Tennis star Serena Williams has a featured role tonight in Street Time, the hard-edged and high-caliber Showtime cable drama about the world of ex-cons and their parole officers. With only one minor acting credit on her television resume, it is not surprising that the 23-year-old athlete has a hard time holding her own in the company of such talented and experienced performers as Erika Alexander, Scott Cohen and Rob Morrow.
But, in the end, she's no worse than former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson was in his first few appearances as the district attorney on NBC's Law & Order. Some might consider that faint praise, indeed, but I am trying to be nice.
Perhaps, the most compelling aspect of Williams' performance is the subtext created by the strange warp between television reality and real life. Last month, while Williams was filming her role in Toronto as a woman recently paroled after serving time for a gang-related drug conviction, her oldest sister, 31-year-old Yetunde Price, was shot and killed in a neighborhood south of Los Angeles outside a house that police identified as having a history of drug and gang activity.
Williams had one day of filming left when she got the news of her sister's death, and producers told her they could finish the episode without her. But she returned to Toronto after her sister's funeral, and finished out her role.
It is not an easy role. While Street Time has several subplots, the main story line of the hour centers on Meeka Hayes, the character played by Williams. Executive producers Richard Stratton and Marc Levin wisely built the Hayes character along the lines of Williams by making her a former high school track star.
But, unlike Williams, who along with her sister, Venus, became a tennis champion after her family moved to Florida, Hayes winds up in prison - convicted of cocaine trafficking when her boyfriend sends her to a house to pick up a package for him. She claims not to have known what was in the package.
In prison, Hayes' leg is badly injured, and she will never run track again. Viewers meet her on the day of her release, and much of the hour's drama comes from watching her immersion back into society - the New York housing project in which she lives with her mother, the neighborhood with drugs still being sold by the man who set her up, the relationship with her parole officer, James Liberti (Cohen), a character with every bit as many problems as most of the men and women he supervises.
Street Time is similar to FX's The Shield and HBO's The Wire in terms of moral ambiguity, existential edge and dramatic excellence. Morrow, the biggest name in the cast, plays a parolee who went to prison for dealing marijuana. Stratton, the series' creator, is a parolee himself.
The problem with Williams in the role of ex-con is that she plays only one note over and over - depressed cum sullen. That's OK, but she needed to suggest the anger and rage underneath that depression to make the action she ultimately takes at the end of the episode credible.
She also is simply not up to standing toe-to-toe with Cohen when his parole officer character comes at her. Usually, he's in her face in a bad way. But there is also an important scene where he comes upon her as she's working out on a rooftop, and he seems so uncharacteristically friendly, you wonder if there is a romantic undercurrent developing.
As an actress, Williams has no idea how to respond to the dramatic change-up that is thrown at her character. It feels as if the director just filmed around what should have been her reaction shots to a flirty Liberti.
But then, Law & Order has been filming around Thompson and Elisabeth Rohm, a real actress who plays assistant district attorney Serena Southerlyn, for more than a year. Hey, I know, maybe creator Dick Wolf could make Williams the next new member of the DA's office in his hit drama.
When: Tonight at 10
In brief: Tennis star Serena Williams in a role that's just too big for her acting game.