A week ago I spent 4,000 words giving unasked-for advice. The least I can do this week is to spend a similar amount of verbiage answering actual questions from actual readers. In other words: It’s TV mailbag time!
Can a successful but bad show happening to a good actor secretly be the worst thing for their careers?
—Sean F., the Geno Smith Bandwagon, somewhere in the Meadowlands
For the actors’ careers? Or the careers of their contractors? Building a pool house made entirely out of recycled Fiji Water bottles and doing so in an environmentally friendly hollow carved directly into the rocky bluffs of Malibu is the sort of project that can transform a hard hat into a legend — not to mention the sort of thing that can really clean up at the Nailies, the annual contractor awards ceremony.1
Highlights include Best Achievement In Pocket Doors and “the Eldon,” an award given every year to the Hollywood contractor who’s managed to take the longest amount of time to actually complete anything.
That’s not really what you’re asking, but it’s kind of inseparable anyway. The impetus for the question is clearly the sight of world-class TV performers like Margo Martindale farting away her talents — often quite literally — on CBS’s lame The Millers. The truth is, bad shows happen to good actors all the time. Ernest Borgnine had an Oscar on his mantel and still took second billing to a helicopter on Airwolf. In fact, outside of Arrested Development, Martindale’s costar Will Arnett has made a career out of it. When The Millers debuted, it was far too easy for fans to bemoan the apparent injustice of a sexagenarian Emmy winner forced to reenact the climax of Dirty Dancing in a bathrobe. She should be chewing up the scenery on a prestige cable show, not Ambien-eating ice cream with a spatula in front of a live studio audience!
But it’s worth remembering that no one is forcing Margo Martindale to do anything at all. She’s a showbiz veteran with a laundry list of credits high (Dead Man Walking, Lonesome Dove) and low (Hannah Montana: The Movie). Regardless of quality, network shows pay considerably better than their cable brethren. There are worse ways to spend seven years than hanging out at craft services with JB Smoove (another actor who deserves better) and choosing tile for the backsplash of your pricey new kitchen. As a viewer, I would much rather have Martindale haunting the margins of The Americans than disappearing like a ghost into the moneymaking maw of CBS, like Linda Hunt (NCIS: Los Angeles) and Allison Janney (Mom) before her. But as a human being? I’m happy for her. When you’re a working actor, a bad show is infinitely better than no show at all — especially because it allows you to continue including the qualifier “working” in your job description. A nonworking actor is something else entirely. In Italian and in certain parts of Studio City, it’s known as a barista.
Which is why we should perhaps be more charitable to younger actors who “sell out” to projects deemed beneath them by their fans. I’m thinking specifically of James Wolk, a pretty face with some real ability lurking behind it. Wolk has been bouncing around the netherspace of Next Big Thingdom for a while now.2 After his eye-catching turn on Mad Men as the mysteriously helpful Bob Benson, many were eager to see what Wolk would do next. After seeing him slide into an undemanding sidekick role on the lousy-but-popular Robin Williams vehicle The Crazy Ones, it’s safe to say that eagerness has waned. But momentum is a fickle thing in Hollywood — although, apparently, not in the NFL — and audience goodwill is little more than a well-intentioned nonprofit. There may be nobility in being choosy, but there’s certainly no 401(k). There’s also not much future: The more an actor turns down roles, the lower his odds become of being offered more of them in the future. James Wolk being on a hit show, even a bad hit show, doesn’t just help his career, it saves it.
He was the lead of the very promising Lone Star, which was canceled after two episodes; the diverting Political Animals, which didn’t get a second season; and a number of interesting pilots that will never see the light of day.
Besides, not only is Wolk young — at 28, he’ll likely have plenty of chances to take on roles that don’t involve singing about hot meat with Kelly Clarkson — he’s also not completely limited by his undoubtedly generous contract. There’s a fine recent tradition of earnest sitcom actors spending their offseasons, if not part of their syndication money, on personal art projects: Think Zach Braff making Garden State, Josh Radnor making Liberal Arts, Rainn Wilson making whatever the hell Soul Pancake is. Let’s remember that when Wolk’s soul-searching indie film about the unseen sadness of a middling actor (costarring Miranda Cosgrove as a manic pixie dream girl named Dakota) debuts at Sundance 2016.3
“Tolerable!” raves Entertainment Weekly.
