Friday, June 19, 2009

Character Actor Collection

"The Unusuals"

I'm burning off the last several episodes of ABC's already-cancelled "The Unusuals" this morning. Not sure why, other than that having watched nothing off the DVR except for multiple installments of "Wipeout" this month made me feel weird. But here in Episode 8, "The Dentist," pops up a welcome, familiar face and I don't feel so much as if I'm wasting my time.

The last time I did a little bit on a character actor I love, Malcolm Barrett immediately landed a series regular gig on "Better Off Ted," which unlike "The Unusuals" has survived to a second season. I hope this little note will have equal or greater effect on the career of David Costabile.

If you're a big-time casting director and the producers are on you to get Peter MacNicol, but the guy who got second billing in the big-screen Mr. Bean movie asks for too large of a salary, what do you do? You call David Costabile. He out-Peter MacNicols the actual Peter MacNicol. He's nebbish, with balding curly hair and an open-lipped expression of peeved anguish that you can't write or teach. And his CV is fantastic -- he played the nefarious managing editor in Season Five of "The Wire" and Mel's pathetic husband on "Flight of the Conchords." He's got some unbelievably random movie credits -- rap biopic Notorious, the "Project Greenlight" movie Stolen Summer, the Jim Carrey Grinch movie -- and of course who can forget his lovably neurotic John Cage character from "Ally McBeal?"

Wait, sorry, that last one was the actual Peter MacNicol.

Props go to the departed, unlamented "Unusuals" for using Costabile cleverly; he played a con man whose unassuming appearance made for his biggest asset. Costabile's character quickly zeroed in on the least self-confident man in the series' cop shop, Kai Lennox's Eddie Alvarez, won his sympathy pretending to bond as a fellow joke target and loser, then made off with fifty grand in evidence money. Good storyline for a show that needed more of them.

"Unusuals" failed because it couldn't harness its quirk to stories that finished with sufficient dramatic payoff. Weird things happened to odd cops, whose personal lives mostly went on unaffected. The writers could only give their characters plot points, not real personalities. Wooden writing in the romantic scenes prevented it from following its instincts towards being more of a relationship drama -- although less frequently terrible, the working relationships that needing developing, between Amber Tamblyn's Shraeger and the versatile (he was great in his "House") Jeremy Renner's Walsh and between Adam Goldberg's Delahoy and Harold Perrineau's Banks, didn't play either. Goldberg and Perrineau both escape with their reputations unaffected, the former, in particular, was a real bright light on a show that otherwise never seemed as funny as it thought it was. Renner shouldn't have trouble finding a better vehicle and Tamblyn can clearly plain grown-up, although not this particular one.

Where do you go on TV now if you want to watch a police show that treats its cast like human beings, not robotic line-reading plot developers? Cable, clearly. But "The Shield" and "The Wire" are both done, and the current rage on TNT and AMC is lawyer shows ("Damages," "Raising the Bar") and crook shows ("Breaking Bad," "Leverage"). I guess it's time for me to get on board with "The Closer," even though Kyra Sedgwick kind of chills my blood. Seems to me there's a gaping void on pay cable, with either Showtime or HBO needing to step up and give us something challenging and adult. Maybe David Milch has a few ideas. I'd like to see Milch ("Deadwood") thrown into a room with David Simon ("The Wire," "The Corner") just to see if their opposite energies cancelled each other out. Everyone on Milch's shows speaks as if they were a Shakespeare scholar while Simon has an ability almost like channeling when it comes to nailing down rigidly realistic dialogue. I don't know if they could possibly write a pilot together, but if they made a show about them writing it, I would watch it.

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