It’s Showtime (and HBO), Folks!

Two shows that justify the cable bill.

Lately, I’ve been trying to write more here on broadcast programming, because I know that not everyone wants or can afford to throw down for cable television. But once in a while, I feel like watching something actually, you know, good, and this weekend, there are some shows coming up that justify the outlay for premium cable.

The Showtime feature film The Best Thief in the World, which was an audience favorite at Sundance this year, had its television premiere earlier this week and will be playing throughout the rest of the month ( click here for a full screening schedule.) The Best Thief in the World would be a great movie for parents to watch with their kids, except for the constant swearing, and the semigraphic sex scenes, and the pyromania … OK, this one will probably work for sophisticated adolescents only. But it’s such a sweet film at heart, and so full of nonjudgmental moral lessons, that it’s almost like a foul-mouthed afterschool special.

The story: A schoolteacher named Sue (Mary-Louise Parker) is struggling to raise her three kids in a grubby Bronx walk-up after their father suffers a stroke so debilitating he refers to his children as “Mother.” Her oldest son, Izzie (Michael B. Silverman) has taken to breaking into his neighbors’ empty apartments—not to steal, but to make peanut-butter sandwiches, take showers, rearrange furniture, and generally mess with the heads of the soon-to-return occupants. (Bringing along his best friend on one apartment break-in, Izzie issues a challenge: “Try to imagine the most disturbing thing that could happen when you first came home from a trip.”) As it becomes clearer that his dad may never get well, Izzie’s secret life gets riskier, eventually endangering his family’s safety.

It’s a treat to see a movie with child characters that are characters, not heart-tugging props or dewy symbols of the future, and also to see a mother-son relationship that, like many real-life ones, resemble a bad marriage. The impossible-to-overrate Mary-Louise Parker plays the mom as a real, flawed person: thoughtless, self-absorbed, at times semidysfunctional (tousling her son’s hair, she calls him a “stupid little shit”), but still a warm and loving person. In psychological parlance, she’s a good-enough mother. And this is a more than good-enough film.

HBO’s new series Unscripted, which premiered last weekend and will be playing in high rotation for the rest of the month (new episodes Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), didn’t look so promising on paper. Somehow the words “directed by George Clooney” didn’t bode well. But this fledgling semifictional series, produced by Clooney and Steven Soderbergh (the team who brought K Street to HBO) and improvised by three young actors playing characters based on themselves, doesn’t feel like a vanity project. In fact, it shows signs of becoming what I had hoped Entourage would be when it premiered last year: an unsentimental, but not heartless, glimpse into the clanking machinery of Hollywood.

Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg, and Jennifer Hall, all playing “characters” with the same names as their own, improvise their way through a loosely scripted half-hour show about the struggles and humiliations of young actors. All three are enrolled in an acting class with Goddard Fulton (Frank Langella), a cranky but brilliant teacher who give his students advice like, “You have to decide how much shit you’re willing to eat.” The first few episodes have watched as the appealing young actors ponder exactly that question. Are they willing to model bathing suits for a Cuervo campaign? Play Ophelia before an audience of one, opposite a Hamlet who barely speaks English? Audition for a wrestling picture that turns out to be a gay porn film? It’s sort of Fame meets The Paper Chase, with a magisterial Langella in the John Houseman role. The casting-couch scandals are handled with a light touch, and just when things threaten to slip into easy show-business satire, a scene will come along to remind you that to these people, the craft of acting matters, however degrading the pursuit of it may sometimes be.

Friday, Jan. 7, 2005

Somehow, over the course of its five-and-a-half seasons on the air, The Amazing Race (CBS Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET) has won a reputation as the “classy” reality show, what one reviewer called “the thinking viewer’s reality contest.” 

