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Out of Order

This weekend, Showtime premiered a new original series entitled Out Of Order. (It's hard to tell whether the title is intended to refer to the courtroom term, the concept of being – as in movies – out of sequence, or just "temporarily broken," like the candy machine that Eric Stoltz encounters in the premiere, which sports the same phrase. Maybe it's all three.) The show tells the story of a husband-and-wife screenwriting team played by Stoltz and Felicity Huffman (Sports Night, The Spanish Prisoner). They live in an unbelievably gorgeous home in the Palisades and hang out with their friends or take their son to soccer practice. Through these activities we meet Justine Bateman and William H. Macy (Huffman's real-life husband) who are friends and Kim Dickens (The Zero Effect, Hollow Man) who's another soccer mom. Also, in what is billed as a guest appearance so probably (lamentably) won't last, Peter Bogdanovich appears as a director the couple is working with.

On the strength of the aforementioned cast, I decided to pull the DirecTV "Showtime Switcheroo" and subscribe to the pay-channel for a few hours, just long enough to TiVo the show and get out. Stoltz I could take or leave (I'm like Robert Zemeckis in that way, I guess) but the rest of the cast I adore, so I figured it was imperative to give it at least one shot. Unfortunately, it's one of those shows that's not quite good enough to be a lock, but still good enough that you want to see the next one. So, I guess I'll have to dance with DirecTV again next Monday night and hope they don't get wise.

Many things are good about the show, but among the problems:

  1. Mindscreen: I'm not a fan of this. It was cute on Ally McBeal, but it was still the reason I didn't watch that show for the first year until it won that Golden Globe and we all tuned in. It kept me from watching Scrubs for almost the first season. Stoltz imagines his life to be like a movie, so occasionally we'll cut to a "mindscreen" shot where we see the crew that's following him around filming. It's not cute enough to warrant the effect, and it conflicts strangely with the irritating "audience as jury" courtroom metaphor that Stoltz's narration pursues. Huffman's character would be a more interesting narrator anyway. (Also, animals talk. It's just in his mind, but it's still unforgivable.)

  2. Dialogue: In the style of Dawson's Creek and The West Wing the dialogue is a little stylized. A little hyper-real; a tad too intellectual. But unfortunately, Stoltz isn't up to the task. Dickens almost pulls it off, and of course Huffman and Macy are pros. But between his narration and his speech in the show, Stoltz dominates the sound track and he's not pulling it off. It's scary when James Van Der Beek is a better actor than you.

  3. Drama: (Pronounced DRAM-a, as in "dramamine.") Huffman's having a hard time because her stepdad was an abusive prick during her youth and one of her older brother's friends sexually assaulted her when she was seven. Just now, 16 and a half years into her marriage, it's overtaking her. I can respect that; the psyche is a strange beast. But I can't get too involved in a show where all the characters are supposed to be really really intelligent and self-aware but they're still making really really terrible decisions all the time. She's self-destructing. He's reaching out to her but she can't appreciate it. She knows she's self-destructing but does it anyway. I'm not saying it doesn't happen that way (the show is written by a husband-and-wife team, so you get the sense it happened just that way), but in my view it makes for poor TV. Also, it's difficult to feel too bad for these people (despite Stoltz's voiceover plea to the contrary) because they have it so good. The house is positively astonishing. I can't get enough of it. And they're attractive and wealthy (their bear movie hit big last summer) and have a beautiful kid and nice cars and a pool. Boo-frickin'-hoo.

  4. Writing: There's one line that automatically sends up a lazy-screenwriter red flag. I know this because I write it myself all the time, and then have to go back and force myself to work harder. "I can't do this." This summer in X2, Famke Janssen did the only thing with it that you can do, "I can't– do this," which proves she's a pro. (Made proved she's a pro, but this proves she's a pro even in a summer popcorn movie.) The writing on the show is good overall, but they make Huffman say "I can't do this" to her stepfather and they really didn't need to. She could just as easily have said, "I give up! It's not worth it to play nice and pretend to love you anymore. What's in it for me?"

But many things about the show are good. Felicity Huffman is excellent as always. If anybody can make her mopey self-destructive character sympathetic, she's the one to do it. She delivers a nuanced performance that really draws you in.

Also, with as many strikes against him as there are, it's pretty easy to relate to Stoltz's character because the moment he lays eyes on Kim Dickens, he wants to fuck her brains out. Instantly, I'm on his side. Dickens does a wonderful job, just like she did in the horribly underappreciated The Zero Effect. She's breathtakingly gorgeous in an unassuming way, with deep intelligent eyes that indicate that her sunny countenance is hiding something more interesting. She made Bill Pullman sympathetic in The Zero Effect and she does the same with Stoltz here. She has all the best lines and all the best curves and she absolutely makes Out Of Order a better show.

Plus Bogdanovich. He's magnificent. If you know me, you know I adore him. And you know how much I bemoan his underuse in The Sopranos. Here, he plays an eccentric old Hollywood director. It's the part he was born to play! I'm hoping we see plenty of him over the run of his guest appearance, because his scene was (second only to naked underwater sex with Kim Dickens) the highlight of the episode. I'd listen to him read the phone book.

The performances from such all-stars really elevate the show above some of its shortcomings. And the shooting style is very "Hollywood," in an intentional way. Soft, rich colors and warm lights make everything glow. It feels very "California" and "sunny" and idyllic. Camera moves are creative, like a 90-degree pivot around the Z axis from a standing Eric Stoltz to a bedridden Felicity Huffman, without getting on your nerves. The writing, despite a few missteps, is intelligent and interesting. The show portrays marriage in a way that I'd never really considered it before. The marriage between Stoltz and Huffman is part business partnership, part close friendship, part roommate. Their relationship with their friends (like Macy and Bateman, who infuse their supporting characters with immediate uniqueness – something valuable in a show that covers so much ground in its first 90 minutes) is "different." I want to say "open," but that implies something coital which isn't really true despite the fact that the premiere episode is about Stoltz's extramarital compulsion toward Dickens. It's just that rather than the couple being a team that interacts with other teams, they deal with their friends more like a big group of college buddies. It has a Big Chill feel, despite the fact that these characters don't have that history. It's kind of fascinating for me to watch because it's so different from my conception of marriage.

The makers of Out Of Order also get credit for the only appropriate use of the New Radicals' "You Only Get What You Give" in recent memory. (Take that, Mitsubishi!) This is a fun and peppy song that has been used for some dopey and moronic purposes, but the shameless Risky Business rip-off scene in this episode is the only one that meets my standards. So, well done on that score.

And the house. I'd watch just about anything if it were set in that house. That's going to be a key reason I come back every week.

Out Of Order is a smart and stylish show. Because of the way it's being promoted, it will seem like the next Sopranos or Six Feet Under. I'm not sure that it is, but I'm not sure that they are, either. A lot of it is in the marketing. Also, I don't have figures in front of me, but I get the sense that Showtime is #3 among pay-cable stations. I don't know if Out Of Order, promotion or not, is big enough to drive subscribers to the network. (They took the opportunity to show previews for every new original series they'll be premiering through 2004, and The L Word is the only one that looks remotely watchable, and that's just because – as Sex and the City for the lesbian set – it promises some hot girl-girl action.) It will be interesting to see if they pick up a significant number of subscribers with it. The Chris Isaak Show was heavily hyped and praised and I don't feel like they got many new leads out of that. I'm trying it for another episode, but after that it's going to be a very hard decision. After all, if I really need to see Kim Dickens naked I can pop in my Zero Effect DVD.