David E. Kelley's mood music

On "Ally McBeal," Robert Downey Jr. sings! Plus: "The Spin Room" -- CNN's worst show. We miss "Deadline"! And where the hell is "Ed"?

By Tom Frost - Max Renn

Published November 28, 2000 7:18PM (EST)

"C.S.I." (CBS, 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24)

I miss "Deadline" already. Most TV shows with grisly plot lines feature a main character who goes around with a grim look on his face, letting us know that the world can really get you down sometimes. "Deadline" just wallowed in the mire.

It was about a crusading New York tabloid columnist, played with a shady panache by the gloriously oversized Oliver Platt, all three-piece suits and sarcasm. He was supposed to be dislikable, and for much of the show was. There was also a rat's nest of supporting players, including Hope Davis as his disgusted wife, from whom he was separated but with whom he sometimes still slept; Bebe Neuwirth as the tab's ill-tempered managing editor; and Lili Taylor as some sort of functionary. The show was about how crusading for justice isn't as simple as it sounds; in the first episode, for example, Platt found out that a kid was unjustly convicted of a mass killing because he didn't have an alibi -- he'd been killing someone else somewhere else at the time. In another episode, Neuwirth carried on an affair with a wanted felon. "What are they gonna do to me?" she said, capturing the arrogance of the press with bleak accuracy.

Then it got really seamy. In the final episode broadcast, Platt met a mob moll at a boxing match. The fight ended in a melee; the two snuck out and had wild monkey sex. The moll turned up beaten to death the next day, and everyone in the newsroom thought Platt did it.

Even in this age of the stylish antihero, "Deadline" was too much for viewers. No one watched it, and most critics didn't like it. NBC didn't even bother screwing around with different time slots -- "Deadline" was dead after its fourth episode.

"C.S.I." is hanging on, somehow; it's actually a hit. This humorless, preposterous show features the usually classy William Petersen (he starred in Michael Mann's "Manhunter") as Grissom, the head of a drearily serious crime-scene unit. The credits show a bunch of investigators peering intently at shoelaces to the tune of the Who's "Who Are You." The characters talk in a mixture of hepster patois and yawny clichés. When Grissom tells an underling to do something, she says, "I'm gone!" When a pair of voice prints match, a sound analyst says, "Disco!" It all gets old fast.

The first few minutes of tonight's episode, in which it's discovered that an ostensible suicide is not only faked, but part of a pattern of such crimes, makes you want to slap the scriptwriter really hard. There's a suicide message on a tape recorder, which for some reason has been recorded backward. Everyone knows what voices sound like recorded backward, right? Not on "C.S.I."

"What kind of language is that? Swedish?" an investigator asks. "It's backward," Petersen replies gravely. A minute later, still at the crime scene, he's listening to it the right way in a room with a closed door. (Wouldn't you need special equipment to do that?) "He's getting his mojo working," says the investigator. Petersen barks out orders his crew must have heard a million times before as if they were new: "I want every inch of the bathroom checked for prints!" he says gruffly. He gives the print-checker a special vial of red powder: "Serious case, serious print powder," he says.

All of this dialogue is delivered with deadly seriousness. The show is shot with an icy blue sheen, broken only by pointless bits of foofaraw, like a Rubik's cube, and ugly special effects, like a bullet shooting into a body, a shot cribbed from "Three Kings." But in that film the point was to underscore the destructive potential of every bullet; here it's just showy nonsense -- like the rest of the program.


Sunday, Nov. 26: "Ed" (NBC, 8 p.m.)

"Ed" isn't on!! In its stead is some sort of student audition film, with a chubby woman on a cruise ship trying to act very high society in contrast to a young man who's supposed to be a lowlife artist. Neither is convincing. Several minutes go by before I realize -- it's the network premiere of "Titanic"!


"The Spin Room" (CNN, 8 p.m.); "Hardball" (MSNBC, 8 p.m.)

"The Spin Room" is the worst show in the history of CNN -- amateurish political talk of the frat-boy variety. Hosts Bill Press and Tucker Carlson exchange chuckles and giggle uncontrollably, highly pleased at having their very own TV show.

Carlson's a young rightist thug; Press, the lightweight inheritor of Michael Kinsley's liberal mantle on "Crossfire," is, astonishingly, worse. Tonight, for example, as a gag, he brings out "a special guest" -- a puppet on strings, which he dubs Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. It's a sophomoric prank for a national news show.

Here's another example of the show's tone: When Press brings on a legal analyst, Laurie Levinson from Loyola Law School, he says, with forced jollity, "You're making history tonight! You're the first guest to repeat an appearance on 'The Spin Room,' a high honor indeed!" Carlson laughs along delightedly.

It's not clear what the point of this amateurish show is. The unprofessional antics never end; neither host has anything interesting to say.

