By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 23, 2006
Jenna Elfman may not qualify as middle-aged (her published age is 34), but there's definitely something frumpily middle-aged about her new CBS sitcom "Courting Alex." One might think any departure from the networks' usual and relentless obsession with youth would automatically be refreshing, but it isn't. Of all life's phases, middle age is the least inherently hilarious.
The fustiness emanates from the star herself, who somewhere along the way -- during or after the run of her ABC sitcom "Dharma & Greg" -- became severely de-cute-rified, ya know what I'm sayin'? We're obviously in a nebulous area here, one hard to define and pin down, but Elfman appears to have gone schoolmarmish on us.
She's the wallflower at her own dance, the pooper of her own party. She's not bad, just flat; not annoying, just weak.
Not that "Courting Alex" (9:30 tonight on Channel 9) would be a bold comedy breakthrough with a livelier and funnier star (say, Teri Garr at her peak) presiding. It's a fairly standard proposition about a successful, single Manhattan lawyer named Alex Rose who, network publicity states, enjoys "everything life has to offer -- except a life." Executive producer Rob Hanning and fellow collaborators took one from Column A, one from Column B, one from Column C and so on as they constructed a vehicle in which Elfman theoretically could shine.
They made, as it happens, one brilliant choice: casting Dabney Coleman as Bill Rose, Alex's father and, conveniently, head of the firm where she works. Coleman's professional life is a history of memorably etched performances in a parade of programs mostly unworthy of his prowess and stature. Among the exceptions are such long-lost treasures as "Buffalo Bill" on NBC and, on ABC, "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," a daringly downbeat comedy about a daringly deadbeat dad.
Not "deadbeat dad" in the sense of the divorced father behind on child support, but in the sense of a man -- a scoundrelly sportswriter -- viewing fatherhood as a negligible blunder and looking upon his grown son as if he were a pesky extraterrestrial. The show never got the attention it deserved from Nielsen homes, but Coleman and his cohorts made it one of TV's great gourmet delicacies.
In no way could "Courting Alex" be described that way, but there are some good, snappy comic lines -- not all of them easily predicted -- and when called upon to contribute, Coleman consistently comes through with colors flying. Elfman's best moments are semi-dramatic ones, when she deals with conflicts between her personal and professional life brought on by the fact that she's in danger of falling in love with a target of a wealthy client's wrath.
That would be Josh Randall as Scott Larson, a mildly idiosyncratic entrepreneur who stands his ground against a giant heartless corporation (take your pick) that wants to tear down the tavern Larson inherited from his grandfather and put another monstrous skyscraper in its place. Alex girds herself for battle against Larson -- her father's firm having been retained by the corporation -- but finds herself semi-smitten with him instead.
What's a successful, single Manhattan lawyer named Alex Rose to do? CBS hopes that once audiences sample the pilot, they'll be compelled to tune in every week to find out. But between Elfman and Larson, to put it gently, sparks do not fly. They don't even flutter to the floor. You don't know what she sees in him, you don't know what he sees in her, and you don't know why we're supposed to see anything in either of them, singly or linked.
Gathered around Elfman -- from the aforementioned Columns this and that -- are Jillian Bach as Alex's wisecracking friend Molly (you wouldn't expect her to go through life without a wisecracking friend, would you?) and a way-too-twee Hugh Bonneville as Alex's zany neighbor Julian (you wouldn't expect her to go through life etc., etc.?). He's an artist who wants to paint a nude portrait of her and then take it from there.
Coleman is responsible for much of what energy there is, and even though he's played the same sort of sly and wily cynic before, the pleasure of his company is inescapable. Obviously -- and this is said in our usual spirit of TV-inspired, life-affirming optimism -- "Courting Alex" is the sort of show that could improve substantially on its bland first episode and turn out to be sweet and nourishing, but Elfman captures the torpor afflicting the program, and her performance, when she tells Randall, "You're actually kind of funny."
Life is too short, and television too crowded with choices, for "actually kind of" to cut it.
Courting Alex (30 minutes) debuts at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 9.