My best friend Duse and I played varsity softball together at a
Wisconsin public high school.
I imagine this sentence gives you a good idea as to our physical fitness and aptitude for sports. So it will come as no surprise when I follow this opener up with the detail that after a not-terribly-taxing softball practice came to a close, Duse and I would dust ourselves off, hop into Duse’s Pinto-like car (it was a Chevy Something-or-Other…one of those cars that looked like a Gremlin but was “newer” than a Gremlin) and hotfoot it to the public library. While I was beginning to explore the challenging world of series mysteries, I was still a fan of what Duse called “snacks” – usually Harlequins or Silhouettes, a 200+ page romance book with one solid sex scene and a whole lot of “will they have sex/will they admit their True Love?” surrounding the sex. I jokingly dubbed the fatter versions of these stories — usually Zebra Romances, though, as Duse’s tastes grew more sophisticated, sometimes Catherine Coulter and Linda Lael Miller novels — “Pull My Panties” Books. The moniker stuck. The formula is roughly the same as a “snack,” but with ten times more sex, and there’s usually a pirate or a half-breed warrior doing one half of the sexing.
The “snacks,” it seems, have now become fodder for the occasional ABC Family movie or a feature film if we’re really lucky. And sometimes, if you’re good and Santa’s been watching, you are blessed with a six-hour adaptation of a book that was not kindly compared to a Jackie Collins book as produced by USA Networks starring Debra Messing.
It’s a pull-my-panties for a new generation raised on TBS reruns of Sex and the City: the adaptation of Gigi La Foo Foo Grazer’s The Starter Wife, brought to you — quite aggressively — by Ponds.
I must admit, that I have not read The Starter Wife. I do not think this is a handicap, since I can’t imagine the characters are any more likeable in text. The six-part miniseries begins with a Wizard of Oz homage with flawless makeup. Delightful, since it’s not often you get to see a Cowardly Lion gayer than the original 1940s bear (woof). This darling little setup makes it easier for us, as viewers, to identify the archetypes we will be spending the next few Thursdays with: Molly, played by Messing and our heroine, is Dorothy, natch; Cricket, the pretty, liberal do-gooder with the Vincent Gallo director husband, is the Tin Man with the heart (WTF? Did someone . . . miss . . . the concept of Wizard of. . . . Oh, never mind); the aforementioned pretty gay interior designer as the Cowardly Commitmentphobe Lion; and Judy Davis as a Scarecrow/Wicked Witch hybrid, because she’s Judy Davis, and you can’t just make her out of straw: you also have to give her a fabulous hat and nod to her portrayal of Judy Garland. Oh, what a world we live in, what with the men reading fashion magazines — and straight men at that.
So we get our capsule view of Molly’s life: organizing her husband Kenny’s low-grade Ari Gold-esque life, including pooper scooper service for offending dog doodies, planning charity dinners, having lunch, talking ironic, foreshadowing shit about a soon-to-be-ex-wife . . .
It’s not long before Ari Gold Lite is calling Molly from a party to say he wants a divorce. Sadly, I recall a similar scene in a movie called French Kiss, wherein Meg Ryan is dumped by Timothy Hutton for a goddess while on a junket in France. There’s a lot of likewise weeping and gnashing of teeth here, though Molly’s character is at least honest about her lack of love, romantic or otherwise, for her two-dimensional husband. What Molly really misses is the life that she established, as it was all-encompassing. Now she can no longer get into restaurants, she’s been ejected from her health club, and former friends look through her then snark behind her back . . . even Cricket (who is played by Miranda Otto; I didn’t know elves could be shitty like that).
Then there’s a lot of weight gaining (she balloons to 117lbs! HEIFER!), kvetching, then moving: Joan, Judy Davis’ character, offers her Malibu beach house to Molly for the summer, as Joan and “Pappy,” Joan’s 60-something sugar daddy hubby (I like to picture him as Gene Hackman who is, I know, probably pushing 70 if he’s a day) will be vacationing in the South of France. And thus begins a myriad of story threads, some of them potentially great, some of them fine, some of them downright full of dumb.