It's a relief to switch over to Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, who blows every other news host away. He's smarter and keener than any of his guests, asks offbeat but piercing questions and runs his show with a virtuosic intelligence. (He gets off good lines, too: "This is an election held over by UNpopular demand," he says at one point, chuckling to himself.)

Matthews is on a roll this week with a couple of disreputable regular panelists: Mike Barnicle, the Boston Globe columnist who got fired after, it was charged, inventing a tearjerking story about two kids in a cancer ward, and Pat Caddell, the unpredictable pollster. Caddell calls himself a liberal Democrat but is now so mad at Gore he can barely speak: "This election has been hijacked by a confederacy of gangsters," he says. Matthews' best moment comes when a helmet-haired Republican representative won't shut up. He tries to interrupt a couple of times; she keeps talking. Finally, he erupts: "Congresswoman, this tactic of talking through other people's time is not going to go on any longer. I want you to get quiet for a moment."


Monday, Nov. 27: "Ally McBeal" (Fox, 9 p.m.)

At 9 p.m., NBC went live to Vice President Al Gore's absurdly late plea for Americans to sit tight during his appeals.

Not Fox. The network built on "Married ... With Children," "In Living Color" and "When Animals Attack" went straight to what was advertised as a can't-miss episode of "Ally McBeal." Fox programmers know that America can get its news at 10 p.m. Not like anyone would be turning back to the other networks: NBC's "Third Watch" is a bad "ER," and who cares about the Carolina Panthers, who were playing on ABC's "Monday Night Football"?

Ally the character, like "Ally" the show, is now officially in love with Robert Downey Jr., who plays Lawyer Larry, and who had his own tie-in with the 10 p.m. news. (We'll get back to that later.) The cute couple are in the early stages of a relationship, the two-month ride of "I can't believe you use two alarm clocks too!" whose regular sex and permanent Friday night dates would thrill anyone.

David E. Kelley, the guy who writes "Ally McBeal," loves this stuff. He's made it a regular theme on the show, where characters tend to fall in love, run off into the land of witty relationship banter and then break up when they get to the "she wants me to spank her" part of the more mature, grounded relationship. Kelley should know that fishing off the company dock is always bad luck; of all the office couples, only Richard and Ling, the meanest, shallowest couple in the bunch, still keep it together. And that's only because Ling drives Richard nuts by infusing her panties with the smell of money.

But we're getting off subject. Other shows have formulas. "Ally McBeal" has themes. One of Kelly's favorites is that two women kissing does wonders during sweeps. Another is that professional people who seem to have everything squared away are really human car wrecks. (John, who is supposed to be the best lawyer, is a bottle of quirks who kept a pet frog and had a remote control installed on one of the office toilets so he wouldn't have to deal with "remnants.")

One more of Kelley's themes, and this is honestly one of our favorites, is that music has many meanings, and that it touches us in ways that we don't understand, and that we sometimes search for ways to explain what it does or why it does it.

There's a lot of music in tonight's episode. It's about Christmas, and the ancillary despair that comes with the most cheery of holidays. The show starts with Ally and Larry buying a tree. Downey can't believe she's already buying one. Ally says that Christmas starts as soon as you do, and she loves Christmas so much that she wants to draw it out for one extra week.

"I've always hated Christmas," says Larry.

Ally frowns.

"I should have waited longer in the relationship to say that," he says sheepishly.

Ally wonders why he's a Grinch.

"I've always been alone," he says.

"You're not going to be alone this Christmas," she says.

"Let's go decorate the tree," he concedes.

Meanwhile, back in the office, the lawyers are putting together a lawsuit for a newscaster who was fired for declaring on the nightly news that Santa Claus doesn't exist. And Elaine, the buxom office administrator, is explaining why she hates the holidays. It's because she's always alone, getting drunk. She ends up, she says, "sitting at some bar offering up my vagina."

She really said that. We have known and loved many sex-positive Third Wave feminists. We have never heard any of them say "offering up my vagina." If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then sometimes David E. Kelley seems like he's from Pluto.

It turns out that Lawyer Larry has his own special reason for being miserable during Christmas. He misses his son. Ally doesn't know about this son. She knew about his ex-wife, but not this 7-year-old boy, nor the kid's mother, who is someone different from the wife.

However, this isn't going to affect their budding love. Barely flinching, she tells him that she's compromised everything she once cared about in a relationship; now the only thing that matters is that her man loves her. (In these rare moments, when Kelley gets to those kinds of compromises, we forget all about what planet he is from: He might as well live in our house.)

Downey lived with his boy and the babymama for three years and did all the things that one does with children at Christmas -- snow angels and the like. Now he doesn't see him much, and that bums him out -- especially when the lights start twinkling in December.

Ally vows to change that.

