"Here it comes -- blame the mother!" Jennifer's psychiatrist (Kurt Fuller) tries to conduct a repeat session with his patient, Jennifer (Jaime Pressly), and her family -- psychologist mom Maggie (Jessica Walters), brother Wayne (Ethan Suplee), sister-in-law Stephanie (Nora Kirkpatrick), and, ever so briefly, daughter Gretchen (Dylan Gelula), in last week's episode of Jennifer Falls, "Three Dates With My Mother."
The problem with trying to write a regular "TV Watch" feature is that the powers that be seem determined to make sure they're dishing out next to nothing worth writing about. You watch new show after new show, and eventually it dawns on you that the "creative" process, in program develoment and pitching, has become something like: "Hey, here's something that could be really crappy!"
So I think it counts for something that after catching a later episode of Jennifer Falls
-- having resolutely avoided the thing based on the death-defyingly horrible promos, which carry the message, "Run for your life!" -- I felt impelled to watch the earlier episodes via On Demand and then went so far as to program the DVR to preserve new ones. What's more, I've actually watched
the couple of episodes that the DVR recorded. This doesn't qualify as an actual commitment, but it's something.
You probably know the premise: that Jennifer (Jaime Pressly), a career-long rising star in the financial-services industry, suddenly crashed and burned, and tail between her legs has slinked back to old home -- along with her teenage daughter, Gretchen (Dylan Gelula) with her psychologist mom (Jessica Walters), and the company of her sweet but nebbishy brother, Wayne (Ethan Suplee), his overbearing wife, Stephanie (Nora Kirkpatrick), and Jennifer's onetime best friend, Dina (Missi Pyle). Even from the promos you could see that there's an inordinate quantity of cheekbones and Hollywood hair and sitcom perkiness. The instinct, as I said, has to be to run not walk. (It's probably just as well that I didn't remember Jaime Pressly and Ethan Suplee from the few episodes I watched of My Name Is Earl
, a show I found supremely repulsive.)
Still, premises are just that, premises. You can reduce Hamlet
to a cheesy premise, or The Trouble with Harry
, or even -- perhaps especially -- Downton Abbey
. What matters is what the creative people have thought to do
with the premise. And something in that first episode created a tingle of a sense that series creator Matthew Carlson has something in mind, and possibly that seeing more episodes might even reveal that he's got it going. I've noted a number of times that in cases where a show's creator(s) had something genuinely original going, it was all there from the start and I just missed it.
My classical extreme instance has long been SOAP
. The first time I saw the first episode, I was appalled. I mean, someone thought it was funny to have Benson (Robert Guillaume) joke about pumping sugar into the diabetic Chester Tate (Robert Mandan)? Years later, having gotten the hang of what the show was doing via later episodes, I rewatched the pilot and was totally charmed. Even in my "for instance," the show's creative team had nailed the, er, difficult relationship between Benson and Mr. Tate. Many of the things that had initially put me off on first viewing turned out to be not only carefully conceived but fresh and inspired.
Alas, I haven't found that to be the case in my catch-up Jennifer Falls
viewing, but there's still something there. I guess I'm not hugely fond of the way the show is executed, because when I can focus on the writing, it often seems to me really quite good, even outstanding.
Take this scene from last week's episode, "Three Dates With My Mother" (written by Matthew Carlson), where Jennifer had to admit to Mom that for three months she had been seeing not just a therapist but a psychiatrist
, knowing that Maggie as a psychologist hates
psychiatrists, in order to convey the psychiatrist's request that she bring her family in for a session. Jennifer had to do all this knowing that her mother would not merely bear her anti-psychiatrist grudge but would be convinced that Jennifer's treatment would quickly come 'round to "blame the mother."
At the beginning, Jennifer and Maggie are entering an elevator, en route to a session that her psychiatrist (Kurt Fuller) as requested with her family.
MAGGIE: I can't believe I have to do another one of these insufferable sessions. I canceled a salt scrub for this.
JENNIFER: All right, you know what, Mom? I am really sick of you being all pissy about my therapy. I mean, is it too much for you to try and help me instead of spending all your energy trying to attack my therapist?
MAGGIE: Boy, you're in a mood today. Did you skip breakfast this morning?
