January may be a dumping ground for the movie industry, quietly shoving out its most damaged goods while still trying to squeeze box-office gold out of the big year-end releases. For television it’s the other way around, a rerun patch in December — it’s assumed you’re either shopping or seeing Narnia or King Kong — followed by a fresh crop of post–“Auld Lang Syne,” when midseason shows begin sprouting. CBS is even trotting out a one-hour drama-comedy with something of a new-year’s-resolution mindset, called Love Monkey, about a charmingly mumbly New York dude named Tom (Tom Cavanaugh, of the late NBC show Ed), who thinks everything in his life is just fine, except he knows it isn’t. His relationship is as stale and comfortable as his high-powered A&R job at a big record conglomerate. Suddenly, a few upheavals are thrown at Tom before he has a chance to act, forcing him to realize that it’s time to put up or shut up when it comes to how he wants to live his life.
With the requisite cadre of close buddies (which include Larenz Tate and Jason Priestley), earnest pop-tune score and probingly cute narration, I was initially concerned that this was going to become a male Grey’s Anatomy, that inexplicably whiny hit whose female lead is an I-me-minefield of romantic narcissism, but Love Monkey creator Michael Rauch — in adapting a book by Kyle Smith — keeps facile wisdom to a bare minimum, and a certain urban energy level turned up. He was also smart enough to cast the ultra-groovy Judy Greer — an actress of aquiline beauty and sharp comic integrity — as the protagonist’s best girl chum Brandy. In the pilot, Brandy gets to call Tom on his crippling selfishness, a rare moment of truth for one of these love-me-I’m-adorable shows. Then there’s the bitterly funny scene where record-label bigwig Phil (Eric Bogosian) demands his team think outside the box to reverse sagging sales: “Imagine the box is infected with some kind of terrible flesh-eating disease, that’s how freaking far I want you from it,” he intones. Needless to say, when Tom spiritedly suggests money shouldn’t be the goal, that it should be creating lasting, classic music, Phil fires him. That’s a refreshingly harsh lump of honesty, too, especially from a network that’s number one thanks to 85 procedural shows. In any case, I hope Love Monkey manages to get out of the box every now and then — and in so doing, avoid those television-network Phils.
Based on the pilot of Emily’s Reasons Why Not, there’s no worry that this half hour from ABC about a self-help-book editor’s fizzy love life will be honest, or real, or even funny. It very well might, however, do what the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman–style billboards all over town appear to suggest: serve up all the beatific, fairy-faced, tightly clothed, golden-tressed and bubbly souled Heather Graham you can handle, along with room-temperature side helpings of caustic one-liners in the form of a girlfriend sidekick (Nadia Dajani), a gay-guy sidekick (Khary Payton), and an office-bitch nemesis (Smith Cho). But assuming Sex and the City fans have been sold on a Carrie Bradshaw view of the world that brooks no knockoff in either lover, handbag, or dating-rules humor, they will likely sniff a kind of clearance-sale desperation here immediately.
Even worse is another ABC show, Crumbs, about a dutiful son keeping a fractured family together, but unlike other similarly premised shows like Arrested Development or Out of Practice, it mistakes boorishness for zaniness, at one point juxtaposing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” with a scene at a psychiatric facility for cheeky wit. Fred Savage plays a gay screenwriter who returns to his small-town home to oversee his recently institutionalized mother (Jane Curtin), who tried to run over his womanizing father (William Devane), and help run the family restaurant where his obnoxious, philandering brother (Eddie McClintock) — and really, is there any other kind of sitcom brother? — is chef. Savage’s haplessness has a certain appeal, but try as she might, Curtin can’t make screaming the safe word “lollipops” into something funny, and Devane isn’t exactly an actor one thinks of to sell sitcom high jinks. Most inexplicable is the injection of ill-timed seriousness whenever the tragic death of the family’s other son is mentioned: hilarious! Watching Crumbs is like watching a poorly trained nurse trying to find a vein: less amusing than it is nerve-wracking. What’s the viewer’s safe word?
For more agreeable tension, there’s Skating With Celebrities, which is Fox’s quick capitalizing on last summer’s ABC hit Dancing With the Stars. The series pairs a wide array of where-are-they-now names — Todd Bridges, Bruce Jenner, Kristy Swanson — with top-drawer figure skaters like Tai Babilonia and Kurt Browning, for a competition judged not only by a panel (which includes Dorothy Hamill in Paula Abdul mode) but also viewers. The “look what I can do” element is intrinsically enjoyable, if only because you’re waiting to see celebrity ass hitting ice. Plus, there’s something almost quaintly cute about a show that tries to squeeze suspense from recreational-hockey player Dave Coulier playing rebel when he decides to sand off his toe pick: Crikey, how will he negotiate a stop? And I worry that a rink newbie like Bridges can only coast on goodwill for so long, whereas Good Day L.A. personality Jillian Barberie is obviously drawing on a wealth of childhood skating that she briefly mentions but no one else acknowledges — you call that competitive fairness? Ultimately, though, what I like about a gewgaw like Skating With Celebrities is that it feels nostalgic for a vaudeville/movie-musical era in which we expected our stars to actually prove they were more than pretty faces, that they could warble a tune, execute a soft-shoe, or juggle, or whatever. Maybe more reality shows need to hold the proverbial gun to celebrities’ feet and yell, “Skate, I said, skate!”
Vanessa L. Williams has certainly mined many talents in a career that’s encompassed the recording industry, movies, Broadway and television. Now, she’s trying on her potboiler hat, playing Elizabeth Bauer, the owner of Miami hot-spot Hotel Soleil on UPN’s new guilty-pleasure offering, South Beach, and thankfully she doesn’t let it prevent her from basking in the rays of a burning soap-opera sun. Elizabeth is “used to running her hotel on her own terms,” the press notes say, but based on the two-hour pilot, this appears to mean mostly leering at well-built younger men like sweet-faced-but-tough Brooklynite Matt Evans (Marcus Coloma). The Ryan in this O.C. wannabe — Evans has moved to Florida’s nexus of skin, sand and sultriness with buddy Vincent (Chris J. Johnson) to find an old girlfriend (Odette Yustman) now a fashion model and arm candy to Elizabeth’s son, power-hungry club owner Alex (Lee Thompson Young). Bringing a little Scarface chintz to the pastels-and-pools party is a juicily menacing Giancarlo Esposito, playing a moblike businessman. Serious about its silliness, this show grasps the concept of prime time as vacation time: a runway show broken up by gunfire; a thuggish rap star raising holy hell over a lost necklace; a horndog relishing his job as hotel spritzer to sunning female backsides; a model describing an enemy who acts like a friend as a “frenemy”; and someone referencing “the real South Beach diet” while holding a finger to the side of a nostril and sniffing. I say keep the tan lines, coke lines and cheesily written lines coming, and find a part for Don Johnson fast!
LOVE MONKEY | CBS | Tuesdays, 10 p.m.
EMILY’S REASONS WHY NOT | ABC | Mondays, 9 p.m.
CRUMBS | ABC | Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.
SKATING WITH CELEBRITIES | Fox | Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
SOUTH BEACH | UPN | Wednesdays, 8 p.m.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.