Imagine there's no movie stars

David Copperfield and his hot new girlfriend do John Lennon. Plus: "Pasadena," loathsome "Married Man" and the funniest show on TV.

Published October 4, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Sept. 28

Dear Diary,

When promoting "Pasadena," a Fox series that debuted Friday night, creator Mike White ("Chuck and Buck") promised a "psychotic soap" that would "only get darker." I was excited after seeing the previews, which made it look like a lunatic "Dynasty" crammed with intentional jokes. But the pilot, which was rather remarkably unremarkably directed by Diane Keaton, seemed a lot less psychotic than it did catatonic, or at least heavily medicated. Watching "Pasadena" was like watching "Dynasty" on lithium. Hopefully, something or someone will start foaming soon. Maybe it'll be Dana Delaney, whose character already appears to be in need of a nice, long rest.

In grand prime-time soap tradition, "Pasadena" tells the story of a filthy-rich, dysfunctional clan whose power, influence and lack of scruples come in handy for suppressing the scandals that pop up around them like mold on cheese. (The Greeleys own a big-town newspaper, and they're not afraid not to use it.) The story is narrated, unfortunately, in grand teen melodrama tradition, by 15-year-old Lily Greeley McAllister (Alison Lohman), who is both the family princess and its not-so-subtle symbol of purity and hope. With a name like Lily, she's got to be good. Sure, she spends the first few minutes of the episode clambering onto dad Will's (Martin Donovan) lap and begging for an Audi A6 (which, admittedly, makes her dewy idealism a little harder to make out, at first). But that's only because she hasn't yet learned, as she soon will, that "money is the villain in the story." For this lesson, we can thank Henry, a hunky scholarship student steeped in class resentment who presciently interprets "Gatsby" so that we may know the central theme of "Pasadena." Thanks, Hank!

Anyway, Lily's childish, 200 hp, V6, five-valve technology dreams come to an abrupt end later that same night, when, after her parents have gone to a "dinner party slash charity event" and her little brother has fallen asleep upstairs, a terrifyingly unkempt intruder breaks into the house and threatens her with a gun and a mysterious necklace. The interloper is searching for a long-lost girl whose picture he carries, as do most love-mad drifters, in a locket. Lily manages to lock herself in a bathroom, where she remains, screaming and cowering, until the man gives up on the door and just shoots himself in the head. When Lily's parents come home, the place is crawling with cops. The police inform them that the man's name was Philip Parker, and that he "had a history of mental illness." "But that's not where the story ends," Lily explains as Philip's body is taken away. "This is where it begins."

Just who was that man who ruined the dining room carpet, forcing Lily's mom, Catherine (Delaney), to redecorate twice on orders from that bitch Grandma? Why, of all houses in Pasadena, did Philip Parker choose theirs? And who was the girl in the locket? Nobody wants to tell Lily the truth, not even her mother, not even after she discovers that her mother and Philip Parker were in the same class at school. But now, with the help of Henry, Lily is setting out to uncover the truth about her family. Between her scheming dirt-bag of a Grandpa; her castrating Grandma; Dad, that cheating milksop; scarily repressed Mom; Alky Uncle, Aunt Slutty and Pesky Little Brother, Lily's going to have her hands full this season.

Sept. 30

Dear Diary,

Also not funny, but definitely weird in the way that things that are really clueless, offensive and bizarrely off-the-mark are weird, is HBO's loathsome "The Mind of the Married Man." Tonight's episode is the second installment in what already feels like the most egregiously overlong series since "M.A.S.H." If "The Mind of the Married Man" is to be believed, the mind of the married man is very similar to that of a very small lizard. Actually, there is nothing believable about it. As did the pilot episode, Episode 2 deals with the sexual fantasies, frustrations and anxieties (I'm going to go out on a limb and predict this as the theme of Episodes 3 through 6, at which point the series will not be renewed) of a columnist named Mickey (Mike Binder, who also happens to be the person responsible for the show, just in case you need to know, for whatever reason).

Mickey is a quivering garden gnome with a Philip Roth complex who happens to be married to a tall, blond British babe named Donna (Sonya Walger). Donna never, ever loses her temper with Mickey, even after he has grown wan and pale from pining after his adoring, beautiful young assistant, Missy (Ivana Milicevic). (Then again, maybe he is always wan and pale; the men on this show are uniformly punishing.) Anyway, Mickey and his wife, Donna, have this big-but-funky apartment, this poor-but-noble maid and this cute-but-inopportune blond boy-child whom Mickey not so secretly resents for cutting in on his sex life. Yes, Mickey has it all, and yet, Mickey is ... troubled. He wants very badly to sleep with his assistant. It's gotten to the point where Missy comes to him in his dreams and says really embarrassing things that make us sorry for her -- both as a person and an actress-slash-model.

