When was it decided that we all had to pitch in and help Brooke Shields have a happening career? The amount of good-will expended by so many of us to give Shields’ Suddenly Susan the benefit of the doubt has taken on the air of a national patriotic project, like the way people used to save scrap metal during World War II. By virtue of her show’s scrapped first pilot, its can’t-fail time period (between Seinfeld and ER), and the sheer, gosh-darned unlikeliness of her success as a wacky sitcom lead, Shields has become one of this season’s most publicized TV performers.
Suddenly Susan, it turns out, is a wearyingly self-conscious updating of The Mary Tyler Moore Show: nice girl trying to make it in the competitive workplace of a big town. Shields is Susan Keane, columnist for a San Francisco magazine called The Gate. Her editor, as played by Judd Nelson, is a collection of tics: A high-intensity sports nut who’s always fingering a football or literally climbing his office wall for exercise, his Jack is an unhappily married man whose cutting remarks about the unseen ball-and-chain already sound like tired rip-offs of Frasier‘s Niles-and-Maris routines.
At the magazine, Susan is surrounded by silly people — Vicki, a loud, overbearing writer who only in TV land would be Susan’s best office friend (she’s played with flaming red hair and a sinus-clearing bray by Kathy Griffin); Luis (Nestor Carbonell), a photographer whose punchlines mostly derive from his Hispanic accent; and Todd (David Strickland), the magazine’s music critic, who prides himself on being celibate(!).
Appearing to be about a half foot taller than anyone else on the show, Shields plays her own imposing presence for laughs, gazing down at those around her with a winsome helplessness that would be a great comic asset were it not, alas, her only comic asset. Ever since the post-Super Bowl Friends guest spot that instantly hypnotized the entire TV industry into thinking that the star of The Blue Lagoon could do physical shtick, Shields has been asked to execute slapstick so broad it’d make Soupy Sales blush. When in doubt, the producers seem to feel, knock Brooke over. By the second episode, when a motivational speaker (played by Evening Shade‘s Michael Jeter) tricked her into falling over backward with a loud thump!, this sort of thing had already become not just unfunny but cruel to everyone involved (except, perhaps, Shields’ chiropractor).
There’s no denying that Shields is an amiable, beautiful, and by all accounts perfectly nice young woman who, after all those years in all those lousy feature films, is more deserving of her own show than this week’s batch of freshly signed stand-up comics. And it must be said that as a supporting actor, Judd Nelson is actually a more effective straight man for her than Elizabeth Ashley was in that buried pilot. But is that enough? The lead figure in a solid sitcom must have the ability to put viewers at ease, make them soothed and happy that they’ve chosen to spend half an hour with these particular folks.
That’s what makes Michael J. Fox such a natural television star. But it’s also something a stiffer performer can learn. Few people thought, for example, that Candice Bergen was a logical choice for Murphy Brown until she loosened up and eased into the role. For now, ease eludes Shields. Although she’s fine at conveying perky pluck, her line readings seem rushed and forced. Suddenly Susan is already smarter and quicker than Caroline in the City; maybe a few months down the line, it’ll take on the weight of a solid-gold sitcom. Right now, though, it’s more like a big chunk of scrap metal. C