The other night I spent roughly 22 minutes watching a new sitcom on TV, and I didn’t laugh once. Nor did I even crack a smile. But the show did get a rise out me. It wasn’t so much what was happening onscreen that had me rolling my eyes and picking my jaw up off the floor. It was the cast. I mean, what the hell was an acclaimed and accomplished two-time Tony winner like Swoosie Kurtz doing in a place like this?
Wait, that’s CBS’s Mike & Molly, another egregiously unfunny new sitcom that I watched in the same sitting. The one I want to talk about here stars That ’70s Show mom Debra Jo Rupp, a talented comedian, also slumming, in Better with You. Despite its shockingly decent reviews, Better with You, which premiered September 22 on ABC, is the kind of program that gives traditional multi-camera laugh-track sitcoms a bad name. Considering the cast (Rupp aside, whose welcome presence still can’t save these dreary proceedings), I’m surprised it’s still on the air and has been picked up for a full season by ABC (despite averaging 7.10 million weekly viewers, more than four million fewer than Mike & Molly).
Of the four younger leads, Joanna Garcia, has had the most prime-time success, having spent six seasons (2001 to 2007) as Reba McEntire’s daughter on Reba. Since then, she’s flopped in two series: Welcome to the Captain lasted five episodes on CBS in 2008, and Privileged went on for 18 on The CW from 2008 to 2009 before being cancelled. Her Better with You sister Jennifer Finnigan has had most of her success to date in daytime, where she won three Emmys playing Bridget Forrester on The Bold and the Beautiful. That means she’s probably a huge international star, since B&B plays so well overseas. Here in the U.S., though, she’s been more like prime-time poison up to now.
Since leaving B&B, perhaps a bit prematurely, in 2004, she has had two series — Committed, a half-hour NBC sitcom, and Close to Home, an hour-long legal drama on CBS — neither of which lasted more than two seasons. Despite her lack of prime-time success, Finnigan has a certain unique appeal, which is more than I can say for Josh Cooke, perhaps the greatest Hollywood example of failing upwards since Paula Marshall, who starred in seven flop series between 1994 and 2007 before finally making it to season two with Gary Unmarried, which was cancelled last March.
Before Better with You, Cooke headlined three unsuccessful sitcoms — Committed (13 episodes), Four Kings (7) and Big Day (12) — and after three strikes, he’s still at bat. He and Finnigan costarred as an odd romantic couple on Committed, and since they failed at love on that show, I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to give them one more chance to make it work as a romantic pair on Better with You.
Why do the major networks keep recycling the same dozen or so actors in bad shows? There are so many talented daytime soap stars dying to transition into prime-time TV. Film stars whose big-screen roles have begun to dry up, so TV is looking like a better option. Waiters and waitresses we’d probably rather watch on our TV screens once a week. Years ago, I kept reading that Rupert Everett was shopping around a series based on a gay James Bond type of character. It never made it to TV. Do the Hollywood powers that be really think we’d rather watch Josh Cooke in four series than one starring the guy who stole all of his scenes in My Best Friend’s Wedding?
What’s the world coming to when ’90s Oscar nominees like Angela Bassett and Elisabeth Shue seem to spend more time out of work than in it? When Ashley Judd is walking around with precious little to do? When Oscar nominees like Terence Howard and Laurence Fishburne have to slum in police procedurals? When The New Adventures of Old Christine is cancelled to make room for comedic underachievers? And Josh Cooke, who I’m sure is a lovely guy, gets to punch the clock season after disappointing season in sitcoms we probably won’t remember one year after they’re axed.
I’d love to see prime-time TV populated by more underemployed film vets, but I’d settle for more new faces front and center? It worked for Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva, which is a cable hit, thanks to the fresh appeal of Brooke Elliott, a plus-size actress who was plucked off of Broadway. She’s proof that if you cast outside the box, viewers will follow, and even if they don’t roll on the floor laughing, at least they just might crack a smile.