Thursday, November 29, 2012
TV Mailbag: The Mount Rushmore of Bad Characters on Good Shows, Stunt-Casting The Walking Dead, and the Mystery of Jon Hamm's Emmy-less Existence
By Andy Greenwald
You sent in your questions to grantlandTVmailbag@gmail.com. And now Andy Greenwald will answer them. It's TV mailbag time!
Who's your Mount Rushmore of bad characters from good shows? Current and past shows. — Shane M., Philadelphia
I was so anxious about my very first mailbag question that I spent three days misreading it. I thought Shane was interested in the challenging reverse: good characters stuck on bad shows. So I promptly wasted multiple hours — and numerous Gchat windows — making halfhearted cases for Lucy Punch as BJ on the otherwise sucky Ben and Kate or Zak Orth as a stumbling non-swordsman on the ridiculous Revolution. From the wreckage of the recently canceled, I considered making halfhearted cases for Kyle MacLachlan as Donovan Stark, the merry 1-percenter on Made in Jersey, or Aja Naomi King as the deliciously bitchy Cassandra Kopelson on Emily Owens M.D. — but then I realized no one would know what I was talking about. (Nor would they care.)
For a while I decided to just freestyle it and focus on characters too good for their shows, like Jack Huston's remarkable Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire or Wendell Pierce's perpetually put-upon Antoine Baptiste on Treme. Actually, maybe this whole category could be devoted to disappointing HBO programs: Throw in Emily Mortimer's manic Mac and Olivia Munn's steely Sloan from The Newsroom and you've got a face-saving buddy comedy I would definitely watch.
Then I decided to re-read the question. Oh! Bad characters on good shows! This is entirely different — and sneaky difficult. Before considering it, let's limit the conversation to this century, OK? OK. (You're welcome, Kimmy Gibler.)
Because TV shows are never produced in a vacuum, characters that aren't clicking tend to be disappeared faster than the aforementioned Made In Jersey. I actually enjoyed Paul Schneider's noble horndog Mark Brendanawicz on Parks and Recreation, but there's no denying the show is wildly better with Adam Scott wearing the checkered button-downs. There are also more than a few examples of good characters hamstrung by less-than-robust performers: think Betty Draper on Mad Men or Marissa on The O.C. It's also way too easy to single out children, since casting them is a crapshoot to begin with (four Bobby Drapers down, how many to go?) and showrunners tend to steer away from them when they realize they haven't struck pay dirt. (There's an even bigger TV in this room, Chris Brody — it's just slightly off camera.)
That said, there are two kids who deserve a spot on Shame Mountain: Kim Bauer, the cougar hunter of 24, and A.J. Soprano. Elisha Cuthbert has been utterly redeemed on Happy Endings (seriously: she's hilarious) so it's hard to blame her for a character that served no purpose other than to kill time on a show that was all about killing bad guys as quickly as possible. And A.J. could have been one of the most important characters on The Sopranos, considering Tony's issues with his own father. But due to some actorly limitations on the part of Robert Iler, A.J. was reduced to rebellious nightclubbing, SUV-torching, and ill-advised goatee-growing.
For our final nominees, let's go to two of the most beloved shows of TV's Golden Age. The obvious picks from Lost would be Nikki and Paulo, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof's ill-fated attempt to make redshirts interesting. But the fact that the showrunners realized their mistake when they did — and proceeded to bury the two alive and never mention them again — makes up for the error. And while I had my problems with Jack and concede that Kate could get a little aggravating from time to time, the show would have been considerably worse without them. So let's instead nominate Harold Perrineau's shouty Michael Dawson, a character whose sole purpose was to call out to his missing son. (Question: With his tendency to disappear and resent his parents, was Walt the proto–Carl Grimes?) Michael was so misguided that when he was brought back — after zero-to-no fan demand! — he promptly blew himself up again.
And finally, let's go hunting for big game. The Wire has been hailed by many as the greatest series of all time, which may well be true, provided you submit to the shared amnesia about Season 5. David Simon's ornery animus is a powerful storytelling weapon when pointed outward: at truculent city officials, at outdated drug policies, at the laws of gravity. But when he starts popping off closer to home it gets problematic. No character embodied that shortcoming more than David Costabile's Thomas Klebanow. Based on a punching dummy Simon has his in basement dressed to look like former Baltimore Sun editor Bill Marimow, Klebanow was a mendacious, immoral creep. On a show built on complexity, Klebanow was flat as a board. He gets the final spot on the Mount Rushmore of Shame. For now. (I've got my eye on you, Avery from Nashville!)
Why don't you cover Sons of Anarchy at all? Do you just not watch the show, or not like it? What's the reasoning?
