The ways of the TV racket are strange. Talent triumphs and sometimes it is frittered away.
In the long ago and far away, when I first saw Hugh Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster, I never thought that, years later, he would be glaring at me from the side of a bus or streetcar, with a face that would stop a clock. Never thought he'd play an enormously popular character on U.S. network TV - that is, our friend, Dr. House.
We'll get back to Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster in a minute. In the meantime - you, me and all the nice people just mosey along, thinking that the TV racket is a bit weird, but predictably so. Then we are gobsmacked by news that makes us cough, splutter and laugh in disbelief.
No, I don't mean the news that Kevin Newman is leaving Global. I mean, fleeing CanWest is hardly surprising these days, is it? What I mean is the news last week of the plan to launch the Right Network, a new U.S. cable channel that says it aims to please "Americans who are looking for content that reflects and reinforces their perspective and world view." Hello, but that's the whole darn American TV racket. So, in other words, this new thing is an ultra-conservative channel to fill the needs of people who find American TV spectrum, from Fox News to the radical CBS, to be too lefty. It is Tea Party TV.
And who is behind it? Some people with loads of money and Kelsey Grammer. That's right, old Frasier himself is the face of the Right Network. "There's wrong, and there's right, right network, all that's right with the world," Grammer announces enigmatically on a clip on the network's website. I swear to you, I'm not making this up. Look on the Internet, see for yourself. Good times coming in the TV critics racket my friends. It is a joy to be alive.
Anyway: Many of us first encountered Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in Jeeves and Wooster, an adaptation of the novels by P.G. Wodehouse on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. That was in the early 1990s and it was a series done with great panache. Both Laurie and Fry had appeared in the cult favourite Blackadder, but Jeeves and Wooster brought them major attention when it aired on PBS. Fry played Jeeves and Laurie was Bertie Wooster. Fry was superb as the valet Jeeves, tall and solidly respectable, and with a wicked sense of timing. Laurie was a good but not perfect Wooster, the laconic, brainless and very rich young man about town.
Fry and Laurie have pursued different paths since then, but both have had very English careers. Both wrote novels, did stage work and made appearances in countless TV series. Laurie then landed the role of a lifetime on House. About the same time, Fry became an international presence on Twitter, famous for his witty observations as he went about his daily life. He also became an occasional guest star on Bones.
Kingdom (Vision, 9 p.m.) is Fry's first foray into anchoring a TV series since Jeeves and Wooster. It arrived here recently on Vision and, dear heavens, it is the most outrageous waste of talent. It is the sort of British comfort TV that some people adore, I abhor, and that makes people write to me calling me terrible, terrible names. Fry plays Peter Kingdom, a very smart, witty lawyer in a small town. Oh, he's clever and charming. Around him, enormously talented actors, such as Celia Imre (from Cranford) and Hermione Norris (from Cold Feet and MI-5) sashay around being way too cute, talking tosh and phoning it in. Little wonder. Kingdom feels like the TV version of one of those fake Irish pubs - you send away a cheque and you get an assembly kit in the mail. All you have to do is put the parts together.
Tough but lovable codgers abound, most talking in rural accents that are meant to be amusing. Each week there's a mystery, but really it's just a puzzle. Our hero, played by Fry, solves it as the local eccentrics play at being eccentric. One English reviewer described it as rather like taking bath while sucking on Werther's Original. Too true. And although three seasons of it have been made, Kingdom was cancelled recently.
One wishes Fry had meatier work on TV. This is talent wasted. House, while it may be repetitive after several seasons, is still a show that rouses itself to shock, and Laurie is doing demanding work that doesn't waste his talent. As for Grammer, he's out if the picture now - fronting loony, right-wing TV is just too strange.
That's it from me for a few days. TOM (The Other Man, a.k.a. Andrew Ryan, who sometimes writes in this space) will be your guide. Mind yourselves.
Check local listings.
Billy the Exterminator (A&E, 8 p.m.) is one of the weirdest things airing now. Billy is a dude (he calls most people "dude," too) whose job is to deal with pesky critters - raccoons, squirrels, bee infestations. That kind of thing. He's a sort of Dog the Bounty Hunter for creepy-crawlies and rodents. An entertaining character, he talks the science of extermination with gusto. A cult hero already, he is deemed worthy of a marathon of episodes tonight.
CSI:NY (CBS, CTV, 10 p.m.) goes very macho tonight: "When a slab of concrete starts bleeding in midtown, the CSI's investigation takes them into the underground world of hard-core fighting, where men moonlight as 'weekend warriors' for the pleasure of a live viewing audience." Could be more repulsive than the work of Billy the Exterminator.