Chemistry can make or break shows
Do they click? Do their characters mesh, and can viewers stand to spend time with them? A lot can go into whether a television show succeeds — time slot, subject matter, budget — but sometimes a series rises or falls on the strength of two pivotal actors. And this season’s new shows offer illuminating examples.
Series with a crucial pairing can be television’s version of a two-hander — “Cagney & Lacey,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “Psych” or any other show with plenty of characters but only two who really matter. The reigning example may be “Bones,” the Fox crime procedural starring David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel as an opposites-attract investigative team.
The series and its stars took some time to hone a working formula, yet now, nine seasons in, with the lead characters in a personal as well as professional relationship, “Bones” seems as comfortable as old slippers.
But crucial pairings don’t have to be romantic, and they don’t have to be in a two-character show. Would “Star Trek” have endured had William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy not found a way to sell the odd exchanges between Kirk and Spock?
This fall’s season has brought an assortment of shows that put a lot of weight on the shoulders of two actors. Some are getting it right, some aren’t.
Here’s a sampling:
The improbable description of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” made it seem a novelty entry at best. Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) wakes up in the 21st century and finds that the headless horseman — one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — is there, too. Crane forms an alliance with a sheriff’s deputy, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), to battle the malevolent forces that have been unleashed.
Mison and Beharie and the people writing their dialogue have elevated this premise from the B-movie horror concoction it might have become to a witty, smart blend whose characters, despite the fantasy framework, are very believable. Mills and Crane are about as different as two people can be: She’s black, he’s white; she’s Internet-age, he’s pre-electricity. Beharie and Mison work these contrasts with a subtle humor that helps offset the gruesome goings-on. The only worry here is whether the introduction of Abbie’s sister (Lyndie Greenwood) partway into the season will disturb their droll chemistry.
WORKING BUT WOBBLY
Although NBC is still the butt of a lot of jokes, it may have the fall’s most addictive new series in “The Blacklist.” James Spader is Red Reddington, a creepy criminal who decides he wants to help the FBI and CIA catch even creepier criminals, but only if he can work with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a young FBI profiler.
Spader is in something of a straitjacket, forced to be annoyingly coy and emotionless. And Boone’s character is an increasingly improbable combination of dumb and smart, taking an inordinate amount of time to ask the question viewers were asking halfway through the pilot: Might Red be her long-lost father? So far, though, the actors have made this intriguing enough that the show has been worth keeping up with, Boone managing to be alternately vulnerable and annoyed, while Spader does his cryptic thing. The writers, though, have some work to do to keep the premise plausible.
STARTING TO WORK
The new fall show with the most attention-getting pair of names atop the bill might well have been the CBS comedy “The Crazy Ones.” It stars Robin Williams, a comedy god to many, as an aging adman and Sarah Michelle Gellar of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame as his daughter and co-worker.
The pilot didn’t bode well for this series. Williams was doing his Robin Williams shtick, while Gellar and everyone else around him was acting. It was clumsy and, worse, laugh free.
But as the weeks went along, a funny thing started to happen, in several senses. Gellar began to learn how to react to Williams’ excesses — she can be deadly with the deadpan expression — and, more important, began to assert her own comedy credentials. Williams is still doing his Robin Williams imitation, but Gellar has become the most amusing actor on the show. Among other things, that has helped sell the notion that her character is indeed the daughter of Williams’ unhinged one.
NOT WORKING, PART 1
In “Back in the Game” on ABC, James Caan is a crusty former minor league baseball player who ends up coaching a team of kiddie misfits that includes his grandson. The pairing here isn’t so much Caan and that child, who is played by Griffin Gluck. It’s Caan and the entire team, which includes a flamboyantly gay boy, a pudgy lad and other unathletic types.
Caan adopts the growly, reluctant coach character familiar from numerous movies with this same structure, and the boys deliver their klutzy, cutesy moments. But none of it is particularly convincing.
Plotlines not related to the team are sometimes amusing, but on the ball field, the show is content to just regurgitate a creaky formula; none of the actors, young or old, have found a way to make it new.
NOT WORKING, PARTS 2 AND 3
The Fox sitcom “Dads” might be the most awful new comedy that has survived into November. (Inexplicably, it has even been extended.) It’s about two friends in their 30s (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) whose fathers move back in with them. This might sound like an ensemble comedy, but it’s more like two two-handers in the same show: a pair of sons and their dads.
Ribisi’s father is played by Martin Mull, but there must have been a mix-up at the hospital, because there’s no way that Mull’s character, who is a moron, could have begat Ribisi’s. Sure, not all children are younger versions of their parents, but these two seem like strangers.
Green and Peter Riegert, who plays his father, are even less comfortable together. Both have respectable television credentials, but they are wasted by this witless show, forced to swap distasteful one-liners without zest or conviction. There may be real father-and-son pairs who interact like this, but you wouldn’t want them in your living room.