The tricky clique of Showtime’s Out of Order.

The player king and queen in Out of Order

No single TV sequence in recent memory has induced in me so instant a wave of despair—at performers, at the mini-art of television, at humanity—as the closing scene of the 90-minute premiere of Out of Order (Showtime), which aired on June 1.

A bird’s-eye camera recorded Mark (Eric Stoltz), Lorna (Felicity Huffman), Danni (Kim Dickens), Steven (William H. Macy), and Annie (Justine Bateman) supine, on beach towels, in a star-gazing configuration that suggested an Esalen exercise. Mark, a shambling adulterer, nice guy, and moderately successful Hollywood scriptwriter, addressed the audience: “I’m truly guilty of only one thing—of being human.” “Of being human,” chimed Lorna, who’s an addict. “Of being human,” chimed Danni, a coquette. “Of being human,” chimed Steven, a boozy burnout. “Of being human,” chimed Annie, a manipulator.

That cloying coda was enough to cast the whole program, to say nothing of life itself, into doubt. For 90 minutes, Out of Order had mounted a wily, disconcerting drama of men and women distressed by riddles of guilt and innocence, and now it seemed prepared to squander that suspense by calling adultery, addiction, and dereliction of duty merely “being human”? No!

I would have lightened up, but I was feverish; for 90 minutes, I had warily studied this circle of drugged, prosperous Angelenos in thrall to a scattershot but nonetheless binding moral code—part family values, part work ethic, part recovery movement. I was stubbornly convinced that, as rich white people, they had to be negligible, nasty caricatures or shimmering aspirational confections. But they—it seemed—were not.

The group forms a constellation around Mark and Lorna Colm. After 16 years of marriage, Mark has become impatient with wild-eyed, depressed Lorna, his wife and writing partner; he’s drawn to Danni, a freer, cuter spirit. At the same time, Lorna, though troubled by stylized memories of abuse, keeps getting high with Steven, a dissipated goblin. Finally, Annie keeps a slantwise eye on it all, only rarely lurching in for a piece of the action. By the end of the first episode—especially after the ecstasy party poolside—the tight group was already nervously impacted, like Agatha Christie characters. The apocrypha of the Hollywood world around them seemed to set off—exacerbate, even—how faltering and earthbound they were.

From the start, I also found the characters’ way of talking intriguing: They are both more derisive and more sentimental than the people I know. I have noticed this on Curb Your Enthusiasm, too; maybe it’s a West Coast thing. In general, I admire the capacity to combine Western brass-tackism with California dreaming. Thus, finally, in spite of the towel scene and even some moments of serious dissonance in the dialogue, I’m hooked on Out of Order.

Above all, there is Felicity Huffman. With her leonine and chewed-up appearance, she is brilliant as Lorna—untrustworthy, labile, sexy like some mental patients. Only in L.A., maybe, would she be the wife and not the mistress. Danni is a very partial contrast, as she shares Lorna’s coloring, haircut, and social position. Unlike Lorna, though, she’s built like a boy, and she has a concomitant boyish sexual swagger (“Monogamy’s not natural,” etc). She also has an easier smile than Lorna’s, and she might almost seem laid-back, if it were not for the fact that she watches Lorna like a hunted animal.

William H. Macy, the film actor from whom great things ought to be expected, is spastic—so far—in his slightly underwritten character, the washed-up producer. Macy is so red and debauched-looking, in fact, that he may be better in sober roles, where he gets to play against his face. Justine Bateman is a pleasing memento from ‘80s television; Mallory Keaton has become a buxom, erotic troublemaker. Stoltz plays Mark as an ingenuous Joe from New Hampshire, one small step from golly-gee when he spots Billy Crystal or the children of Steven Spielberg. It’s only barely clear how he got to be at the center of a hot love triangle, though one does sense that his fumbling seduction of Danni and fumbling ministrations to his wife may be part of his allure.

Out of Order provides a glimpse at a gated subculture. Donna Powers and Wayne Powers, the program’s creators, are married screenwriting partners—they recently brought us The Italian Job—and they’ve said that, yes, Out of Order is based on their own marriage. (Gads.) William H. Macy, in life, is married to Felicity Huffman. Peter Bogdanovich, the director and film critic, is definitely an insider’s casting choicein a supporting role as a director and casting-couch hustler.But the gangsterism here sharpens the material, as it does in a mob movie: Out of Order is an inside job about a group destructively caught up in itself.

My lasting caveat: The drama of Out of Order continues to be embellished with self-referential gimmicks, lightly surreal sequences like the towel scene that, generally speaking, must mean a great deal to TV producers since they continue to foist them on us. The fantasy scenes in Six Feet Under appear with mixed results; on Scrubs they usually annoy. But those gimmicks, which have included Nabokovian addresses by Mark to the audience (“I am about to place my fate in you, my jury”), seem, on balance, forgivable—part of the pitchable concept necessary to get Out of Order off the ground. For now, tune those scenes out; ideally, the Powerses will scale back the old McBeal tricks and permit their show to become the intriguing domestic potboiler it now seems destined to be.