July 27, 2008

The Buffalo News, N.Y., Jeff Simon Column: Giving Props to the Underappreciated

By Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 27--Time for something new: the "Over/Under" list. In other words, pairs of vaguely related things, of which one is overrated, one is underrated.

Feel free, by the way, to make up your own. For the moment, here's mine:

Overrated: HBO. Underrated: Showtime.

It happens at every Emmy nomination announcement ceremony (not to mention award night) -- entirely too many things go HBO's way and too few go to Showtime. In the last batch, the nods in the direction of Showtime's "Dexter" were painfully dutiful and compensatory.

If ever there was a living, breathing illustration of the wiseacre maxim that "show business is high school -- with money," that's it.

It's very simple, really: all manner of high school cafeteria "cool kids" (Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg) have HBO deals, leading to such appalling non sequiturs among cloudland notions as, for instance, HBO's "Entourage" being great and awardable TV comedy and Showtime's "Californication" not; or that the final season of HBO's "The Sopranos" justified all the hoo-ha possible in TV Hypeworld but Showtime's profoundly original Rhode Island mob/political series "Brotherhood" couldn't get arrested going 120 mph on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Don't tell me either that it's because so few people subscribe to Showtime. Lack of behemoth box office didn't stop the Oscars from going to movies like "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." Maybe the last batch of Emmy nominations proved that the Emmys are overrated and the Oscars, for all the hype but increasingly lousy ratings, are underrated.

Overrated: Jon Hamm. Underrated: William Petersen.

Hamm returns today in AMC's "Mad Men," the most overrated TV show of the past five years. He's a good actor but an even better male model. And he's the perfect age (37) for a community looking for male actors who don't look as if they might confuse their mousse with their acne cream. (Given when "Mad Men" is set, make that Brylcreem with acne cream.)

Petersen, on the other hand, just announced he's taking a flying bye-bye from "CSI" after the 10th episode of the upcoming fall season. He's gotten an Emmy nomination or two and otherwise no love at all despite one of the most tightly disciplined and witty weekly performances in all of TV. Lest anyone think Petersen is merely being and not acting, understand that he, like company founders John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, is one of the boys from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, a bunch known on-stage for no small emotional violence.

Both Sinise and Petersen in their precise, finicky parts, give precise, finicky performances -- in Petersen's case, brilliantly. (Compare his supremely disciplined work with the legendarily hilarious and delightfully incongruous shenanigans of David Caruso in "CSI: Miami.")

Overrated: JonStewart. Underrated: Katie Couric.

Don't get me wrong. I love Stewart's "fake news" too. But no one is worth the praise he and Stephen Colbert get -- still. And no one is worth the slam-a-week deathwatch and orgiastic Katie Bash that has marked Couric's time as CBS News anchor.

Overrated: Katherine Heigl. Underrated: Julia Louis- Dreyfus.

Could a series star like ABC's ballyhooed Katherine Heigl really be so stupid that she had a public tantrum all over her show's writing staff and told the Emmys her role was so badly written it didn't deserve to be nominated? Yes, I know, that's what the stories said. Translated, though, what she was saying was "somebody please fire me so I can get on with a movie career and make lots more box office bonanzas like 'Knocked Up.' " ("Excuse me, Ms. Heigl. Phone call for you. David Caruso is calling.") That prominent WGA strike picketer Louis- Dreyfus, on the other hand, has been treated so shabbily at CBS that there ought to be an Emmy category for maintaining dignity in the face of monumental management disinterest and scheduling abuse.

Overrated: Conan O'Brien. Underrated: JayLeno.

Reverse their backgrounds. Make Leno the Harvard boy from the "Saturday Night Live" writing staff. Make O'Brien the dyslexic alumnus of blue collar Boston club comedy. And then tell me if NBC would be pushing Leno down a flight of stairs, just to keep their precious semi-funny Conan around. The only question in 2009 is going to be how long before NBC clearly rues the day it put all of its late-night comedy in the hands of Lorne Michaels and his alumni -- especially if Leno really does sign with Fox and takes a good chunk of his late-night audience (and celebrity pals) with him.

As always, I'm no fan of Leno's cheese and near-calamitous lack of elegance, but he's a genuine working-class hero in the standup trade, not an overpampered poodle with red hair.

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