1) Joan is not really going to the South of France. Pappy has asked Joan to go to rehab. No, Joan didn’t flash the paparazzi her vageen (oh, bless you, Borat). No, she didn’t run her SUV into a curb, leaving behind trace amounts of coke and hair extensions (maybe). I guess that if a character is introduced as lovably booze-soaked these days, she has no choice but to go to rehab, lest she become more funny than the lead of the series. What follows is a series of not-too-great scenes wherein Joan puts on a monkeyshines for her New Agey therapist.
2) Rodney, the Gay Interior Designer friend, is stuck with a dozen custom-made fugly chairs. As a result of his customer’s hissyfit nonpayment of said fugly chairs, he is close to going broke. Yep, that’s the whole subplot. I can only hope this pays off by Rodney meeting Victor Garber and Tim Gunn, who are secretly married, vacationing in Malibu, and Rodney is hired to decorate their house in the Hamptons.
I have a feeling, however, that it will end up being rectified in some other way. Like perhaps Molly falling into a great deal of money SOME WAY OR ANOTHER and Rodney will once again get to decorate his gay little heart out.
3) Cricket’s husband Jorge is denied the sex one night, poor auteur, because he can’t name three charms on Cricket’s bracelet (after Cricket rants about no longer being able to talk to Molly thanks to Jorge’s big Hollywood dreams and ambitions). Then Jorge, after making crib notes about said charms, sees a naked blonde in his hot tub. Assuming it is his blonde wife, which, dude, you’re a director, I wouldn’t assume shit if the camera won’t SHOW US THE BLONDE’S FACE UNTIL YOU’VE KISSED HER SHOULDERS, he hops in the hot tub. Turns out it’s the Russian nanny, Sasha, who is, apparently, Irina and Svetlana’s California-livin’ cousin. Jorge, so deprived of sex by having to wait a day, proceeds to bang a gong and get it on. Then he has the guilt and the whatnot, puts the breaks on the burgeoning affair, fires Sasha when she gets insistent about sex and offers her chump change. Sasha, in return, demands $50,000. Jorge brainstorms with Ari Gold Lite. Yeah, this subplot, in addition to being not even remotely as interesting as I made it sound (I did say “bang,” which brightens up any storyline), is not going to end with good times for Cricket, though I think we’re supposed to think she deserves it for freezing out Molly. Me, I’m just glad it wasn’t Gimli that froze Molly out, because we avoided having to hear about dwarves being a proud people. Whew.
4) Molly makes friends with the young African-American security guard played by Anika Noni Rose who, I guess, was the Not Beyonce or American Idol Dreamgirl. She seems lovely and talented, but being relegated to a subplot of a subplot in which she tries to hide her grandmother’s elderly yappy dog from her greasy cracker landlord (who looks like Wormtongue . . . coinicidence? I don’t think so!) is probably a waste of her considerable talents and stage training.
5) Ari Gold Lite is sleeping with a pop tartlet named Shoshanna or Googlymoogly or something, popping Viagra and dreaming of the day when he’ll be featured in unflattering beach photos in Us Weekly. Methinks there will be a comeuppance of some variety or another.
But the most important plot, the main plot that I’ve been delaying because it literally makes me ANGRY with RAGE is the Molly Has Two Love Interests storyline. On the one hand, Molly meets a guy named Sam on the beach at Malibu. Sam, who is, I guess, played by some British guy, looks like a knockoff version of Thomas Jane. It’s eerie. In fact, he looks like Thomas Jane in his hilarious cameo on Arrested Development when he played himself as a vain actor who was doing a studio picture called Homeless Dad to bankroll an indie flick about drug use.
Ah, Arrested Development. So many people miss you.
Anyway, this Sam lacks whatever small pool of charisma that is housed inside of Thomas Jane and is, instead, soul-suckingly awful. He’s a bad character — beach bum with exacting moral standards, a flat sense of humor, and an allergy to shirts — played by a worse actor. In fact, the scene where Sam saves Molly from drowning (she was kayaking! Because she saw Sam do it! SHE LEARNED STUPIDITY FROM WATCHING HIM, OKAY?), I think the vibe is supposed to be “sexy angry banter” and “flirting.” Instead, Sam looks like he’s stuck on “Sean Penn levels of douchebaggery.” In a way, he reminds me of the Archie Joke Generating Laugh Unit 3000: he nearly replicates hu-man behavior, but falls just short enough of the mark to make his reactions puzzling and/or upsetting.
