Although the title of her new series is The Geena Davis Show, don’t get the idea that this situation comedy was tailor-made for the actress’ talents. The premise is as generic as its title, which makes one wonder if any actress with a spotty film career could have been plugged into it. Davis is certainly a talented actress, though she has always been something of an iconoclast. She does her best work in dramatic roles, particularly when cast as smart, strong-minded outsiders (Thelma and Louise and her Oscar-winning performance in The Accidental Tourist). Yet she is too often wasted in light comic roles (Angie, Beetlejuice, Speechless, Stuart Little) that never take full advantage of her quirky, genial personality. So what’s puzzling is why Davis would return to television in this paint-by-numbers sitcom in which she plays a nearly brain-dead career woman-slash-stepmother.
Ironically, Davis’ career started in television in the early 1980s. After making her screen debut in Tootsie (1982), she landed her first sitcom role as an ingenuous research assistant for an arrogant talk show host on Buffalo Bill (1983-1984), which featured her Tootsie co-star Dabney Coleman in the title role. The following season, she was promoted to her own series, Sara (1985), a short-lived sitcom in which she played a single storefront lawyer living in San Francisco. Sara was the perfect vehicle for Davis. Her character was intelligent, assertive, and able to match wits with her sexist co-worker played by Politically Incorrect‘s Bill Maher. To capitalize on Davis’ quirky comic style, the writers relied less on one-liners and instead wisely chose to put her character in comical, albeit challenging, situations (like explaining the facts of life to her younger cousin), in which she displayed her intelligence.
Fifteen years and sixteen feature films later, Davis returns to television, but unfortunately, as a career move, it’s a step backward. This time around she plays Teddiee Cochran, a successful career woman who moves in with her new boyfriend, writer Max Ryan (thirtysomething‘s Peter Horton), after a six week courtship (Dr. Laura Schlessinger would definitely not approve). Max is a widower with two children, 13-year-old Carter (nicely underplayed by Freaks and Geeks’ John Francis Daly) and 6-year-old Eliza (Makenzie Vega). So now Teddiee is faced with the double challenge of raising a family and running her own business, a non-profit agency that recruits celebrities for charity organizations (no doubt leaving room for guest stars).
The basic idea is hardly uncharted territory for television. Many sitcoms over the years (One Day at a Time, Alice, All is Forgiven, etc.) have focused on divorced, widowed, and newly married working mothers trying to juggle a career and a family. The only spin put on this familiar premise, which I am not completely convinced is intentional, is to make Davis an idiot when it comes to raising children. Are we really suppose to believe that Teddie is a successful businesswoman, yet has absolutely no common sense when it comes to parenting? It’s as if when she walks through the front door of the Ryans’ suburban home, she is suddenly void of all intelligence—an assumption, I sense, the writers have also made about their audience. Even more puzzling is that Davis serves as executive producer of the show, which suggests she had a voice in its creation. So what was she thinking? Or, like her character Teddie, was she not thinking at all?
The pilot focuses on Teddie adjusting to her new family. On the first day she makes one faux pas after another. She arrives in the kitchen for breakfast wearing only a T-shirt and panties (much to the delight of young Carter) and proceeds to eat marshmallow peeps with her coffee. She then forgets to pick up Eliza after school. In episode two, it’s more of the same thing. Teddie has to choose between meeting First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and attending Carter’s school art show. She does what she believes is the right thing and attends the latter, but is disappointed when Carter is rude to her. When a book about modern stepmothering, entitled Twelve Step Mom, offers little help, she consults the wisecracking housekeeper Gladys (Esther Scott), who assures her Carter’s indifference towards her is the way teenagers treat their parents. So when Carter refers to her as his parent, she is ecstatic!
Unfortunately, there is also nothing terribly original when the focus shifts to Teddie’s office, where she is joined by her co-workers Hillary (Mimi Rogers) and Judy (Kim Coles). No doubt the producers are trying to tap into the success of Sex and the City, so the three women spend more time exchanging quips about men, relationships, and sex, than actually doing any work. In the role of Hillary, Rogers, who demonstrated a flair for comedy in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, breathes some much-needed life into this otherwise listless series. An over-sexed professional divorcee with a penchant for martinis, Hillary is a cross between Cybil‘s side-kick Maryann (Christine Baranski) and Sex‘s Miranda (Kim Cattrall). Rogers and Cole (best known for her work on Living Single) both have a great sense of timing and don’t overplay their roles. They nicely complement Davis, who is less suited than they are for bitchy female zinger humor, because she is so relentlessly genial. On the downside, Teddie is reduced to playing the “straight man” for her wise-cracking friends, to the point where she fades into the background.
While Davis is certainly a welcome addition to prime time television, it’s a shame that the series creators, and perhaps Davis herself, didn’t choose to bring back the smart, self-assured Geena. A good actress is being wasted on this no-brainer, which adds nothing new (or entertaining) to ABC’s Tuesday night lineup.