One thing this question doesn’t even address is something I call the Golden Halo effect. This applies to any actor involved in a deeply beloved project that is generally underappreciated by the world at large. Due to this cosmic injustice, fans will generally support any professional activity undertaken by said actor in the future, no matter how dubious. Veterans of the Whedonverse are all blessed with the Golden Halo. (Hooray for Nathan Fillion on Castle! Hooray for Michelle Trachtenberg on Gossip Girl!) And Sorkinistas are too. (Schiff ‘shipping is real.) The biggest and most enduring Golden Halo extends the length and breadth of Baltimore. One thing that unites all fans of HBO’s The Wire is an undying allegiance to the actors, no matter where their careers may take them. When Lucky 7 was canceled, I was sad only for Isiah Whitlock. When Low Winter Sun tanked, I felt the same way for James Ransone. The only plausible reaction to Tristan Wilds going from the mean streets to Beverly Hills was happiness and a misplaced swell of paternal pride.
We just want what’s best for these people; we’re only human. But actors — despite mountains of evidence to the contrary — are humans too. And sometimes being human means dirty dancing for money.
Now that we are in an age where Netflix can swoop in and finance new seasons of TV shows that have been canceled, if you were Mr. Netflix, which show would you select to raise like the phoenix? It can be any show that was canceled (even Joey!). Thanks!
—DJ Richie Itch
This is an excellent question, mainly for the suggestion that there is a Mr. Netflix! I assume he’s a descendant of the Newport Netflixes, a very old family that made its fortune primarily through sugar monopolies and betting big on the transcontinental railroad (Abner P. Netflix always had a thing about locomotives).
As far as the current head of programming — and, yes, heir to an ill-gotten dynastic fortune — I’m picturing Preston Netflix (“Press” to his friends and squash partners) as a tiny little robber baron, like the Monopoly man only with his hands paper-cut to ribbons thanks to those dratted red envelopes. If I were lucky enough to go for a walk in his $900 loafers, I’d like to think that I’d maintain some semblance of professionalism. So for as much as I wish the titanically funny Happy Endings could have continued past its third season, it wouldn’t make sense to green-light another 15 episodes. The show simply wasn’t popular enough to sustain itself on network TV, and its lack of a serialized A-story outside of Dave’s crippling addiction to V-necks means its legion of fans weren’t left hanging when ABC pulled the plug.
So with that criterion in mind, here are the top five shows I would bring back from the dead using my Netflix family millions.
This X-Files spin-off about a supernaturally gifted forensic profiler had a tumultuous run in the late ’90s as it struggled with the same problems that ultimately sank the mother ship: how to balance “monster of the week” cases with the overarching mythology. In this case, the latter was about the imminent end of the world. Though Y2K passed without a hitch, I’d love to see a streamlined and darker take on the same subject matter, one in which the hallmarks of a standard procedural are used to investigate a coming apocalypse. Even better would be if this new Millennium got the old band back together. Not necessarily star Lance Henriksen (though he’d be welcome, too, preferably in a supporting role), but those behind the scenes: writers Chris Carter, Glen Morgan, James Wong, Chip Johannessen, and a certain mustachioed striver by the name of Vince Gilligan.
The Fifth Beatle of Golden Age greatness, this potty-mouthed Western is often elided from the canon due to its lack of resolution: The show ended abruptly when HBO and creator David Milch couldn’t hash out a plan to put a bow on the whole thing. Why can’t Netflix, with its near-limitless largesse, step in and give Milch whatever he wants? In this case I’d imagine it’d be a combination of money, eight hours of airtime, a thesaurus of swear words, and the same gift they bestowed upon Arrested Development honcho Mitch Hurwitz: a flexible filming schedule that would allow for the itinerant careers of many of the principals. If you can afford Kevin Spacey and David Fincher, surely the painstaking reconstruction of a 19th-century Western town isn’t out of reach, right?
3. Party Down
Rumors continue to fly that there will, in fact, one day be a Party Down movie, one that resolves all the lingering questions from this wonderful, dearly missed little show that couldn’t.4 (Even pessimistic costar Lizzy Caplan couldn’t quite give up the ghost when I asked her about it on a recent podcast.) But a movie doesn’t make sense for such a brilliantly episodic series. When you have a framework that allows you enormous flexibility and fun — caustic cater waiters working a different event every week — why limit yourself to two hours and done? I’d like to see the show brought back, full stop. If Adam Scott and Ken Marino and Caplan can’t be in every episode, so be it. Let’s filter in some new alt-comedy faces and keep the good times rolling. We’re not having fun yet, but I have a feeling we still could!
