Monday, March 17, 2008

Bad casting decisions. Bad directing. Can they be overcome?

Maybe with good writing. But even that might be debatable. I bring this up because of two recent series you may have decided to check in on (even though I tried to scare you off). The first was Friday's premiere of "The Return of Jezebel James." You've got Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose set to make the rapid fire wit of Amy Sherman-Palladino come alive and what happens? The pilot completely implodes. The second episode fixes some of the mistakes made Friday, but Sherman-Palladino not only wrote the first episode, she directed it, too. She's got Posey jumping through dumb hoops for 22 minutes and it's just painful to watch.

What did you think? The pacing was a disaster. But the direction was the real culprit. Why have Posey act like she's drunk AND her house is on fire? The second episode resets the tone to almost correct, but by then it's way to late.

As for casting, look no further than Paul Giamatti - a wonderful actor - in "John Adams." Did anyone else find him as off-putting as I did? He constantly made me aware that I was watching Paul Giamatti trying to be John Adams. That's a bad start. But it did distract from the glacial pace and the dry writing. Part 2 ran 90 minutes and was infinitely better, giving us history and action and consequence and daring patriotism. I hate to say it, but in Part 3, the onus returns to Giamatti and this time, once you're used to him as Adams, the writing makes him unlikable. Petty, vain, a terrible father and a distant husband - no wonder it took so long for anyone to attempt to rewrite history to give him his proper due, as David McCullough did. But still, that doesn't translate. And just wait until he and Abigail (Laura Linney) have the most unromantic sex possible in Part 4.

Tough to overcome. All of it.

Thoughts on these shows and other TV series where the casting didn't work or the direction (tone) was way off? Let's keep away from failed writing at this point. That list is much too long.


Pinkhamster said...

You probably didn't watch this show, or if you watched any probably didn't like it (it can be really cheesy and it's sci-fi), but "Babylon 5" comes to mind. The first season the lead actor was a guy who was dumped by the studio execs before season 2 over the objections of the show runner, and this was one of the few cases I've agreed with the "suits" over the creator. The original actor just wasn't very charismatic. He did his job fine, but personality wise he just wasn't very compelling compared with his replacement, Bruce Boxleitner. And the writer came up with a clever plot turn to explain the switch in the context of the show that led to the original actor coming back later to play occasional interesting cameos that worked a lot better than him as a lead actor.

George D from the 415 said...

I haven't had the time to watch the shows mentioned, but I am a firm believer that writing is always the crux. That said, without a good director or the right actors to fill the parts, its impossible to make something come alive.

SFCityGirl said...

I don't watch enough TV to be able to comment on much (not because I don't want to!) but I had to respond to the comment about casting. To be honest, I can watch some bad TV - bad writing, bad pacing - but I cannot watch a show if the acting is bad or the characters miscast. It's just too painful... so I guess I would say no, bad casting cannot be overcome - it makes the entire viewing experience uncomfortable. Directing - for a few episodes, I think you can get past it. But if a series is just poorly directed, period, I'm not sure good acting or writing would make it worth sticking around.

suzyq2 said...

I watched the first part of John Adams last night, didn't have time for the second part. When I first heard of Giamatti's casting, I thought, hmmm. Maybe, maybe not. And then when I read Tim's review it sounded like it worked sometimes and sometimes not. So I was interested to see for myself. And it was kinda weird, sometimes he was believable and sometimes it was like oh, there's Paul Giamatti. He has a strong nebbish vibe but it's a pretty modern one which make it hard to buy him in a period piece. He's also got a present day angst thing going that you can't imagine our ancestors had. Laura Linney was great as usual and I am more interested in history than I used to be so I'm looking forward to part two. It is hard to make a captivating series when your leading man is unlikable (and at times unbelievable!) but the subject matter is interesting enough for me. And besides there isn't much else on. If there were, I might not be watching. But this week on my Tivo record list, it's slim pickins--I've got no meat, only potatoes and salad and perhaps an appetizer.

Andrew said...

I gotta disagree on your assessment of Giamatti. I find him wonderful in this role. Based on what I've read about Adams, he was a bit of a neurotic. He's certainly giving a better performance than Wilkinson's hammy Franklin. And I'm glad that this series isn't trying to lionize any of the founding fathers. I knew I would like this series when I saw John Hancock inciting a riotous crowd to tar & feather a tax collector.

I've found this whole "I feel like I'm watching the actor when I should be watching the character" argument rather silly because if an actor is remotely recognizable, you're always going to be aware of the actor. You should judge the performance, not the inherent recognizability of the actor.

steveb said...


We watched both parts of "John Adams" last night and fully enjoyed Paul Giamatti's performance - no suspension of disbelief required, scrutiny intact apropos your review. As you noted, he is a wonderful actor, and we found his portrayal to be just as engaging and captivating as his outstanding work in "American Splendor" and "Sideways".

Another thought about this series, though off this particular thread - the cinematography is fantastic; love that great hand-held work.

ppage said...

I've only watched the first hr of John Adams but I also have a problem with Giamatti. It feels like I'm watching him act. I think he's entirely miscast. His accent is bad. And he's not WASPY enough. I agree with Suzyq; he shows too much present day angst.....Also agree that Laura Linney is terrific.

Re. Franklin, my understanding is that he was a real eccentric with a vivid personality.

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