Downey in the Dumps

From prison to another hellhole

I sat down last week to watch the season premiere of ABC's much-heralded, much-loved (by critics and, according to early ratings, viewers) Gideon's Crossing, starring Andre Braugher as a doctor who talks so much it's a wonder he hears his patients tell him what ails them. ABC presented the show without commercials, and it was too hard to take in a single, 45-minute stretch; 15 minutes into it, I got up to drink a pitcher of water, so 15 minutes later I could get up for a bathroom break--I needed to manufacture my own commercial breaks, looking for any excuse to peel myself away from one more self-righteous, poor-poor-me speech about a dead wife and the will to live. (Braugher delivers more monologues per episode than can be found on the entirety of Rhino's four-disc Great Speeches of the 20th Century.) Gideon's Crossing, which may well be the best new series of a dreadful new fall season (discounting Ed--and you should), is the kind of television that only seemsimportant: Give a great actor serious things to say, surround him with children who hang on his every word and every silence, infuse the surroundings with the stench of imminent death, and pow, you have St. Elsewherefor Generation ER--Homicidein surgical scrubs. Gideon's Crossingis all talk and no action; there's nothing at all profound beneath its proselytizing chitchat. Never did I think it possible to wish that Braugher would just shut up. It was hard to believe the show didn't end with a communal chanting of "amen."

Yet another show that squanders such estimable talent is Ally McBeal, which boasts Robert Downey Jr. as a semi-regular; turns out he's just gone from prison to a different hellhole. Not having seen a single episode since midway through the first season, I was astonished to discover just how wretched Ally McBealreally is and how little the heroine has evolved since David E. Kelley birthed her three seasons ago. She's as whiny and solipsistic as ever--the drama queen, in search of a little drama. Downey enters as Ally's new love interest, or so the season premiere hints (more episodes were available for previewing, but life's too short). Ally's boyfriend of six months has asked her to move in, but she's unsure and in need of a little counsel; she goes to her therapist's office only to discover that Downey occupies it. Within a matter of seconds, she's spilling her guts and taking his advice; only later does she discover that he is, in fact, a lawyer (hope this doesn't give away a, gulp, surprise).

Downey is horribly out of place here: He belongs in the movies, while Calista Flockhart and the rest of this show's cast belong on television; he's big-timing it among career small-screeners. Even with Kelley's clumsy dialogue spilling from his mouth at such a rapid rate that his words become a vowel, Downey possesses a presence these people do not because he transcends such mundane material, while Flockhart and her cast mates revel in it. You can't help but feel Downey's speeding through his speeches, hoping to get none of the stink on him.

Good luck with all that.

 
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