The relationship between television and films has always been rather like the relationship between baseball’s minor and major leagues. Character actors have moved freely between the media, but for actors with marquee aspirations, TV has always been the farm team, home to young turks on the rise and veterans on the fade. Bruce Willis doesn’t mind if Lifetime reruns Moonlighting, but it’s pretty doubtful that Michelle Pfeiffer wants to revisit her early-‘80s cop show B.A.D. Cats. And on the other side, wasn’t it somehow tragic when Rock Hudson became McMillan and Tony Curtis joined the cast of Vega$? The last few TV seasons, however, have seen name stars still in their relative prime embark on a curious migration to the small screen. This season Bette Midler and Geena Davis, both Academy Award-winning actresses, have their own sitcoms, which is remarkable but certainly within their range—Midler is a much better comedian than she is a dramatic actress and Davis started out on the short-lived but wickedly funny Buffalo Bill with Dabney Coleman. Unlikely career moves, perhaps, but as they say in show biz, doable.
Madigan Men, on the other hand, stars Gabriel Byrne (Gothic, The Usual Suspects) and Roy Dotrice (Amadeus), and all one can do is try to imagine how this package was pitched to the network. Lord Byron and Mozart’s dad in an ABC sitcom—can’t you just smell the hilarity? Byrne plays Benjamin Madigan, a successful Manhattan architect recently divorced after seventeen years of marriage and ready to date again. The only problem is that after being so long off the market he hasn’t a clue about how to meet and approach women. Fortunately Ben is surrounded by people who give him bad advice at the drop of a dime—his coworkers (Grant Shaud, late of Murphy Brown, and Sabrina Lloyd), his teenaged Lothario son Luke (John C. Hensley), and his father Seamus (Dotrice), who is visiting from Ireland, seemingly indefinitely. As Ben stumbles from bad date to bad date, we’re supposed to view the singles wilderness through his naive eyes. It’s sort of like Sex and the City, only male and with Dotrice’s Irish aphorisms in place of Kim Catrall constantly saying fuck.
Gabriel Byrne, Roy Dotrice, John C. Hensley, Grant Shaud, Sabrina Lloyd
Unlike Sex and the City, Madigan Men is utter hooey. As unfair as it may seem, a wealthy, handsome single architect with a commitment to monogamy and an Irish accent simply would not have that much trouble getting a girlfriend. Hell, I’d date him.
Ben Madigan is a nice guy, and in TV Sitcom World, nice guys finish last. In one episode Ben is set up with an attractive young dermatologist. They have one date and end up in bed together, where Ben, accustomed to sleeping with his wife, blurts out, “I love you.” After a panicky exchange with his co-workers on the magnitude of his faux pas, Ben sees the doctor again, apologizes, and they part amiably. That’s it. No elaborate deceptions, no histrionics, no ensuing wackiness whatsoever. Ben acts like an adult and handles the situation in a mature and forthright manner.
And what’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing at all, except that again Ben proves too good to be true, or at least too good to be a sitcom character. If we have learned anything about television in the last twenty years, it is that the shows that endure—from Married with Children to Seinfeld—all revolve around itinerant jerks who needlessly complicate their lives. For example, Frasier would have squeezed at least three episodes out of the “I love you” fiasco and referred to it for years. It may be satisfying to finally see a mature sitcom character, but the continuing adventures of Mr. Right is not exactly going to be a wellspring of comedic tension and certainly will not sustain a show for twenty-two weeks a season.
It would seem that ABC agrees. According to the message board on the network’s Madigan Men website, the show is scheduled to be retooled. Hopefully this means diminishing the roles of Lloyd and especially Shaud, whose anxiety-ridden nebbish bit was annoying enough on Murphy Brown and is just unwatchable here, and devoting more airtime to the relationship between Ben and Seamus, which is the high point of the show. Byrne and Dotrice worked together onstage in Sean O’Casey’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, and their chemistry is palpable. Their scenes together constitute the only time in which Byrne seems really comfortable with his dialogue, probably because the dialogue is at its best in those scenes, as when Ben worries about his son going to a bar and Seamus reminds him that he was being taken to pubs when he was six years old. “Oh yeah,” muses Ben, “the Irish Head Start program.” If the producers can mine the potential wealth of material in the Madigan Men’s Irishness without turning the show into Ethnic Comedy #644, they may even be able to dispense with the cheesy laughtrack.
Gabriel Byrne has said in interviews that his seemingly baffling move to television is born of a desire to live in New York and be near his children, who live with ex-wife Ellen Barkin in an apartment about a block away from his. It’s a noble reason and typical of a man who, from all accounts, is as nice a guy as Ben Madigan. Unfortunately, unless the producers of Madigan Men can either broaden the show’s focus or somehow dirty Ben up, Byrne may become that rare thing, a big-leaguer who couldn’t cut it in the minors.