Will Arnett and Margo Martindale (dancing center)
Three fairly high-profile network series premiere tonight, two on NBC, one on CBS. All three have some amazing actors in their casts, and all three are criminally let down by their writers.
My hopes probably are highest for The Millers, premiering tonight on CBS in the coveted time slot following The Big Bang Theory, partly because this new comedy, which is filmed in front of a studio audience, is the brainchild of Greg Garcia, who recently has given us such winning shows as My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope.
The Millers is far more old-fashioned than either of those two quirky hits, though. Emmy winners Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale star as Tom and Carol Miller, a long-married and eternally bickering couple who decide to move in with their daughter, Debbie (Jayma Mays, Glee) after Tom inadvertently floods their basement. Again. Hardly have they arrived, however, before long-simmering resentments reach the boiling point and Tom and Carol decide to end their 43-year marriage, with her moving into the upscale home of their son, Nathan (Will Arnett), who’s currently working as a roving correspondent for a local TV station.
What Nathan, the golden boy of the family, hasn’t told his parents is that he and his wife (Eliza Coupe of Happy Endings in a recurring role) divorced three months ago. Carol initially is horrified by the news, but soon starts trying to resume her long-ago role as the most important woman in Nathan’s life, which means ignoring boundaries at every turn (she clips Nathan’s toenails while he’s asleep and discusses her and Tom’s sex life with upsetting explicitness).
This isn’t a bad set-up for a sitcom, but in tonight’s premiere episode, the jokes are mainly broad and fairly vulgar. Martindale has been on a career hot streak lately, recently scoring another Emmy nomination for her striking guest role in the FX thriller The Americans, but here she is reduced to an extended string of jokes about her character’s tendency to pass gas on a regular basis. Bridges’ role is even more one-note: See Tom fumbling with the coffee maker and microwave and appear perpetually confused by the household’s remote controls! Ha!
Garcia is a funny, funny man who writes brilliantly about dysfunctional families, so I’m hopeful he’s going to give his strong cast the kind of material they deserve in future episodes. Fingers crossed.
The same thing goes for Sean Saves the World, Emmy winner Sean Hayes’ new NBC sitcom premiering tonight opposite CBS’s Robin Williams comedy The Crazy Ones, last week’s top-rated comedy premiere. Like The Millers, Sean Saves the World is filmed in front of a studio audience and has a strong cast, including sitcom veteran Linda Laviin (Alice) and Smash survivor Megan Hilty, as well as Reno 911! madman Thomas Lennon. Tonight’s premiere, however, feels tired and old-fashioned (Hayes also is an executive producer on the decidedly old-fashioned but frisky Hot in Cleveland).
In his new show, Hayes stars as a divorced gay dad who recently assumed fulltime custody of his teenage daughter, Ellie (Samantha Isler). Now that Sean’s former wife no longer is in the picture, his formidable mother, Lorna (Lavin), is trying to swoop in and fill the maternal vacancy, to the pronounced displeasure of Sean’s best friend, Liz (Hilty). Sean’s attempts to be the perfect dad, though, are compromised by his demanding new boss (Lennon), a smothering, hands-on type who wants his staff to have as little of a social life as he does.
The comedy pros in the cast make quite a few of the tired jokes in tonight’s premiere sound, if not fresh, at least less wilted, but it’s discouraging to see such a heavy reliance on uninspired slapstick in the very first episode. I like the show’s main quartet enough that I’ll be sticking around for awhile, but this cast deserves much better. That said, I do think my many colleagues who have put Sean Saves the World on their lists of the fall’s worst shows are going a little far. Sean won’t even save NBC, let alone the world, but it’s not a crime against nature.
Nor is tonight’s other NBC premiere, Welcome to the Family, although it’s far and away the worst of the three. The lone single-camera (no laugh track) series among this trio, this sitcom stars the usually endearing Mike O’Malley (Glee) and, especially, Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight) as Dr. Dan and Caroline Yoder, who are enthusiastically looking forward to their imminent empty nest situation now that beautiful but dim daughter Molly (Ella Rae Peck) has defied all expectations and actually graduated from high school.
