As I write this review of Bette Midler’s new sitcom Bette, I’m listening to Midler’s new CD, entitled ”Bette.” (”Synergy!” she declared in the New York Times.) Since, after watching two episodes of her TV show, I am groping for compliments to pay this immensely likable performer, I can say with great enthusiasm that Midler sings a lovely, moving version of Baby Washington’s 1963 R&B smash ”That’s How Heartaches Are Made” — it deserves to be a hit.
As for ”Bette” the sitcom — well, this is how heartaches are made; it probably doesn’t deserve to be a hit. I say that out of respect for Midler: This show is simply beneath her, even though it looks as if she’s the one calling the shots, both on- and off camera. The series is conceived as a brazen tour de force star vehicle that owes a lot to ”I Love Lucy” and very little to what TV has evolved into over the past 40 years.
Midler plays a version of herself: a Hollywood star complete with husband (Kevin Dunn), daughter Rose (Lindsay Lohan in the pilot, but, in a cast change, now Marina Malota), a best friend who also serves as her manager (Joanna Gleason), and a pal who’s also her musical accompanist, played by James Dreyfus (”Notting Hill”).
The TV Bette is an insecure celebrity, anxious to make jokes about her dud movies before anyone else does. (The first two episodes both contain jabs at her 1991 bomb ”For the Boys,” and the second show’s rather masochistic plot is about how Midler’s recent films all seem to go straight to airlines as in flight entertainment a few days after they’re released in theaters.)
Over the years, Midler has achieved her best work by being consummately confident. Think of the uproarious stage shows she has mounted; her brave, headlong dive into the Janis Joplin myth in 1979’s ”The Rose”; or the bubbly, sexy joy she brought to her pampered wife role in 1986’s ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Midler seems to be taking middle age particularly hard, complaining in interviews about how few good roles feature films have offered her recently — it seems to have left her weary and at a loss as to how best to use her great gifts.
But her pride won’t allow her to slide into a retrograde sitcom like ”Bette” without a fight — a misbegotten one, as it turns out. Above all, Midler needed to surround herself with sharply etched supporting characters she could react to; instead, she told the Times, ”Everyone wants me to have a Kramer…. I say, I am Kramer. I want to have only straight-people around me.”
Big mistake. Kevin Dunn is a talented actor — a Chicago theater vet with solid credits in films like ”Nixon” and ”Mississippi Burning” — but you’d never know it from the vaguely drawn shlub he plays here. (Why didn’t Midler model her TV husband on her fascinating real life mate, Martin von Haselberg, a financier who was also half of the daring performance art duo the Kipper Kids? Now, there’s a wacky Desi for Bette’s Lucille Ball for the millennium.) Similarly, the rock solid, consistently terrific Gleason, as Bette’s gal pal, is wasted in a role that requires lots of quizzical looks and shrugged shoulders as Midler dashes around acting frantic.
By the second episode, Midler is already digging into her vaults to show us grainy footage of her career making performances at the New York gay men’s hangout, the Continental Baths, and the disparity between the raucous performer glimpsed so briefly there makes the toilet flushing jokes that suck the new Bette down into mediocrity seem all the more ironic and sad. I have a feeling that along about week 6 of this sitcom, even Midler’s most stalwart fans are going to be singing a tune she includes on her new CD: ”God Give Me Strength.”