Downey, for his part, is trying to fix Elaine's mood. She's snippy with Ally. He tells Elaine that she needs to find a song and sing it for others. That's what he does, he says. This will help her.

It's worth noting here that Kelley is really trying to establish that Downey and Ally are right for each other: She's always been the car wreck who ends up Bondo-ing up the other rolling accidents in her office; now he's the smashed one doing the same thing.

But now it's unclear if Kelley will have Downey back for next season: Commercials for tonight's 10 p.m. news reminded us that Downey was arrested again, this time for coke possession in Palm Springs, Calif., over the holiday weekend. "Is Ally's new boyfriend going back to the slammer?" asked one tagline.

It seems to us that Downey has a serious drug problem, and he appears remarkably self-destructive. (But not without a nose for fun -- the actual 10 p.m. newscast reported that a woman had left the scene earlier and that there was a Wonder Woman costume found in the hotel room. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

But television has become the place that offers the besmirched a second chance, and it's clear that Downey was making the most of his here. He's almost remarkable on the show: In one scene tonight, he was so intoxicated by Ally that you could see him trying to inhale her. Whatever problems the drugs create for Downey, they don't get in the way of his acting.

In one of the other story strings, John, the firm's resident mouse, is dating a new woman, Kimmey. (She's played by Jami Gertz, who lost Bill Pullman to a tornado and Helen Hunt in "Twister.") She's incredibly square and reserved and brings her mother along on dates. Kimmey tells John that every boyfriend she's ever had has been a singer. He lies and tells her that he used to be in a rock band. She swoons and asks him to sing her a song in public for her Christmas present. He smiles nervously and a whistle sound comes out of his nose.

That's one of the two performances we have lined up for us.

The second is from Elaine. The show's resident brassy dame is becoming a diva. She's picked "Tomorrow," from "Annie," for her big public number. She likes it because it's poignant, and it will get her a date. In rehearsals she lashes out at the band. She wants this to be perfect. When she finally belts out the song in front of a bar full of people, she's a hit. Sure, Richard and Ling cringe, and her friends are somewhat embarrassed for her, but everyone loves her.

That scene says something else about pop music. It says that no matter how much the cynical hipsters sneer, we pop music fans are nostalgic creatures who love our syrup warm and thick. "The sun will come out tomorrow," is a line as banal and romantic as they come, but -- c'mon -- it is kind of poignant, right?

John, back at the office, is trying to figure out if he should tell the truth or try to fake a rock song for his girl.

"Who am I kidding?" he asks.

"The girl," answers Richard. "This is how we get them to sleep with us."

Richard insists that John just needs to talk-sing his way though a song and move well -- neither of which John is comfortable with.

"Ally McBeal" is a show where lawyers seem to open and shut a case in a working day with seemingly less than an hour of work -- gotta have time for bathroom breaks, romantic lunches and all that office gossip. (They lose the Santa case, incidentally.) Within the rules of "Ally McBeal" time, it makes perfect sense that at the end of the show John is ready to perform. He comes out on stage dressed like a bargain-bin Springsteen. Richard has convinced the women in the office to get everyone in the bar to cheer for him, and it works. They roar. John struts around, sings half a verse of an oldie, mutters a few words in the chorus and he's out. His date, and her mother, go nuts.

Now what is David Kelley saying about pop music? That you don't need talent? That it's all in the swagger? That pop audiences will blindly follow cute girls wherever they want to go?

We don't know, exactly, but we never, ever, want to end up in that bar.

We do know, however, what Kelley was saying with this episode's entirely unexpected third performance.

The singer is Robert Downey Jr. He and Ally are sitting at a piano. Ally is trying to get him to make a Christmas song his own. He won't sing any of them: They're either politically incorrect or they remind him of his son.

Ally gets up to pee. While she's in the bathroom, he plinks out a few notes, then a few chords. It sounds like "Jingle Bells," but different. He pulls down a mike. Then, with his voice reverbed beyond the standards of even the most generous karaoke machines, he opens up:

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish that I had a river
That I could skate away on

OK, so Larry sang like a bargain-bin Springsteen, but we bought it. When Joni Mitchell sang that song, "River," on "Blue," she was singing about being caught in California at Christmastime, about missing the East, about feeling lonely in a crowd and about wanting to be alone. But most directly, she was singing about losing a lover because she was selfish and sad. "I made my baby cry," she sang.

It's kind of a smart, touching moment for prime-time TV, and of course Ally is back from the bathroom to witness most of the tune. And when Downey sings it, the song says everything about how miserable he really is, and, in a way, the way that we use songs to speak for us -- and, more impressively, the way we make them speak the meanings that we want them to speak: His baby is his baby.


Tom Frost

Tom Frost is a contributor to Salon's "TV Diary."


Max Renn

Max Renn is a contributor to Salon's "TV Diary."


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