Plans to ship Molly off to a party school are derailed, however, when the Yoders discover that Molly is pregnant by a boyfriend they didn’t even know existed: Junior Hernandez (Joey Haro), a Stanford-bound Mathlete and class valedictorian. The pregnancy horrifies his proud father, Miguel (Ricardo Chavira, Desperate Housewives), especially after Miguel discovers that Molly’s dad is the jerk he clashed with that same morning at Miguel’s gym (in a contrived argument that’s only there so these two characters can hold a grudge against each other). Junior’s mom, Lisette (Justina Machado, Six Feet Under), like Caroline, tries to act as peacemaker in this volatile situation.
Anyone who has been watching TV for awhile will recognize the exhausted premise for this show, which stretches all the way back to the 1967-70 sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie, which was based in turn on a 1920s play called Abie’s Irish Rose. I wish I could report that Welcome to the Family reinvents that heavily diluted formula, but sadly, that’s not the case: The show just kind of plods along on its thrice-familiar path, dutifully ticking off scenes that we’ve seen so many times before. Even a fade-out “surprise” for Caroline at the end of tonight’s episode is something you’ll probably see coming a mile off.
I really want O’Malley and McCormack to figure out a way to turn this seemingly ill-fated vehicle around, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope. Unless the writers can come up with some fresh ideas and jokes, this Family won’t be overstaying its welcome.
Max Carver, Laura Samuels, Daniela Bobadilla and Laura Slade Wiggins (from left)
A scheme by some Southern California teenagers to finesse their College Entrance Test goes horribly awry in The Cheating Pact, an uneven but unusually well acted TV movie premiering tonight on Lifetime.
Doug Campbell, who both co-wrote and directed the film, opens the story with the four principal characters taking the test for the first time. Whiz-kid misfit Meredith (Laura Slade Wiggins) zips through the exam with 25 minutes to spare, but the other three – Heather, Kylie and Jordan – tank the test pretty badly.
Kylie (Laura Samuels), a classic Mean Girl who transferred to the school the previous year and immediately supplanted Meredith as weak-willed Heather’s (Daniela Bobadilla) best friend, rejects the radical idea of, you know, actually studying for a makeover test in favor of urging Heather to cozy up to Meredith and persuade her to re-take the test for them, using false identification cards. After all, Meredith desperately needs money to help her unemployed father pay medical bills for his other child, a special-needs student (hey, I warned you this movie was uneven).
Meredith, who is miserably lonely, warily accepts Heather’s offer and aces the test for her, but when Kylie – who has made life a living hell for Meredith since her transfer – tries to hire Meredith to take the test for her, Meredith understandably balks. This doesn’t sit well with Kylie, especially after Meredith also takes the test for Kylie’s boyfriend, Jordan (Max Carver, Teen Wolf), whose unisex first name makes it possible for Meredith to fake his identity, too.
Kylie’s fury drives her to blackmail Meredith, who retaliates with her own little prank on her nemesis, until finally The Cheating Pact spins off from a fairly interesting look at a genuinely troubling social issue and turns into a melodramatic “cautionary tale” that can be taken about as seriously as Reefer Madness.
Even under these less than ideal circumstances, the young stars give improbably strong performances. Among the best is Samuels, whose character’s nastiness is rooted in the pressures of growing up with an overachieving sister and a chilly mother (Paula Trickey) who firmly believes in winning at all costs. Wiggins also is very good as Meredith, conveying an inner feistiness that helps mitigate the cloying sweetness of that unfortunate subplot involving her disabled sibling. Carver, who used to play one of Lynette Scavo’s mischievous twins on Desperate Housewives, may be playing a lunkhead here, but he also shows us Jordan’s innate decency that, ultimately, plays a key role in the story’s resolution.
Ironically, Bobadilla, who gets top billing as Heather, has by far the least interesting character, but she’s still quite affecting as a teenager who grows to realize she has behaved shamefully toward a childhood friend she once loved, while Cynthia Gibb co-stars as her divorced mom who can’t afford to send Heather to a good college unless she gets superior test scores.
