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Tom Shales: Derivative suicide show 'Gravity' fails to take off

By Tom Shales
Friday, April 23, 2010; C04

Her performance in "Gravity" suggests that Krysten Ritter is trying to be Anne Hathaway (of "The Devil Wears Prada"), but that doesn't really tell us what "Gravity" is trying to be.

There's a certain "Twin Peaks" influence to the nuttiness of the show's plotlines and an attempted morbid irreverence reminiscent of HBO's fondly remembered "Six Feet Under." But at some point, the influences cancel each other out and you're left with half an hour of -- well, nothing.

The short-run drama series, premiering on the Starz cable channel Friday, has a certain stylish gloss to it, and if attitude were substance, "Gravity" would be profound and provocative.

But attitude can carry you not much farther than identifiable influences can. The series cries out for a modern update of the old ad slogan "Where's the beef?" -- as in, "Where's the show?" And the ever-popular "What's it about?"

What it's technically about is suicide, and most episodes open with an attempt at self-inflicted extinction (the way "Six Feet Under" opened with a death) that flops, with the result being the would-be suicide gets sent to Ving Rhames's support group for the extremely self-destructive, a club that has the dreariest and droopiest meetings in town.

Rhames is at his most funereal here: The character he plays, counselor to the depressed, is of little help, it appears, to the victims, who pop in to mope about their troubles and get little assistance in solving them. Oh yeah, the show imitates HBO's "In Treatment," too, and badly.

The first installment does open with visual wow. A Mercedes driven by Ivan Sergei as suicidal Robert Collingsworth, an eye doctor, zooms off a cliff in New Jersey (disobeying the GPS's directive to "stop now"), sails through the air and lands in the swimming pool of a cruise ship that is carrying gay passengers down the Hudson.

Nothing contrived about that, eh?

As Collingsworth is being whisked to the hospital, another New Yorker is attempting suicide -- the aforementioned Ritter as, get this, Lily Champagne, a clerk at a cosmetics counter who likes to go around introducing herself with, "I sell makeup at a department store. I change lives." Yes, a real knee-slapper, but it turns out to be about the wittiest thing she's capable of saying.

While seemingly dead -- and "flatlining" -- little Lily imagines she comes in contact with the man of her dreams and they make love, so that when she comes out of it in the hospital, she's got a new assignment for life: Find that guy and land him. She decides that Collingsworth is the guy, the one she met in the almost-hereafter during the moment he, too, was temporarily dead. Thus is this a contender for cutest meeting-cute encounter in screen history.

Others in the support group will have their cases examined as the weeks go on, including a man who is, he feels, severely under-endowed and decides to end it all by staying inside a building that is being demolished with explosives. The budget for "Gravity" apparently being limited, all we see of the destruction is a few boards falling on the floor.

In next week's installment, Collingsworth has become fairly famous thanks to Lily the blabbermouth, and the couple are besieged by pale-faced Goth teens wherever (almost) they go. Showing up too briefly in the first couple of shows are guest stars Jessica Walter and Robert Klein, both utterly wonderful in other venues but given too little screen time here.

"Gravity" itself takes up too much screen time and does so very, very slowly. Fortunately, viewers can put themselves out of their misery in simple ways that stop well short of death. There's changing the channel, for one.

Gravity

(30 minutes) premieres at 10:30 p.m. Friday on Starz.

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