— Tim, Charlotte, NC
Tim gets credit for the no. 1 most-asked question in the mailbag because his was received most recently. (Second most-asked question? "How do we contractually require Morena Baccarin to get naked more often on Homeland?" Yup, these are his readers!) I have no Sons of Anarchy bias. Motorcycles seem like a fun, safe way to get around this great country of ours. I don't cover the show simply because I've never seen it. It debuted before I was doing this sort of thing full time. Catching up on five seasons will take time. Maybe next summer?
(Note: The above answer also works for Dexter.)
OK I know it’s not Emmy season, but I’ve had this question in my head for a while: Emmy voters love to reward a great comedic actor becoming a great dramatic actor (Bryan Cranston). But with Jon Hamm’s seeming inability to win an Emmy even on non-Breaking Bad years, are the Emmy voters penalizing his willingness to get silly on shows like SNL (moving from just being a “I’m here to plug my movie” host, into the “star bullpen” like Goodman, Hanks and a few others), 30 Rock, Childrens Hospital, and other comedies, and generally being more embedded in the LA comedy scene?
I can’t figure out any other reason that Hamm can so consistently get snubbed unless there is something other than his “on screen” work being considered. — Charlie C.
To my mind, Hamm's biggest problem is that awards viewers look at how handsome and suave he is and assume that Don Draper isn't a performance. This, of course, is catastrophically wrong: Just look at this goofball. Hamm's comedic digressions have been really smart, I think, in terms of reflecting who he really is as well as highlighting who he isn't. Seeing him in blackface yelling "Banjo!" at Tracy Morgan really puts the depth and precision of his work as Don Draper into perspective. (It also frees him up for a more varied career after Sterling Cooper goes dark. Without showing this sort of range, he'd be turning down Clark Kent and other assorted Stern Newscaster roles for decades.)
The problem here is that while Hamm has definitely been deserving of an Emmy for Mad Men, who would you take the trophy away from? Bryan Cranston? Kyle Chandler? Wait, don't answer that: Damian Lewis. The ginger Brit is great as Nicholas Brody, but his performance last year wasn't in the same league as Hamm's. Threatening to blow up the Vice President is one thing. Imploding because you don't understand The Beatles is something else entirely.
Re: The Walking Dead Why are there are no zombies with tattoos? I mean the show takes place in the South, shouldn't there be an abundance of Confederate Flag tats, or at least a few tribal arm bands?
Wouldn't the sound of the motorcycle be the #1 worst vehicle to travel with?
If you could add in one actor to shake up the show who would it be? — Conor D.
You guys have a lot of questions about The Walking Dead! So do I, but since mine are mostly profane and rhetorical, let's tackle Conor's.
1. Strong point and one that reflects another that I've seen a bunch recently: For a show set just outside Atlanta, why are both the humans and the undead so lily white? Since the depressing answer to that question is probably the same as it would be in regard to any show, on any network, let's focus on tattoos. My first thought is that many of the biters already destroyed over the past three seasons have probably been inked. The issue is that it's hard to focus on tramp stamps when you're aiming for the head. (Bicycle Girl from the pilot could well have had a classic "Insert Coins in Slot" scripted across her lower back but, well, we'll never know.) My guess is that skin rots pretty quickly in those hot Georgia summers. And in those sorts of conditions, John Mayer–esque sleeves) would be the first things to go
2. I think a Mister Softee ice cream truck would probably be worse. But, yeah, a growling low-rider is super dumb in a world where the slightest noise can bring death. And what about the mileage? It's not like survivors really need to worry about their carbon footprints anymore, but gas is hard to come by! Thank goodness for the sensible, dirt-proof Hyundai)!
3. Oooh, this is a great question. I'd settle for someone "good," but that's casting an awfully wide net. The advantage The Walking Dead has over nearly everything else on the air is that it can go in nearly any direction tonally and it's a great opportunity for actors to make a quick buck, score free latex, and then die before anyone starts accusing them of slumming. So maybe the thing to do is think about what the show needs. I'd divide them into four groups:
GROUP A: Comic/Human Relief
The Walking Dead does not need any help amping up the stakes or the gore. So how about importing someone who at least tries to maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing? I'd love to see one of the lesser Apatowans conscripted: maybe Jay Baruchel or Martin Starr. My podcast pal Chris Ryan makes the excellent suggestion of Steve Zahn. No actor alive is quite as skilled at making the desperately funny seem desperately sad. Bonus: Annoyed Treme fans who have been praying to see him ripped limb from limb would finally get their wish!
