It already feels like a rerun

Review: `Sex and the City' and `Larry Sanders' it's not. But Showtime's `The Chris Isaak Show' is an obvious take-off on these HBO hits.

March 12, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Is the way to create a cable cult hit by imitating other cable cult hits?

That's my question after watching the first four episodes of "The Chris Isaak Show," Showtime's new series about the backstage life of the singer. Isaak and the producers swear the show is closely modeled on the real life of the super-talented San Francisco-based musician, but what most viewers will notice are the similarities to "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Sex and the City."

Like the Sanders show, the Isaak pilot tonight opens with the musician and a woman in bed. In this case, Isaak's girlfriend gets a little rough during sex, thinking Isaak will like it, but he doesn't. He questions her actions, and she storms out of his life.

The rest of the episode finds Isaak examining his relationships with women. One is an accountant (Jacqueline Samuda) on the set of a music video he and his band are filming. By day, she's all business. But each night, she does a striptease (to the waist) in the motel room right across from Isaak's. He keeps trying to talk to her about his attraction to her dancing, but she acts as though she has no idea what he's talking about.

That's already a lot of sexual content. But remember this is pay cable, and adult sex is part of what they do.

I don't think, however, that the emphasis on Isaak's sexual frustration is a wise choice. It worked wonderfully in "The Larry Sanders Show," because it was such a core part of Garry Shandling's comic persona. To buy into this series even a little, you have to accept the central conceit of Isaak's eternal sexual frustration and utter confusion as to what women really want. With this good-looking, tall, trim rock star, that's difficult to do.

Then, there's the sexual frustration of Isaak's agent, Yola (Kristin Dattilo), the wannabe version of HBO's Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) in "Sex and the City." The similarities in appearance and attitude are almost too obvious.

It seems Yola's problem is that she can't admit how much she likes Isaak, which leads her from one doomed relationship to another. By the fourth episode, she's so frustrated she can't sleep at night - so she falls for her sleep doctor.

As I said, that's already a lot of sexual content. But there's more.

In the pilot, Anson (Jed Rees), the keyboard player from Isaak's band, Silvertone, is attracted to a woman who teaches horseback riding. This affair is doomed by the relationship the woman has with her horse, and the horse's response to Anson. This subplot plays at the level of humor you might find among 12-year-old boys in the locker room.

Much is made in Showtime's promotional material about the real-life members of Silvertone playing themselves. Anson, however, is not a real-life member of the band; he's an actor. He's also the band member most often featured in subplots.

Much is also made about guest stars playing themselves in the series. In the pilot, it's Bai Ling ("The Lost Empire"). Other episodes feature actress Minnie Driver and musicians Joe Walsh and Junior Brown. As an actor, Isaak connected with none of them.

Not that Isaak's a bad actor. His easygoing amiability might be enough to get him by in the right series. But he doesn't have the acting talent to pull off this befuddled-by-sex-and-love straitjacket he's trying to wear. And, as an executive producer, he shares the blame.

There is one sexualized situation that works well in the first episodes. It involves Isaak regularly retreating to a room in the basement of Bimbo's, a San Francisco nightclub at which he performs. In the basement is a naked woman (Bobby Jo Moore) lying stomach-down on a slowly revolving turntable. Through a series of mirrors, she appears to club-goers to be a mermaid swimming underwater.

Chris visits the woman seeking romantic advice, and there's something delightfully surreal about their conversations. What makes them work is the originality of the situation. While the naked character is said to be based on a real woman in the basement of Bimbo's, this is not something you've ever seen before on TV.

That takes us back to our original question: if you really love Chris Isaak, the musician who makes such songs as "Baby Did a Bad Thing," you'll probably find reasons to like this show in spite of everything I've said.

But, in terms of reaching a mass TV audience, the series likely won't even reach cult hit status because Isaak and the other producers chose to imitate shows on HBO.

Premiere

What: `The Chris Isaak Show'

When: 10 tonight

Where: Showtime

In brief: Baby made some bad, bad choices as producer.

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