The success of Desperate Housewives proved that the primetime soap still had ratings zing. In its wake, Brothers and Sisters, Mad Men, and this season’s Cane and Dirty Sexy Money, are mining the dramatic potential of dysfunctional intimacy, whether professional, familial or geographical. ABC has now launched Big Shots, focused on the business and sexual misadventures of four wealthy CEOs who, the show’s website announces, “take refuge in their friendship, discussing business, confiding secrets, seeking advice and supporting one another through life’s twists and turns.” Translated, this means ABC is trying to con viewers into watching a show about four men stalled in extended puberty, expensive suits, and, in one case, one very bad case of stubble. Never has vacuous early middle age looked so unappealing.
The premiere episode’s script (one can download it from the show’s web site for further study) is a veritable primer on how to make sex, money, and voyeurism dull. The CEOs are reduced to quirky types, thus negating the primary purpose of an ensemble cast, the offering of multiple points of empathy for viewers. Each negotiates a series of hackneyed crises: the transvestite hooker, the rebellious teenaged daughter, the traitorous wife, and unexpected promotion.
With all this going on, the show may be bound to lapse into thematic inconsistency. None of these supposedly powerful men looks the least bit powerful. Cuckold James (Michael Vartan) exudes a willowy wistfulness more suited to the amateur stage than the board room, his self-righteous foot-stamping at work and at home indicating nothing so much as petulance. His incompetence is underscored by his efficient “work wife,” Katie (Nia Long), who handles details. For his personal life, he has no fixer, however: after learning about James’ wife’s adultery, Duncan (Dylan McDermott) said he felt uneasy surrounded by “all this genuine emotion.” It was one of the premiere episode’s few witty lines, drowned in unanticipated irony.
As cosmetics honcho Duncan, McDermott indiscriminately deploys the brooding gaze he perfected on The Practice, which could indicate soul-seeking, a brewing temper tantrum, or, as was once said of a Jeremy Irons performance, “chronic indigestion.” This ambiguity undercuts what seems to be a key plotline,
Duncan’s bad-boy sexual adventuring (he wears the stubble). His much-repressed misery may be signaled when he announces a new corporate strategy to his creative team while fondling and hitting golf balls on the roof of his office building.
The remaining two friends are introduced and typed, more or less deftly. Brody (Christopher Titus) is Senior Vice President of the evidently misnamed Alpha Crisis Management, whining incessantly about his termagant wife. Karl (Joshua Malina), a pharmaceutical company CEO, lies with panache, juggling a wife and a voracious mistress while resembling a startled rabbit.
In a word, no character emerges as good enough or evil enough to inspire the strong reactions that sustain successful soaps. The episode’s director Charles McDougall has to share the blame here. His leads are talented actors, who have achieved some, if not equal, depth in other shows. But every scene progresses at the same pace, and conversations, especially among the foursome, have all the vivacity of slow-motion tennis, as every player laboriously takes his turn.
Based on the premise and promotional campaign, it’s easy to dismiss Big Shots as a rip-off of Desperate Housewives. But Big Shots, even more than Housewives, appears caught in a time warp, imagining itself at a 50-years-ago moment when the viewer supposedly gazed in delight at the antics of the white, rich, straight males gamboling in country clubs and board rooms.
It makes for uncomfortable watching, but Big Shots is certainly not the only current series to offer such faux nostalgia dressed up as satire. It’s as if the last half of the 20th century had achieved nothing more than television’s tolerance of the word “penis” (a word repeated ad nauseam on Big Shots). Taking refuge in parody or the past, such shows defuse criticism of the status quo they present, instead they naturalizing inequities of class, race and gender. Mad Men‘s cusp of the ‘60s setting, for example, allows attitudes that would be crass, and even offensive, if set in 2007. The surreal fantasy of Housewives turns the impotence of each woman into a ribald joke rather than a signal for change. Big Shots slots neatly into this jigsaw of retro-conservatism. The men’s rotten loves lives don’t negate the fact that they issue the orders, can pay for the restaurants and the club memberships and presume cultural, social and economic power as an intrinsic right.