I’ve never quite understood the “classy” designation, since whatever cachet the world-travel angle lends to the series is undercut by the fact that all the contestants do as they race around the world is reinforce the ugly-American stereotype a million times over. Week after week, they clomp past historic monuments clad in hideous day-glo athletic gear, shrieking at cabdrivers and ticket agents to get them there “Faster! Faster! Do you even understand what I’m SAYING? Faster!” But TAR is certainly one of the most watchable reality series on TV, perhaps because its premise is kinetic and its scenery breathtaking, not like the claustrophobic gastro-torture chambers of Fear Factor. The round-the world-in-80-days aspect gives the show a certain swashbuckling flair, but as with all reality shows, the heart of TAR is pure, voyeuristic people-watching. As the season wears on, and tempers and travel budgets wear thin, you can eavesdrop on the relationship of each contestant couple (who are not necessarily romantically linked; pairs can include siblings, parents and children, or friends).

Take Jonathan Baker and Victoria Fuller, a team billed on the show as “married entrepreneurs.” He is an aspiring filmmaker who owns “LA’s most famous day spa”; she is a painter and former Playmate who hopes to become “a leading female force in the world of Pop Art.” They have spent the last six weeks dragging America through their own personal version of marital hell. Ever since Episode 2, in which Jonathan beaned Victoria with the lid of their car’s trunk (it was an accident, but no apology was offered), the couple’s nasty dynamic has been drawing viewer outrage. There was the now-legendary shove of Episode 5 ( click here and scroll down for a QuickTime video), when, as an exhausted Victoria slogged toward the Berlin finish line carrying both of their backpacks (long story), an angry Jonathan punched his wife’s shoulder, or according to some viewers, her backpack. Wherever the blow landed, the effect was the same, as Victoria lost her balance and fell to her knees, piteously wailing Jonathan’s name as he raced ahead of her. (Victoria’s masochistic responses to her husband’s ill treatment have led fans on some message boards to give her nicknames like “Victimoria” or my favorite, “Vicnabler.”)

The shove provoked a wave of viewer mail, leading Jonathan to post a defense of his behavior on the couple’s personal Web site. Like all good abusers, Jonathan has multiple excuses: He has blamed his behavior on the show’s editors (“They used everything bad that was there,”); on beverage intake (“We were up for days, and I was drinking a lot of Red Bull,”); and finally, on “stress and obsession, mixed with medication for a sickness called Sarcoidosis.” (Yeah, and I’ve got gout. Can I hit someone, too?) Yet, like many abusers (and a couple of presidents I can name), Jonathan seems to believe that apologies can coexist with excuses, declaring on his Web site: “I am sorry for my actions, I am sorry to Victoria [sic]. Most of all I am sorry to fans of The Amazing Race.”

Despite numerous scoldings—one on the air from host Phil Keoghan, another behind the scenes from executive producer Bertram van Munster—Jonathan continues to push, if not his wife, then at least the limits of spousal behavior. Last night in Corsica, for the episode’s final “challenge,” he had to stomp 55 pounds of grapes in a barrel with his bare feet, filling up five empty wine bottles with juice before proceeding to the finish line. (As challenges go, this one was pretty cinchy—last week in Budapest, Victoria had to choke down mixing-bowl-sized servings of unbearably spicy Hungarian soup, vomiting between gulps, as her husband screeched invective from the sidelines.) As the designated grape-stomper, Jonathan ignored his wife’s instructions (“Make a moat so the juice collects!” “What do you mean, a moat?”), and wound up clogging the barrel’s spout. When Victoria pointed that fact out to him—shrilly, to be sure—he raised the back of his hand to her face. There was no follow-through on the gesture, but it didn’t look like he was kidding (not that “I’m gonna hit you … psych!” would qualify as a big knee-slapper).

“This race shows you all the things you don’t like about yourself,” Jonathan mused to the cameras in one early episode this season. But instead of going on to enumerate what, in his case, those faults might be, he went on to add patronizingly that “Victoria has some challenges within herself.” Really, Jonathan? Funny, I can only think of one: the challenge to grab her backpack, hail a cab, and ditch your grape-stomping ass. … 7:21 p.m.