Sometimes sitting down to watch a boring, annoying, or offensive television show can yield more than just bad vibes. There’s a chance that the experience will be partially redeemed by a thoughtful, imaginative performance that sneaks past pat premise, tired dialogue, or flaccid direction. Thus, the first edition of Good Actors in Bad Shows:
Tony Shalhoub on Wings. Since 1991, Shalhoub has been playing Antonio, the quietly goofy cabbie on this absurdly long-running mediocrity. He comes off like everyone else does on Wings — as having to try too hard to give his drab punchlines some zing. But go see Shalhoub in the terrific little feature film Big Night and you realize what a terrific actor he can be. Playing an uncompromisingly artistic chef stuck in a failing Italian restaurant, Shalhoub shows us the storminess in his eyes and the precision of his emotions. Tim Daly and Steven Weber have already done good work in other TV and film projects. It almost makes you think that if freed from her sitcom, Crystal Bernard might suddenly reveal herself as the new Susan Sarandon. Well, I said almost …
Ron Eldard on Men Behaving Badly. What was meant to be the new season’s most outrageous comedy quickly settled for being merely the most boorish. Eldard wisely lies back and lets Rob Schneider make a fool of himself. Best known as Shep, the puppy-dog paramedic on ER, Eldard is going to snap your neck with his powerful portrayal of a man who behaves worse than badly in Showtime’s Bastard Out of Carolina, premiering Dec. 15.
Doug E. Doug on Cosby. Radiating dreadlocked hipster cool as Griffin while his boss hogs every scene, Doug provides Cosby with its only source of sneaky funniness. He was hilarious in the Jamaican-bobsled-team movie Cool Runnings and even better in the cruelly short-lived ’93 sitcom Where I Live. His minor role here looks like nothing more than an opportunity for exposure and a paycheck, but at this point in their careers, Doug deserves another show more than Cosby does.
Malcolm McDowell on Pearl. I was prepared to detest McDowell’s cranky-professor character, Stephen Pynchon; the sitcom rule that all academics must be fatuous snobs is one big reason TV deserves to be pilloried as philistine. But in this wafer-thin show (Rhea Perlman ought to be something better than a more earnest version of Cheers‘ Carla), McDowell has found just the right tone. His Scottish humanities prof is as haughty and supercilious as he needs to be to contrast with earthy Pearl. Yet he also manages to communicate the idea that reading books is both hard work and fun, as well as a very good source of verbal power. Now, if only someone would write the actor a script that illustrates those aspects of his performance.
Mimi Kennedy on Savannah. There are those who would defend this show as good and therefore not befitting the category. Sorry, as a steamy evening soap, Savannah is neither involving nor ridiculous enough to qualify. What it does have going for it is Mimi Kennedy’s multifaceted shrew, Eleanor Alexander, publisher of the Savannah Dispatch. Eleanor, who recently fired Robyn Lively’s clotheshorse reporter, Lane MacKenzie, to cover up her own shady business dealings, makes an excellent soulless meanie — and pulls off the show’s most convincing Southern accent. Kennedy is a veteran character actress most familiar for her more prominent role in Homefront (1991-93); here, in a show full of shrill ninnies, her steely authority is most welcome.