The only place Party Down ever came close to finding an audience was actually on Netflix. An early content-sharing deal with Starz allowed the show to find a much bigger audience streaming than it ever did over the air.
2. Twin Peaks
Look, no one is more anti-nostalgia than I am. And in general, when you have something deeply beloved, it’s better to leave it alone. And yet … ! No one is saying Netflix resurrections have to result in great art. (Especially no one who sat through the entire fourth season of Arrested Development.) I’d settle for them being fascinating. And nothing could be stranger in all senses than handing David Lynch and Mark Frost a blank check to make 10 more hours of their surrealist masterpiece. (No disrespect to Fire Walk With Me — somewhat masochistically, I’ve always loved it, but it took the Twin Peaks story backward, not forward.) I know the cast would be game. Kyle MacLachlan basically admitted as much in our podcast last year, and I’m fairly certain Dana Ashbrook‘s dance card is free. And yes, the eighth-grader who painstakingly constructed multiple issues of a Twin Peaks zine in his middle school computer lab — ahem, no names, please — is still desperate to know the fate of Special Agent Dale Cooper. (No spoilers, but things didn’t end all that well for him.) But more than that I’d love to see how the makers of a series that challenged the perceived limits of a medium 20 years ago would take to TV’s apparently limitless present. Would they get even weirder? (That’s hard to imagine.) Or would they focus instead on the more staid parts of that ghostly, pie-obsessed town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest? There’s only one way to find out.
I’ve written about this multiple times, but there’s no harm in doing it again. Terriers, which lasted for one perfect, all-too-brief season on FX, is my favorite TV show of the past few years. It was a rough-and-tumble detective series capable of great comedy, chilling drama, and the weirdly vibey middle ground most of us recognize as “life.” The chemistry between leads Donal Logue (as an ex-cop whose addictions cost him everything) and Michael Raymond-James (as a slick-talking former con) was rare and real. Terriers was the sort of series so fixed in its place (the ratty fringes of San Diego) and its perspective (the little guys are fucked anyway, so why not try to take down some of the big guys along the way) that it could actually grow into being about anything at all: urban planning, say, or mental illness, or the unexpectedly wrenching cost of finding what it is you’re paid to look for. Terriers would be cheap to produce and all the principals, including executive producers Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin, have said they’re game for more. If Netflix’s goal is really to become a multipurpose network, Terriers is exactly the kind of low-overhead/high-upside series in which it ought to be investing. If it were up to me, I’d sign the contracts before afternoon tea and without even putting on cuff links, no matter the damage it did to the Netflix family name.
In 140 characters or less, what are your thoughts on Damon Lindelof quitting twitter ?
(Feel free to use the remaining 107 characters to complain about what happened to Sun and Jin.)
I’ve been (unsuccessfully) lobbying my wife to allow me to fast-forward through every Orange Is the New Black scene that involves Larry (Jason Biggs’ character). Larry is not only a whiny loser, but his joke of a writing career is beyond painful in execution. What other shows would benefit if we could instantly — presto! — eliminate a character?
An evergreen of a question, Matt, one that should probably be named the “Kim Bauer” for no one’s favorite cougar bait on 24. Nearly every series has at least one extraneous cog in its machinery, some more egregious than others. My boss once got into trouble for suggesting he’d prefer the noncarbonated version of The Wire — which is to say, without Bubbles. Sacrilege to some, sure, but who am I to judge? I’ve recently advocated for the downplaying of Ike Barinholtz and Chelsea Peretti on The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, respectively. Yet there are some who find their comedy stylings irresistible. I guess anything is possible, and in TV nothing is permanent. As Aubrey Plaza — once unpalatably bitter, now as sweet as a Sour Patch Kid — has proven on Parks, sometimes characters can be recalibrated and other times so can the taste and expectations of a once-dubious audience.