Mickey's friends from work, Jake (Jake Weber) and Doug (Taylor Nichols), both married, have conveniently opposite views on the subject of cheating, which makes it easier for them to personify the two sides of Mickey's battling conscience. (I do wish they would dress them up in a little red devil jumpsuit and a little white angel tunic just to make everything perfectly clear.) Jake is the kind of guy who brings hookers to work and makes sure everybody knows it when he's having sex in the office. Doug is an Oprah enthusiast who watches marriage-counseling tapes with his wife. You know, those kinds of guys. Average.

In a classic preemptively defensive maneuver, Mickey asks his wife why she is so cold to Missy. Donna retaliates the next day by asking Missy out to lunch. Mickey tries to dissuade Donna from taking her to lunch. When that fails, he orders Missy to cancel the lunch. Missy pouts until he offers to take her to the same restaurant, an Italian place that she has "only wanted to go to [her] whole life." Why Missy has waited her whole life to go to an Italian place with a red, white and green awning and an apostrophe in the name is one of those "Mind" mysteries that will have to remain unsolved; like the one where Donna asks Mickey if Missy is a good writer, and Mickey replies that he doesn't know, but he does know that she's smart because she "likes [his] stuff," and Donna doesn't burst out laughing.

But maybe they're saving little things like that for "The Mind of the Married Woman."

HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" always makes me want to break into Leonard Maltin-style exclamations, like, "I can't curb my enthusiasm for 'Curb Your Enthusiasm!'" Maybe it's the circus music, maybe it's Larry David's hilarious, bottomless rage. Maybe it's that they flouted every single sitcom convention and made the show funnier than any network half-hour. The most interesting thing about "Curb" is its structure. There are no discernible acts; scenes weave into each other like braids. Jokes are set up several scenes before they pay off. And once they pay off, they just keep paying off.

Oct. 2

Dear Diary,

You know, I really like John Lennon, and I remember where I was when I learned that he had been killed, and I remember being sad, although I'm afraid I may have exaggerated my sadness, just a little bit, for effect, when I tried really hard to cry at school the next day. It was really cool to cry for John Lennon. I pulled a long face for John Wayne a few weeks later, too, but what did I know? I was 11.

So, tonight on TNT there's this thing called "Come Together," which is a tribute to John Lennon. Apparently, the tribute had been in the works for a year, but after Sept. 11, it took on a new, deeper meaning. John Lennon and peace, peace and New York, New York and John Lennon -- whoa. Everybody involved is really passionate about this. Host Kevin Spacey means well. The Stone Temple Pilots mean well. David Copperfield and his really hot girlfriend mean well. They all really want to give peace a chance. It's so heavy.

In between the songs, all covers of John Lennon songs sung by popular recording artists -- Marc Anthony sings "Lucy in the Sky," Alanis Morissette sings "Dear Prudence," Cyndi Lauper sings "Strawberry Fields," etc, -- some of the actors get emotional. Every time they quote John Lennon, which is every time they introduce a new act, they pause for the audience to applaud. The audience starts to sound tentative and tense. Do we clap now? Now? How about now? Dustin Hoffman's eyes glisten and his voice cracks a little. Richard Gere smiles beatifically from the audience. The camera people keep cutting to reaction shots of David Copperfield and his really hot new girlfriend. It is a comfort to know that David Copperfield and his really hot new girlfriend care so much.

Why do I have such an overwhelmingly negative visceral reaction to things like this? Because they usually seem retrofit to facilitate more tiresome celebrity self-glorification by association. John Lennon was a great songwriter, and he sure seemed like a nice a guy, but when you listen to him, he was not the most cogent person in the world. (OK, so he wasn't Paul McCartney, but he wasn't exactly what you'd call lucid, either.) He had this way of rambling on in that drug-addled, associative but incoherent way that people did back then. It was somehow supposed to elicit deeper meaning.

I'd like to see an all-star tribute to Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who brought food to Anne Frank's family while they were hiding from the Nazis. (Actually, she did go to the Academy Awards a few years ago, when "Anne Frank Remembered" won best documentary. They let her have 30 seconds, but when she ignored the music, she was dragged offstage by a smiling bimbo.) All I am saying is that this quasi-religious elevation of a rock star to messiah makes me irritable. Give peace a chance to lose the face paint and the love beads. Imagine there's no movie stars. Watching Kevin Spacey sing "Mind Games" just makes me feel worse about everything.

When I see all these stars, clustered together, all I can think about is how many people are suffering in other parts of the world right now, and about how they are not as rich as we are in celebrity resources, so they are not able, perhaps, to sit in front of the TV and feel deep feelings along with a bunch of famous people. That must be a great comfort to them.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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