to missions and elders, just what it has to do with Mormonism is unclear, unless it‘s the more general point that -- Extra! -- religion is no guarantee of right action, and sometimes the cause of, or anyway an excuse for, bad. (Perhaps he is just writing what he knows, as you are supposed to do.) LaBute doesn’t seem to expect much from humanity, which might explain his need for God; I haven‘t seen his theatrical features In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, but I understand from their press that he is temperamentally no Frank Capra. These pieces are standard dark stuff, building to the usual held-back moment of revelation, the expected shock ending that jars the puzzle pieces into place. It’s so clear where they‘re going, however -- the title of one, Medea Redux, pretty much gives its end away -- or at least that they’re going bad, that each payoff registers not so much as a shock as a relief that it‘s over and done with. Next atrocity, please.

Worth a look anyway, for the actors.

HBO’s The Last of the Blonde Bombshells is an amiable piece of fluff that likewise benefits from its cast, a remarkably august one that includes two Dames (Judi Dench and Cleo Laine) and a Sir (Ian Holm), along with Leslie Caron, Olympia Dukakis and Billie Whitelaw. If their collective dazzle does not blind one to the script‘s improbabilities, not to say impossibilities, and its cornucopia of filmic cliche, it is more or less adequate compensation for the invested time. The film concerns the reunion of a World War II--era all-girl band, spearheaded by just-widowed tenor saxophonist Dench and its formerly cross-dressing drummer, Holm, who also spar romantically, and is much concerned with the passage of time, and the things of youth and the things of age. As Dame J. concludes, “Old people are just young people who’ve been around for a long time,” a sentiment that, as an apprentice old person, I am inclined to endorse. Though if you want a real illustration of the passage of time and the things of youth and age, I suggest getting hold of a copy of Peter Hall‘s 1968 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Judi, as Titania, goes topless and Ian cavorts as Puck in a leafy diaper.

Nobody gets naked here, you may be glad to know, and apart from some inexpert musical miming, and Holm wearing a dress, none of the principals are forced to embarrass themselves too badly, as actors often are. They are, of course, musicians in their own way -- I could listen to Dench‘s throaty alto (voice, not sax) until the cows come home. And I have no cows.

Better, and more believable, is The Sandy Bottom Orchestra, “A Showtime Original Picture for All Ages,” which also coaxes a musician out of retirement -- in this instance Glenne Headly (Dick Tracy), whose youthful aspirations as a concert pianist have been sidelined by love, marriage and the baby carriage. Now the baby has grown into lovely young Madeline Zima (the little girl on The Nanny, I can hardly believe), who plays the violin and, like her mother, is alienated from the uncultured, whitebread Wisconsin small town originally imagined by Garrison Keillor and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson in the children’s book upon which this film is based. Like Keillor‘s own monologues, the film, notwithstanding a complement of pixilated Lake Wobegon types, is slow and quiet and not a little bit melancholy. Headly and Zima move through the film with a similar sort of yearning in their eyes that makes them seem actually related. I think I am in love with them both and hope that does not make me a pervert. Tom Irwin, who was Dad on My So-Called Life, is Dad here, a jolly dairyman with a Stokowskian streak; Jane Powell, late of MGM, is around to philosophize and die. In the end, music will be made, and small-town life embraced, and a historic building saved, and if it all seems too good to be true, life itself sometimes does; and for when it doesn’t, we have TV.

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