But some characters are just irredeemable, and television, in general, would be well served by the existence of an NBA-style amnesty clause: Every show could use it once to jettison a character, no questions asked, no lawsuits filed. I’m with you on Larry and I bet there are a few others about whom we can find a rough consensus. I’m allergic to nearly anything on The Walking Dead featuring the Grimes family. This is understandable when it comes to Carl — kids on TV are always a bumpy road — but it’s problematic when you consider that Rick is the putative star of the series. There were a number of years, especially immediately post-divorce, when Betty Draper seemed eminently skippable. (Though she found her bearings, and her relevance, last season.) I spent much of the spring advocating for the immediate dispatching of Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones. Book stans weren’t happy — and, boy, were they not shy about letting me know! — but his torturous Z story was an ironbound drag on what was an otherwise buoyant season of television. I’d also push hard for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to drop Agent Ward and/or Skye into the nearest portal to the Negative Zone — but also wouldn’t be mad if the rest of the cast got sucked in along with them, forcing a complete reboot. And speaking of new shows, what’s up with Ichabod Crane’s witchy wife on Sleepy Hollow? His clothes and their two centuries of accumulated B.O. should be the only things from the past Ichabod still clings to.
The above are all fine choices, but at this particular moment in television history, there can really be only one answer: Dana Brody on Homeland. I mean no disrespect to Morgan Saylor, a fine young actress saddled with increasingly untenable story lines. But with Dana’s father — himself a leading candidate for show-saving amnesty — AWOL, her mopey, road-tripping shenanigans present a clear and present danger to national sanity, if not security.
If ABC announced tomorrow that they are bringing back the entire cast of Lost and were completely redoing the last season as if it never happened would that be the biggest announcement in modern TV history? And wouldn’t that new “last season” of Lost generate some of the biggest ratings ever since people have had years to catch up on Netflix?
Damon? Is that you?
Let it go, man. Let it go.
My question … Fonzie was never cool. He lived above the garage of the Cunninghams. He was a LOSER. James Garner was the coolest ’70s TV personality. He lived in a trailer on the beach in Malibu banging chicks and investigated bad guys. I wish I could be as cool as James Garner in The Rockford Files.
Who do you wish you could be as cool as?
—Paul A., Philadelphia
Honestly? You, Paul, for asking this question and removing the Brylcreemed scales from my eyes. On some level, I always knew Arthur Fonzarelli was a little too nice to lames like Ralph Malph to qualify as cool — anyone who’s ever been in high school knows that a key component of being cool is being decidedly not cool to those lower on the social totem pole. But I guess I was always too dazzled by his jukebox-striking ability to put the whole picture together. Fonzie was a fraud! Do we idolize the stuntmen at Sea World? No! Who wears leather to the beach anyway?
The correct answer to your question is absolutely the one you provided: No one is or ever will be as cool as Jim Garner in The Rockford Files. But let’s see if we can come up with a strong no. 2. I’d consider votes for George Clooney as Doug Ross on ER — he romances ladies and saves children like he’s the goddamn Batman — and Ted Danson as the eternally suave Sam Malone. He may get a little sloppy when in his cups, but the Bunk was always a consummate ladies’ man on The Wire. Speaking of that series, Omar Little was an unstoppable superhero powered by vengeance and Cheerios, almost to the very end. And there’s something to be said for Roger Sterling on Mad Men, an eternally gleaming silver fox who always knows just what to say and just what to pour to make everyone around him find it funny.
But you know what? I kind of want to say Kim Kelly from Freaks and Geeks. As played by Busy Philipps she was, like every cool older girl in high school, a terrifying combination of cruel and charismatic. She chain-smoked, had leopard-spot car-seat covers, and treated school (and most of its students) with outright disdain. She also was using her tough demeanor as a kind of armor to protect her real, actually sensitive and nice self from what was revealed to be a truly awful home life. But coolness is always a kind of mask, and Freaks and Geeks was the rare show that treated it as such. I may never get to live on the beach and solve mysteries, but I definitely know what it’s like to be in the thrall of someone who made everything look effortless and easy even when the reality of their situation was often much, much harder. Remember, I’m the guy who recapped Breaking Bad.
My fiancee and I are currently planning our wedding. Please help us out by naming the greatest TV wedding episodes of all time.
—Garrett, Austin, Texas
Congratulations! My first piece of advice: Stop watching TV and spend time together! Like, outdoors or something!
