In The Kid Stays in the Picture, Robert Evans reveals how, with his job as Paramount studio head on the chopping block, he cobbled together a thirty-minute trailer spotlighting the studio’s recent hits (Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story) and anticipated blockbusters, (The Godfather) thereby saving his skin. The new television series, Out of Order, has that same feeling, that Showtime itself, long-dwarfed by HBO’s powerhouse roster of series (Sopranos, Six Feet Under), is at last trying to steal home.
Billed by Showtime as a "limited series," Out of Order has an enviable ensemble cast and a maturity that is generally absent from the broadcast spectrum. Series creators Wayne and Donna Powers, veterans of screen and matrimony, met twenty years ago at USC film school. Out of Order assays the life and times of the Colms, alter egos of the Powers. As Mark and Lorna Colms, Eric Stoltz and Felicity Huffman are a screenwriting couple in the midst of professional and conjugal flux, hastened by Lorna Colm’s clinical depression.
Each character is far from household saint, practicing the sins of omission, but thanks to their onscreen chemistry and ear-to-the-heart dialogue, there’s an immediate sense that their love isn’t Hollywood ephemeral. Mark is a paragon, as soccer mom and designee PTA parent, save for his roving eye. Since reaching stardom in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, Stoltz has made a career out of finding the insouciance in the most disposable of cads (most recently in House of Mirth). Here he is an earnest husband whose fallibility – principally impulses of reckless infidelity – is a function of his wife’s black despair. Make no mistake, this is no Mind of the Married Man (to invoke an HBO misfire). While Married Man’s protagonist Mickey is infantile (even his name bespeaks arrested development), Mark Colm is the standard bearer of the couple’s reputation as he tries to appease Zack, their enigmatic producer (Bogdanovich, moonlighting from his Soprano’s gig).
Lorna herself has checked out of both their livelihood and their lives. She hides under their Frette sheets when not performing in a team-tag shame spiral with Steve (William H. Macy, her off-screen husband), a producer who finds himself in "movie jail" for a Fox project gone south. Instead of tea and sympathy, he offers Lorna dope and highballs. In the series opener, Lorna is in the midst of beating back denial. Her plaintive bleat to husband Mark, "I’m fucking up. I am a fuck up," signals an unflinching study in depression. Yet, you bet on her to rise like a Phoenix, even as you see her trying to remove the half-dollars from her eyelids as she climbs back from the abyss. When she tries to explain her state of mind to her husband, she is riveting: "It’s agony. Every fucking minute is agony. … fall into a black hole and never come out."
Together the Colm’s have accumulated quite the life mortgage – a Mercedes convertible, their own Hearst Castle, a kid who plays goalie against Spielberg’s progeny. What lies beyond the moat is a surfeit of melancholy. We see temptation, material and erotic, as well as the banal. For the first time in the Colm’s long marriage, Mark is fielding propositions (a no-strings handjob from a very jaded Justine Bateman) and he’s fantasizing what it would be like to have an uncomplicated tryst with belly-ringed Danni (a sinuous Kim Dickins last seen in Allison Anders’ Things Behind the Sun).
Much in the spirit of the beloved series Dream On (itself inspired by Danny Kaye’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Mark unspools his life as though it were a film. When the Colm’s visit Lorna’s family for Thanksgiving, Lorna’s revelations of familial abuse –straight out of Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma film The Celebration–are intercut with a reenactment of Raging Bull.
While the dialogue is sharp as a Ginzu, it is long on speeches, not taking full advantage of the rapport Stoltz and Huffman have effortlessly established. Instead, the script falls back on anthropomorphizing flora (rhododendron) and fauna (assorted family pets), as if Mark needs a foil to jolt him into the realization that "we’re still here you and I." This is a line intended for Lorna, not Shaq #8, his son’s imperishable goldfish.
Advised by a sardonic Bogdanovich ("I love making pictures; it’s all I love") that the use of heroin in their script isn’t up to the minute, Mark opts for Ecstasy as drug du jour. Disciples of the axiom "write what you know," the couple decides to hold a bacchanal so that they might trip the light fantastic with friends and family. During the party Mark and Danni cross the Platonic line while skinny-dipping in the Colm’s heated swimming pool. The scene, captured during the first day’s shooting, just might be the pilot’s most poignant interlude. In the underwater moonlight Dickens is a shimmering half-life and the pair’s infidelity feels truly spontaneous and evanescent.
While hardly a virgin look at Hollywood, it’s evident that the Powers aren’t in it to bite the hand that feeds them. Southern California, with its placid decadence and suburban sprawl, is merely a backdrop. While the ninety-minute pilot for Out of Order runs a tad overlong, and much of the narrative duplicates rather than comments on onscreen action, it does whet the appetite for more. Just as David Gray’s "Please Forgive Me," opens the series, Verve’s anthem, "I Can Change" rounds out the opener, as each of the cast breaks the fourth wall, Paul Thomas Anderson-style, proclaiming, "I’m guilty of being human." More liberal doses of nuance, and, as called for, more daring flights of fancy would help the series realize its potential. Even while dilated, Out of Order is a clear-eyed and sophisticated alternative to MTV-demographics. Its characters have been around the block and they have stories to tell.
– Jerry Weinstein