To wit: a subplot to THIS subplot is introduced. Apparently there is a homeless man burglarizing the gated Malibu community. The homeless guy looks a bit like John Savage circa Hair. Thomas Jane-Bot gets a boo-boo telling this guy to “stay out of
Malibu, Lebowski!” He runs to Molly. Molly puts a Band-Aid on his shin. I think they’re supposed to have a moment, but the resulting eye contact from Thomas Jane-Bot is what I imagine my sleepy face looks like after I’m 20 minutes into my wait for Tylenol PM to kick in. Mmm, sexy?
Molly’s other romantic option is long-time Kenny work associate and Hollywood Power Player Lou Manahan. Lou Manahan is played by Joe “Dad Girardi and/or Fat Tony” Mantegna. He wears chinos and has the kind of figure one gets if one jogs but doesn’t really do sit-ups and enjoys the occasional bowl of pasta. Joe Mantegna tosses in natural little touches like taking Molly’s Freckled Daughter’s hand as the three of them walk to their lunch table, then opening Molly’s Freckled Daughter’s menu for her.
In short, Molly should be on that. Hard and without mercy. Who cares if he’s got money, as Gay Rodney hints? He’s a MAN! A manly man who is portrayed by a charming, talented actor who looks GREAT in chinos.
Lou seems taken with Molly before Kenny dumps her. After, he seems intent on pursuit: he’s the only one who speaks to Molly at one of Cricket’s adopted moppet’s society birthday party and later catches up with her in Malibu. After Molly is snubbed by two Hollywood wives and is denied a table, Lou comes to her rescue (hence all the cute interaction with Molly’s daughter) and has lunch with Molly, going so far as to put on a little canoodling act after the freckled daughter is squired away by its nanny. The scene is crackling: Molly asks Lou to play with her hair a little, and Lou complies, though noticeably lingering on one strand just a bit longer than is necessary for playacting. Maybe it’s just a kink of mine thanks to Paul Rudd’s boinging of a Silverstone curl in Clueless, but that? Is hot. The capper is that after the wives have fled the restaurant, properly shamed into offering Molly invites and air kisses, Lou, no longer needing to play to the bleachers, kisses Molly on the mouth, lingering just long enough to make it pass Friendly and into Joe Mantegna Just Kissed Me territory.
Sigh. Sigh. Before all that lunchtime drama is a subtly sexy meeting at Lou’s house, where a standard Malibu party is being thrown. They stand magnetically close to each other in Lou’s bedroom, looking out at the ocean, talking about Lou’s loneliness and Molly’s excommunication from society and GOD WHY WON’T THEY JUST DO IT? THERE’S A BED RIGHT THERE! WHO CARES ABOUT THOMAS JANE-BOT? GRAB ONTO MANTEGNA’S SOLID FRAME AND GO TO TOWN, WOMAN!
Instead Lou seemingly commits suicide on the night of his date with Molly. Molly, despondent over being stood up, ends up making out with Thomas Jane Bot in a scene I fast-forwarded through.
Touché, evil miniseries. Touché. I’d heard rumors that that happened in the book, but was too stubborn to believe that Mantegna would be thrown over for a guy who barely has a decent acting credit on his filmography.
So Duse, the friend who, years ago, was my library buddy, called me twice during the course of this series: once to say “Isn’t Joe Mantegna awesome?” and then, later, “So is Joe Mantegna dead???” We commiserated about the sad state of affairs when a smut novel thinks it’s giving us what we want, when we clearly want it that way, to quote the Backstreet Boyz. Tell me why it ain’t nothin’ but a heartache, boyz. Clearly, it ain’t nothin’ but a mistake.
This was made clear by my post-mini, post-Duse dialogue with Kate, my beloved roommate who refused, on principle, to watch one minute of said Ponds-sponsored claptrap:
Jessie: So what did we learn about what happens when Jessie has high expectations for something she says she knows is crappy? Hmm?
Kate: (after a significant pause) It’s usually really crappy.
Jessie: And does Jessie ruin things by working herself into a frenzy over shows or does she just like things that are terrible?
Kate: I assume that’s a rhetorical question.
And I hang my head after this exchange, knowing I will be back to watch it next week, learning nothing from all that just happened here. Because my behavior, like smut novels, is EXACTINGLY rigid in its stupidity.