My second is this list:
1. The Office (Jim and Pam)
2. The Brady Bunch (Mike and Carol)
3. Parks and Recreation (Ron and Diane)
4. Parks and Recreation (Andy and April)
5. 30 Rock (Criss and Liz)
6. The Sopranos (Allegra Sacrimoni and Unnamed Mook)
7. Parks and Recreation (Ben and Leslie)
8. 90210 (David and Donna)
9. Cheers (Woody and Kelly)
5,311. Game of Thrones (Edmure and Roslin)
I think NBC may have nailed it with Dracula. I can see this vampire thing really taking off, and one day we’ll all remember NBC as being ahead of the trend. Could this be the best calculated and timely move of a TV network this year? This decade?
It’s certainly up there, right along with Bravo’s Project Runway: Trucker Hat Edition (2005), MTV’s My Best Friendster (2009), and ABC’s upcoming midseason comedy Twerk It.
To supplement your opinion that The Mindy Project might be the [most] frustrating TV comedy on television (with which I completely agree), I feel like its theme song is the most frustrating TV theme song on television as well. It starts out EXACTLY like “Oh Boy” from Cam’ron, and I get excited because when is life not better by hearing “Oh Boy” from Cam’ron. But instead of hearing the requisite “Oh baby,” we get Beaker from the Muppets droning on and on for 15 seconds. Am I a sap for being tricked by this every time?
If you’re a sap, Frank, then so is the whole damn human race.
It infuriates me to no end that The Walking Dead is as rotten as the walkers because that world seems so rife with great plots and questions of morality and human nature. Is there any hope that AMC’s other zombie show tackles these issues better and has a vision, or is it going to be different faces but the same story to drive ratings?
Chris, by “other zombie show” I’m going to assume you mean the announced Walking Dead spin-off and not Hell on Wheels. If so, I’m right there with you. One of the reasons I’m so exasperated by the sweaty, circular misadventures of Sheriff Rick and the gang that couldn’t shoot straight is frustration. Thanks to the audacity of its subject matter and the insanity of its ratings, The Walking Dead has an artistic and creative freedom most showrunners would kill for. And yet it remains as thuddingly opaque as ever, a ham-fisted disquisition on human morality that seems wildly uninterested in the human part of the equation.
A spin-off could change all that, of course, particularly if it’s well and truly free from the comic books that, despite some major deviations, continue to serve as source material.5 This means no more hot Georgia summers or overbaked corn muffins like Hershel and the Governor. It also means a chance to start over with a story built to work on television, not one awkwardly ported over by a feature film director and then handed off with all the subtlety of an acid-soaked relay baton to a series of subsequent showrunners. My preference would be a show set somewhere closer to the source, whatever that should prove to be. Perhaps a series set in a military hospital near Washington, D.C., that begins on day zero of the outbreak. That way a drama that begins as an amped-up version of ER could slowly degrade into a full-on horror show as the patients, body bags, and biters begin to pile up. The setting would allow for a cast that contrasts nicely with the mother ship’s collection of amateurs, rednecks, and castoffs from The Wire: a highly trained team of professionals who (a) already know each other, thus allowing for some pre-established chemistry and relationships, and (b) might possibly know something greater about the zombies and what caused them. The latter point alone would go a considerable distance toward alleviating the greatest plague facing The Walking Dead: not the zombie virus but the nihilism associated with a show that proudly flouts its complete lack of hope or long-term solutions.
That Robert Kirkman, the creator of said source material, has consolidated his power behind the scenes of the show enough to be more or less in charge of the spin-off is worrisome, but no more worrisome than another season of watching Carl Grimes learn life lessons involving firearms and matricide.
But the more I think about it, the more I’d like the Walking Dead spin-off to be a straight-up anthology series. If the tidal wave of stumbling, ravenous undead is best understood as a metaphor for the degradation of the human condition — as its legions of defenders love to insist — then why not embrace that idea fully and show us the million shapes it can take? I’d love to see an hour about two teenage runaways combating the crisis, one about two of the last survivors of a major city finding a last chance for love among the wreckage, or an episode devoted to a tinfoil hat–wearing prepper having all of his worst/best dreams come true before his very eyes. There’s undoubtedly a lot of life left in the core conceit of The Walking Dead. An anthology series would allow those behind the scenes to try their hands at creating something new. I imagine it would be a nice change of pace from the dull, repetitive work of tearing things apart and picking over old bones.
I think that the current season of The Walking Dead should have made itself into a sitcom (like Hogan’s Heroes) about life on a human against zombie internment camp. Thoughts?
Or this. Maybe the spin-off should just be this. Either way!