JENNIFER: You know what? That's it! [Reaches for the elevator control panel and engages the stop button] We are not leaving this elevator until we get to something real. You know, when I lost everything and had to move back in with you, [with crazed exasperation] you threw me a party! You know what I would have really liked more, Mom? If you would have just asked me what it felt like to fail.
MAGGIE: It was a nice party.
JENNIFER [aghast]: I failed, Mom.
MAGGIE: You didn't fail.
JENNIFER: Yes, I did. I did. I mean, why is it so hard for you to admit that sometimes bad things happen to this family?
MAGGIE [reaching to release the elevator stop button]: We're going to be late for the appointment.
JENNIFER [reengaging the elevator stop button]: No! No! We are doing this! You're going to admit it. You are going to look at me and tell me that your daughter screwed up.
MAGGIE [rereleasing the elevator stop button]: This is ridiculous.
JENNIFER [reengaging the elevator stop button]: Tell me, Mom.
MAGGIE [pulls the elevator stop button clear out of the panel, trailing a rootlike agglomeration of wires 'n' stuff]: No! Now we're stuck!
Now I happen to think this is exceedingly smart writing, and could have been turned into a really terrific as well as really funny scene, instead of what seemed to me an okay one. At least, though, the acting quieted down, and we got some sense of actual interchange between the characters rather than what always seems to me mindlessly perky, sing-songy, machine-gun-like delivery.
I have no inside knowledge, but I can't help suspecting the unhelpful influence of Network Suits. I think of Jessica Walters, for example, as a stunning actress, one who had a special talent for doing "smart" and "beautiful" simultaneously. In her later years, however, she seems to have gotten pigeonholed in her selfish-narcissistic-mother groove, which worked extremely well in the crazed ensemble of Arrested Development
but much less well in her earlier TVLand series, Retired at 35
. I get the feeling that no one here really wants to see what she could do for a real Maggie.
Let me stress that it's not the decision to treat the Jennifer Falls
situation comedically that rubs me the wrong way. True, it could be played for Strindbergian psychodrama, but that's not what I'm proposing. (Nobody would watch that anyway.) I think Matthew Carlson is absolutely right to think that there could be comic gold in this material. He has made all kinds of utterly excellent choices -- as, for example, the basic personality Jennifer presented to the people in her high-flying-banker life, which was abrasive, domineering, and dehumanizing. It's not that these qualities necessarily brought about her cataclysm, but that her firing, far from displeasing the people above and below her, or arousing sympathy from them, seemed generally to be quite a happy development for them all.
Now that's a past-life circumstance that could be worked with from a writerly standpoint in Jennifer's humbled present circumstances. Or again, there's the basic circumstance that while Maggie is indeed exceedingly self-concerned, the fact is that when her daughter found herself so suddenly in such ghastly circumstances, Maggie welcomed her and her granddaughter back home, not grudgingly and resentfully, but eagerly and uncomplainingly. There's room for a lot of irony here in the gulf between mother and daughter.
As a matter of fact, the elevator scene brought a breakthrough of sorts for Jennifer and Maggie. As daughter recognized as soon as she realized that they were indeed stuck in the elevator, this was likely to trigger Mom's claustrophobia. Sure enough, Maggie went into a claustrophobic panic, announcing that she didn't want to die, pounding the elevator door, and crying out for help. But eventually the two of them find themselves actually talking, and Maggie recalls her mother -- the grandmother whom Jennifer remembers as a kindly, saintly presence -- openly ridiculing her every time she said or did anything wrong. Jennifer would never have seen this behavior, because Maggie learned how to prevent it. "All I had to do was never be wrong."
Afterward, Jennifer, speaking directly to us, as she sometimes does, said, "It's not like the world changed, but after that, things got a little easier between us."
Which is where last week's episode finished. I'm curious to see where we pick up this week. I know we're going to meet Gretchen's dad, Jennifer's ex. That could be interesting. It's been awhile since a TV-show episode left me curious enough about what happens next to want to see it.
SOAP's Chester Tate (Robert Mandan) and Benson (Robert Guillaume)
: The show's creative team, led by Susan Harris, had this hilariously poisoned relationship nailed from the get-go.
Labels: TV Watch