Road Kill

Was HBO right to cancel a new show before it aired?

Lily Tomlin in A Prairie Home Companion

HBO’s recent flops—the sitcom Lucky Louie, the supernatural surf epic John From Cincinnati, the XXX-istential marital-counseling drama Tell Me You Love Me—have, after debuting to the customary discharges of public-relations confetti that greet the network’s new shows, had the good grace to skulk away discreetly, like a first wife after a favorable divorce settlement or Fred Thompson after South Carolina. Not so with 12 Miles of Bad Road, a comedic family saga set in Dallas. Since the news emerged last week that HBO canceled the show after sinking $25 million into it and before any of its six completed episodes had aired, the series has raised a fuss worthy of a spurned Southern belle.

Indeed, producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason are responsible, most famously, for two twinkling fantasies of the New South: Designing Women (CBS, 1986-93) and “The Man From Hope” (Democratic National Convention, 1992). They’ve been trying to convince me and anyone else who will listen that HBO is so myopically focused on the slicksters of Manhattan and Los Angeles that it doesn’t know what to do with a show about little ol’ Texas. They’ve prodded Aaron Barnhart, TV critic at the Kansas City Star and proprietor of the well-respected blog TV Barn, into serving up a saber-sharp epithet for HBO: “edgy PBS.” And they’ve mailed copies of those half-dozen episodes to the press along with a cover letter expressing the “hope that some critical reassurance might prompt [HBO] to reconsider their decision or at least help us move the show to a more receptive environment.”

I wish I could help. Who wouldn’t, given that the series presents a clan of plutocrats—the Shakespeares—whose adventures easily outclass the candy-coated Page Six antics of the Darlings of Dirty Sexy Money, goof gently on the immortal exploits of the Ewings of Dallas, and, in two or three instances of high farce and broad nonsense, even outdo the blunderings of the Bluths of Arrested Development? But I also wish that Bad Road weren’t all over the road, confusedly mixing the sharp and the moist, the sincerely ridiculous and the ridiculously sincere, hard-biting satire and chick-flick pap that you could safely ingest with a set of bare gums. It’s a cool show that invites Kinky Friedman on to play himself—and a witless one that then fails to give him a single line to read.

The series begins with a helicopter tour evoking, unhelpfully, the openings of La Dolce Vita and Short Cuts. The Shakespeare sisters—Amelia (Lily Tomlin) and C.Z. (Mary Kay Place), “queens of Dallas real estate” selling “epic homes for epic lives”—are showing the town to the Cowboys’ new star running back. Here’s the mansion that some hopeless nouveau riche have modeled on Versailles: “We thought that was in poor taste,” says Amelia and C.Z.’s cousin Kenny (Leslie Jordan, mincing broadly as a late-middle-aged queen), “until they put real Mexicans in their manger scene.”

Farther down this millionaire’s row, there’s the house where Amelia’s daughter Juliet stalks one wing and Juliet’s soon-to-be-ex-husband practices tantra with his fiancee in another. (The first appearance of Juliet’s special-needs teenage daughter reveals that the girl has swiped the fiancee’s mink kneepads and worn them to field-hockey practice.) A bit farther yet, we find the mansion inhabited by Amelia’s son, Jerry, and his bitchily pious wife and a brood including a daughter whose weekly routine includes “toddler pilates.” And there’s the flame-orange bus that Amelia’s black-sheep daughter, Gaylor, has parked in front of Jerry’s place. While no TV critic worthy of his couch could reassure HBO that 12 Miles of Bad Road has the makings of a surefire hit, it’s obvious that Gaylor, played superbly by newcomer Eliza Coupe, deserves her own spinoff. She’s a fantastic floozy. She’s unemployed (probably because she’s unemployable), and I’m enchanted by the way—at once nonchalant and predatory—she pokes at a housekeeper’s unattended purse. When the family lodges a complaint about Gaylor’s habit of passing out on the lawn with her skirt up and her thong on view, she bows to propriety by purchasing full-bottomed panties.

The Shakespeares’ bit of comedy and drama involves deb balls and restrictive country clubs, mega-church pastors and Neiman Marcus conspicuous consumption, flings with exchange students and rugged horsemen. The tone is so peculiar—wavering between an upper-class take on My Name Is Earl and a dry-martini version of Desperate Housewives—that it’s hard to see where on your dial it might land. Showtimeis not in the running. Variety says that Lifetime “kicked the 12 Miles tires but eventually passed.” Fox comes to mind—not least because NFL announcers Troy Aikman * and Joe Buck appear as themselves in a notable dumb scene set at Texas Stadium—but there would seem to be a mismatch of brow height between this literate show and the network that brings you ’Til Death. Is it entirely ludicrous to suggest that the Thomasons take a meeting with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Why not? The debate over its uselessness is in the air again, and 12 Miles of Bad Road is classy enough to get by on those gray airwaves. Tomlin would be a smash at pledge time. What better revenge on the edgy PBS than an attempt to make the actual PBS a bit edgy?

Correction, March 26, 2008: The article originally misidentified Troy Aikman as Troy Aiken. (Return to the corrected sentence.)