GROUP B: Expendable Badasses
Just as Hershel demands a steady diet of cucumber salad and piety, so too does The Walking Dead have an unslakable thirst for fresh meat and even fresher kills. To that end, I'd love to see an underused actress like Dania Ramirez given a shot — and a shotgun. How about importing Downton Abbey's sassy Jessica Brown Findlay and seeing if she's as passionate about survival as she is about women's suffrage? There's a deep bench of armed and dangerous dudes waiting by the phone in Baltimore: maybe Wood "Avon Barksdale" Harris? Or Jamie "My Name Is My Name" Hector? I'd like to see Rockmond Dunbar, last seen puffing a fake cancer stick on the late, lamented Terriers, given another shot. And if you're looking for tough guys who won't say no to a job, I bet Tom Sizemore can be on a plane within the hour. Ditto the newly unemployed) Robert Patrick.
GROUP C: The Reaches
It's an old trope of fantasy and sci-fi franchises that the bigger the ham, the more believable the dialogue will somehow sound. David Morrissey is giving Brits a bad name as the Governor, so why not stick closer to home? Big old bears like Stacy Keach would bring some non-kosher gravitas to a show in desperate need of some. And, hell, while you're on his IMDb page, why not send out fliers to every other supporting player in the Bourne cast: David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, hell, Edward Norton. They can't say no if they haven't been asked, right?
GROUP D: The Stunts
The Walking Dead's wildly inflated ratings suggest that America loves nothing more than a gruesome, violent death. So why not double down on pleasure and start casting national punching bags as zombie chow? There's no shortage of fame-hungry Kardashians, Housewives, and Boo-Boos to choose from. And who would possibly object to the delicious irony of seeing Guy Fieri devoured, sans donkey sauce?
Why does Brody's wife call him Brody? This type of "call my committed romantic interest by his last name" paradigm is most familiar from high school girls talking about varsity lettermen prom dates.
— Mikey, Los Angeles
This is another popular query. I've been told by a number of people in the know on Twitter that this manner of address isn't uncommon among military families. My sense is that Brody and Jessica were high school sweethearts, so Mikey's "prom dates" theory holds true. Once a nickname starts, it becomes hard to shake. That said, it is awfully weird that Jessica calls her husband by a name that is also her name. Maybe in Season 3, Homeland should go all in and have Dana call her dad Brody, too. (Chris can do what he usually does: Enjoy Washington Wizards basketball with his mouth shut.)
Why no love for the performance of Bobby Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti this season on Boardwalk? Dude is making this show worth watching. — Andrew W.
Bobby Cannavale is truly fantastic as the big, dumb, sadistic clotheshorse. He's always fantastic, actually — be sure to check him out opposite Lord Tyrion in The Station Agent if you haven't already — and tends to play against stereotype. So I don't fault him going for gusto in his first (and possibly only) mafia indulgence. I've actually come around on Boardwalk this season — the second half-dozen episodes have been more than just good actors in front of beautiful sets; they've been extremely impressive in tone, structure, and even emotion. Richard's tender love story (with the fantastic Wrenn Schmidt) has been excellent, and the doomed Owen-Margaret affair has been refreshingly free of blarney. But I can't quite condone Gyp's reign of terror. As a mob movie antagonist he hits all the right buttons and decapitates all the right mooks. But I find the whole "accidental disrespect leads to savage dismemberment" thing tired and played out. To me, Gyp represents the worst of Boardwalk — the parroting of recycled Scorsese bits and beats — and gets in the way of the actually affecting stuff they've managed to accomplish in the margins.
What is the difference in your viewing process for watching a show you are going to recap versus one you watch for pleasure? — Jon K.
When I'm recapping, I tend to pause the show every five to 10 seconds to jot down a line or an observation. Obviously, this is hugely annoying to anyone else in the room, so I tend to watch "work" shows on my laptop with a Word document open. (Thus leaving my wife a Homeland orphan. She's happy she doesn't have to pretend to watch The Walking Dead with me, though.) For an hour-long show, I tend to accumulate about 10 pages of notes, most of which I never look at again. But the act of writing it down tends to lodge the stuff more firmly in my brain.
Shows I watch for pleasure tend to be all called Chopped and they are spent in a nearly catatonic, scrapple-fueled haze on my couch.
This question probably isn't mailbag worthy but I want to ask it anyway. On The Walking Dead, everyone is so worried about how they are going to feed the new baby that Daryl is sent out on a food finding mission for the lil guy [sic]. But couldn't Maggie just feed this baby for the next few years or so? Am I missing something here? Did I just solve this problem in 5 seconds??? — Dan F.
Um, I'm going to go ahead and forward this question to the "basic human biology" mailbag. Thanks for writing!
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