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Love That Chris 

The rock & roll sitcom

Wednesday, Mar 7 2001
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Once you excuse -- or embrace -- the cable-required gratuitous female nudity, The Chris Isaak Show, a new series from Showtime starring the chiseled-visaged retro-pop singer as a version of himself, proves itself a rendezvous of semisophisticated charm, sweet temper, sly wit, sure craft and, um, naked girls. Certainly it‘s the first decent sitcom Showtime has managed to field. Produced by Northern Exposure’s Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, it takes as models such HBO one-camera comedies as Larry Sanders and Arliss, not only in form but in substance, concerning as it does the organization as family -- with the star as fallible Dad -- and amalgamating the fictional and the actual. (It is, however, much less cynical and far more cheerful than either of those shows.) Along with Isaak, the longtime members of his band, Silvertone, appear as themselves (abetted by ringer Jed Rees, who was a funny little alien in Galaxy Quest and who here pretends to play keyboards), and there are special guests from the real world such as Minnie Driver, Stevie Nicks, Junior Brown, Joe Walsh and Chris‘ mother. Isaak plays and hangs out at Bimbo’s, which is a real San Francisco nightclub (re-created for the show on a Vancouver sound stage), and lives in a house based on his own. The Jack Benny Show, another comedy in which an entertainer played himself surrounded by people who actually worked for him, is clearly an influence (Jed Rees being approximately Dennis Day), as is possibly Love That Bob for the bachelor-life storylines, and Ozzie and Harriet for the bits where Ricky sang and for the bubble of 1950s style in which Isaak and his bandmates dwell.

Isaak -- who has played small parts in movies and on TV for years (as well as co-starring in Bertolucci‘s Little Buddha) -- is a personable and good-looking not-quite-so-young man, funny and relaxed and able to get a lot out of a line like ”Non sequitur -- that’s Latin for huhwaaah?“ or ”I don‘t believe in that superstitious stuff -- I’m a Catholic.“ He has a smooth and pretty singing voice, which he sometimes gives a jagged edge; a passel of songs in a slightly punked-out Ricky NelsonElvis PresleyRoy Orbison mode (surely you remember ”Wicked Game“); a closetful of boss old shirts and spangly stage gear to hang on his naturally padded shoulders; and an engaging self-deprecating streak: He‘s confident enough to play the rock-star stud, and realistic enough to see that as comic and pathetic. In like fashion, the series both lampoons and celebrates the pop life: His is a groovy world, despite the sitcomical situations -- the neighbor’s rabbit apparently killed by the dog Chris is watching, cheapskate Chris in a bidding war for Scotty Moore‘s guitar, a big-breasted accountant stripping nightly in the window across the way and Chris can’t figure out what‘s the deal.

The deal, of course, is that we are in the wild world of premium cable -- and what can be shown will be. Still, as naked or partially naked women go, on TV or in the movies, these are more interesting- and natural-looking than most, and are rewarded with good lines and real parts; they get to be funny and even smart, which is not what show business usually asks of its naked or partially naked women. (The boys, you should not be surprised, keep their pants on.) Bobby Jo Moore, who is all naked all the time, plays Mona, the Bimbo’s ”mermaid“ -- her projected image floats in a fishbowl behind the bar -- and Isaak‘s sounding board; she is cool and mystical and, as I say, naked. The show is at least half about sex, which is only what people expect from their rock stars, after all. Kristin Dattilo plays Isaak’s manager, Yola, and her love life is as much the subject of the show as his. They are both unlucky in it -- beautiful losers who get the girlsboys but cannot keep them, or find continually they‘ve got the wrong one. (I suppose such people do exist.) No more fortunate is Jed Rees’ Anson -- the episodes I‘ve seen all break down into the Chris story, the Yola story and the Anson story -- the band’s slightly dim, helplessly hapless ”rock“ dude and compulsive girl-getter. (Such people do exist.) Rees has the face of a wayward elf; his Anson is all innocent id, a devil with an angel on his shoulder, and he is very funny. The rest of the band -- the professional musiciansamateur actors -- handle themselves well. And there is a lot of music, all of it live and exciting. I feel fairly secure in calling The Chris Isaak Show ”The best rock & roll sitcom since The Monkees!“ You may quote me.

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I have also been enjoying Cold Feet, a British import airing on Bravo that was the model for an American series of the same name, which lasted four whole episodes on NBC a couple of years back. The British show itself refracts such stateside series as Friends (six characters, three of each gender, bound by friendship and various arrows of sexual attraction) and thirtysomething (for its yuppie milieu and stories of grown-ups still working out what they want in life). Indeed, it splits the difference between them: It‘s more serious than Friends and funnier than thirtysomething, with neither the overlit farcicality of the first nor the glamorous gloss of the second. This is more kitchen-sink school, more Mike LeighKen Loach, and the actors, though they are possessed of actorly grace, look more like people you might know than people you might watch on TV. (Among them is John Thomson, whom fans of The Fast Show -- called Brilliant on BBC America -- will recognize as jazz presenter Louis Balfour.) There is a lot of event in these lives, more than in mine at any rate, but the essential soapiness of the series is masked by the high quality of the writing and acting. It’s all very involving. Watching the other night, as James Nesbitt (Waking Ned Devine) obsessed over his potential fatherhood of Helen Baxendale‘s unborn child -- Baxendale (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman) was actually on Friends, playing David Schwimmer’s English wife -- I found I had entered the rare state of truly caring what happened to the characters, of fearing for them. I would have sacrificed the story to spare them pain.

It may just be my schoolboy crush on the radiant Megyn Price, but I find myself looking forward to Grounded for Life, a vehicle for The Tao of Steve star Donal Logue and the season‘s second young-parent(s)-of-a-teenager series (after Gilmore Girls). Grounded, in which Price plays wife to Logue, bears the mark of Fox (it comes from the producers of That ’70s Show), being loud and crude, teeming with invective and insult, and unafraid of a drug joke or three -- a show that posits vandalizing a nun‘s car as a form of father-daughter bonding. We are given to understand, however, as in The Simpsons and Married With Children and Malcolm in the Middle, that what looks like dysfunction is really a deep form of understanding. You have met these people before: the grumpy old dad (see: Titus), the wacky brother (see: any sitcom with a brother in it), the smart-mouthed teenage daughter (ditto), the confused younger siblings (and so on). The central question of the show, which is also not new, is how do you raise your kids to be smarter and less reckless than you were when you’re still half in love with dumb recklessness? ”I don‘t want to be the kind of guy who scolds his kid for getting drunk at Action Mountain,“ says Logue, having gone there to fetch his errant daughter. ”I wanna be the guy getting drunk at Action Mountain.“ I don’t make any great claims for the series -- the grumpy dad annoys me, the plots are twisted versions of plots sitcom characters have been living out since time immemorial (or the ‘50s at least), the daughter is strident, and the laugh track makes me want to vomit. But the wacky brother is the great Kevin Corrigan (Slums of Beverly Hills), and Logue and Price have a natural rapport -- they seem genuinely amused by and attracted to each other, which from his point of view I can absolutely understand. And he’s not bad either.

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