In the old days, television schedules obeyed rules as rigid as Peter Jennings’s posture. September meant a big fat TV Guide full of fall previews, and summer ushered in the dreaded rerun season. It was a simpler time—before Fox programmed original episodes in July, before cable networks produced their own shows and threw them higgledy-piggledy into the world, and before networks rampantly replaced unsuccessful series with midseason substitutes. Nowadays there’s no single TV season, just an ongoing mess-in-progress with equal room for disappointment and hope.
The best of this spring’s recruits is Lucky, a slippery new dramedy about a gambler that stars John Corbett, known for his supporting roles as a sensitive, non-macho hunk on Northern Exposure and Sex in the City. Lucky‘s ambitious reach suggests it’s grasping for something beyond mere quirkiness. Cinematic influences come to mind more immediately than televisual ones: Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and the occasional flirtation with Lynch-style absurdity.
Although it’s set in Las Vegas, Lucky doesn’t play up the city’s sleaze—the clammy desperation of Leaving Las Vegas, or mob glamour à la Casino. Nor does it go too heavy on glitz like its TV predecessor, the ’70s detective series Vega$. Lucky feels closer in spirit to The Rockford Files, with its low-key seediness and its aura of perpetual disappointment. Rockford, as played by James Garner, exuded a similarly appealing masculinity—vulnerable, kind, and sexy in a kicked-around-by-life way. He lived in a trailer and rarely carried a gun. Although Rockford always solved his cases, the show’s emphasis was on character rather than action or intrigue.
Michael “Lucky” Linkletter, the central figure in Lucky, is not a P.I. but a former world poker champion. A year after his big win, he has gambled away his $1 million prize and buried his young wife (her cause of death remains undisclosed). He owes his in-laws money for her funeral, and in the debut episode struggles to raise cash by means legitimate (working as a used car salesman) and illegit (borrowing from a loan shark named Joey Legs, campily played by Dan Hedaya). But every time the money is within reach, calamity intervenes. An old gambler with a tracheostomy agrees to front him the money, only to fall into a coma before he can hand over the dough. In a grotesque attempt at resuscitation, Lucky sticks a straw in the guy’s gullet hole.
After burning through all his options, Lucky reimmerses himself in the gambling life, and its unmistakable rhythm of elation and devastation structures the series. Yet Lucky feels surprisingly lighthearted in the face of all this potential misery and melodrama. There’s plenty of humiliation and soul-searching, of course, but the fast-moving camera doesn’t dwell on it. Lucky is basically a gentle rogue who tries to do the right thing and gets screwed for it every time, in a range of amusing ways. In one madcap episode, he tries to impress Theresa, a successful realtor/compulsive gambler (Uma Thurman look-alike Ever Carradine), by getting a real job as a salesman for a local meat company. Lucky struts proudly down the Strip with two massive bolognas tucked under his arms, only to discover that he’s been sucked into a meat turf war. His nemesis? A local businessman named Russo, a/k/a “Oscar Meyer Lansky.” When a huge pot roast comes smashing through the window during a romantic dinner, Theresa wails, “What’s next? Getting mowed down in a hail of cutlets?”
Lucky likes to think of himself as a genius at reading people—it’s one of the reasons he’s so good at poker. But he’s always getting tricked, because he looks so hard for the good in people. Most often he finds it in the show’s great cast of regulars: two-bit grifters, gamblers, and fuckups like Danny (Kevin Breznahan), the fey crack addict who robs Lucky, then sleeps outside his door like a chastened puppy. Or Vinny (Billy Gardell), who raises money for Lucky by repeatedly running into the path of oncoming cars and then extorting cash from the stunned drivers. These guys are small-time losers struggling against their own impulses, snared in a trap of their own making. They’re not all that believable as desperadoes, but they sure are lovable.
Lovable is not the word you’d use to describe Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character in the grating Watching Ellie. Like Lucky, Watching Ellie was devised as a solo vehicle for a former cast member of a hit ’90s series. Unlike Seinfeld‘s self-centered but essentially adorable Elaine Bennis, Ellie is almost as unattractive as Larry David’s persona in Curb Your Enthusiasm: She’s fortysomething, single, stalled in her career as a jazz singer, self-pitying, thoroughly sour.
When NBC first launched the show a year ago, critics noted its subtle innovations: It had no laugh track or studio audience, and took the pseudo-vérité visual grammar to a new extreme (a clock hovered in the corner of the TV screen, counting down in real time). But Watching Ellie never found its rhythm, and the network pulled it after just a few months for a complete overhaul. The new Watching Ellie looks more like a conventional sitcom—the clock’s gone, and a studio audience has magically appeared to guffaw in all the right places. But Ellie is still single and still a failed chanteuse, a pseudo-bohemian orbited by a constellation of unpleasant characters, from the lecherous buffoon of an ex-boyfriend to a nasty rival singer. The first episode opens with Ellie at a shrink’s office, whining about her cuddly English boyfriend (Darren Boyd, the show’s one saving grace) who has left his wife for her. He’s on the verge of moving in with Ellie, but her jealousy nearly drives him away. She also inadvertently messes up a business deal by insulting a disabled jazz-club owner—an echo of Seinfeld‘s obsession with handicap-humor that underlines how faintly Watching Ellie recalls that show’s splendor.
Why is Ellie such a turnoff when Larry David’s equally repulsive character is so watchable? Is it the same double standard that allows male rock stars to behave like arrogant assholes while Courtney Love gets endless flak? Maybe, but more likely it’s because Watching Ellie doesn’t have the killer scripts that allowed shows like Roseanne and Absolutely Fabulous to expand the boundaries of female obnoxiousness. Also, every good misanthrope needs to surround himself with appealing foils (think of David’s wife Cheryl and bumbling agent Jeff), but Watching Ellie crams so many jerks into its half-hour time slot that malevolence drowns out hilarity. There are good losers and bad losers: scratch the surface of Lucky and you find a sweet lug with a winning, nuanced personality; do the same with Watching Ellie and you find nothing but unfunny bitterness.
Guy Maddin is a cineaste’s secret, a conjurer of fabulist tableaux who spills the contents of Cornell boxes onto film and brings them to glimmering, bizarro life. The Sundance Channel pays tribute to the auteur from Winnipeg with a mini-film festival that includes Careful, a movie about an isolated mountain community that must repress its wayward desires out of constant fear of avalanche, and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, an ultravivid fantasia complete with a political prisoner, a mesmerist, and spirits of the forest. Both movies will run on April 18, 26, and 30, accompanied by Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, a documentary narrated by Tom Waits that offers would-be acolytes insight into the director’s ouevre, his thoroughly independent methods, and the neurological disorder that causes Maddin to feel ghostly hands stroking his limbs, even when he’s alone.