The Cheating Pact would be better if it had stayed focused on the very real rising epidemic of high school and college cheating, often with the full participation of the students’ parents, but even with its unfortunate detour into camp in its latter scenes, this TV movie is rarely less than entertaining.
From left, Ana Ortiz, Edy Ganem, Judy Reyes, Dania Ramirez and Roselyn Sanchez
Starting tonight, Lifetime starts serving up a bracing glass of summer sangria in the form of Devious Maids, a featherweight but entertaining new dramedy from two former Desperate Housewives collaborators, actress Eva Longoria and series creator Marc Cherry. Adapted from a Mexican TV series called Ellas son la Alegria del Hogar (which means “they are the joy of the household”), the series revolves around four Latina maids working for (usually) demanding and insensitive wealthy families in some of the most fabulous mansions in Beverly Hills.
Devious Maids opens with the fatal stabbing of another maid, Flora, during a party at the home of her employer, Evelyn Powell (Rebecca Wisocky), shortly after the latter has upbraided her for allegedly seducing Evelyn’s husband, Adrian (Tom Irwin). Adrian and the party guests are horrified by the murder, but Evelyn is primarily preoccupied with the fact that she can’t find anyone to clean up the gore from the murder scene.
“(The agency) gave me attitude because Flora was murdered,” she complains to a friend. “I’d understand if I had had a few maids slaughtered, but I’ve only lost the one. It’s not fair.”
Meanwhile, Marisol Duarte (Ana Ortiz, Ugly Betty) has landed a job cleaning the home of the Powells’ neighbors, Michael Stappord (Brett Cullen) and his new trophy wife, Taylor (Brianna Brown), although Taylor is uneasy that Marisol has no accent and speaks as if she had gone to college (translation: “She has an attitude”).
Marisol soon begins to win over Taylor by listening to her frustration about living with Michael in a home that had been extensively decorated by his first wife (guest star Valerie Mahaffey), an insecure shrew given to dropping by at inopportune moments. Marisol also offers to help Evelyn by filling in at her home as well until a replacement for Flora can be found, and we begin to see that Marisol is more than idly curious about the murder.
In another mansion, Zoila Del Barrio (Judy Reyes, Scrubs) has her hands full keeping her aging and deeply neurotic mistress, Genevieve Delatour (Susan Lucci), from having a nervous breakdown, but she’s not too busy to notice that Zoila’s daughter, Valentina (Edy Ganem), has set her cap for Genevieve’s handsome son, Remi (Drew Van Acker), an infatuation that Zoila recognizes is a fast ticket to catastrophe.
At the home of soap star Spence Westmore (Grant Show, Melrose Place) and his B-list movie actress wife, Peri (Mariana Klaveno, True Blood), Rosie Falta (Dania Ramirez) picks up most of the slack when it comes to nurturing their little boy while struggling to find a way to bring her own young son from Guadalajara to be with her in Los Angeles.
Finally, relentlessly ambitious Carmen Luna (Roselyn Sanchez) keeps flirting with disaster – and her new superstar employer, Alejandro Rubio (Matt Cendeno) – in hopes that he will help her launch her own singing career.
Since Cherry created both Desperate Housewives and Devious Maids, it’s no surprise that the two shows share some creative DNA (a dark mystery at the heart of the story, a somewhat camp sensibility, strong female characters and even similar musical underscoring). I’m a little surprised that Maids has ruffled some feathers in terms of handling its ethnic characters since, by and large, the Anglo characters are far less appealing and sympathetic than the principal maids are. The ensemble cast is very strong, led by Ortiz on the domestic side and, on the other, the gloriously over-the-top Wisocky, who once guest starred as Bree’s mother on Desperate Housewives.
Devious Maids isn’t out to make any truly subversive sociopolitical points – or, if it is, it fails notably on that account. It is, however, an entertaining way to spend an hour on a summer night, and on that score, I suggest that you check it out.