TV Land found success with reviving the careers of former TV hotshots like Valerie Bertinelli, Wendi Malick, Jane Leeves, and Kristen Johnston, while prolonging our nation’s love affair with Betty White. And now the channel is trying it latest career reanimation on a trio of former Must See TV stars: Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman, and Michael Richards. Alley and Perlman starred in the long-running NBC classic Cheers, while Richards stole scenes in Seinfeld. Show business wasn’t so kind to them since their hit shows ended (and in Richards’ case, life wasn’t all that peachy keen, either – as some will remember his racist flame out at an L.A. comedy club). Perlman has been largely out of the public eye following the failure of her sitcom vehicle, Pearl, while Alley has had some okay highs (a solid limited run on NBC with her followup sitcom Veronica’s Closet, a well-received stint on Dancing with the Stars) as well as some lows (Fat Actress, Kirstie’s Big Life, Jenny Craig). It’s seems sadly predictable that Alley, Perlman, and Richards would turn to TV Land for fame resuscitation, as it’s almost guaranteed that their considerable talents will be wasted on a middle-of-the-road sitcom.
Kirstie is the story of Broadway legend Maddie Banks (Alley), who recently meets the son she gave up for adoption 27 years ago. Arlo (Eric Peterson) is the foundling who tracked his birth mother down after his adopted mom died. Instead of being drag queeny and fabulous, he’s a bit of a schlub, punching a clock at a local donut shop. All of this horrifies the vainglorious Maddie who makes a miserable first impression on the guy. Maddie’s supported by an acerbic assistant, Thelma (Perlman) and a kooky driver, Frank (Richards), both of whom are nonplussed by the revelation that their boss is a mom. And suitably enough, once the shock wears off and Maddie has time to think about things, she realizes she wants to be a mom again, and reaches out to her son – the two have a confrontation, before setting aside their differences. And so they’re on a journey of rediscovery and playing “getting to know you.”
All of these ingredients can make a decent sitcom. But unlike TV Land’s more successful Hot in Cleveland, this feels more like their flop, Happily Divorced (a failed effort to bring Fran Drescher back to television). Kirstie feels like all the other original comedies on TV Land – archaic relics from the WB, CW, UPN. The jokes are easy and cheap – and they’re punctuated by choruses of raucous laugh tracks (which we’re reassured is from a live studio audience). What’s depressing about Kirstie is that despite its goofy premise and its terrible real estate, it has a lot going for it: namely its star.
Kirstie Alley was one of the biggest TV stars in the late 80s. She is a sexy, funny comedienne who’s a genius at portraying collapsing dignity. On Cheers, she was able to erase any memory of “Sam and Diane” with her extravagantly messy Rebecca Howe – the gorgeous bar manager who is just a step away from a complete mental breakdown. There’s always something funny about beautiful people mugging – maybe because it doesn’t happen all that often. Watching Alley work her comedic magic is akin to watching Jon Hamm remind viewers why he’s one of the best hosts of Saturday Night Live.
But she’s stuck in a rut. After Cheers ended, Alley developed a public persona – an eccentric, blowsy Wife of Bath, which has infected her work as well. Her roles of note – Fat Actress or Kirstie’s Big Life – all traded on this mildly acidic, ego-driven, spoiled diva. Unfortunately, Kirstie mines its comedy from the same mold and doesn’t offer anything new, nor does it challenge its star. I always thought Alley should go the route of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and find herself a smart, biting satire like Veep. Either that, or she could fulfill her promise of being a first-rate character actress and work in supporting roles (I can totally picture her getting a special billing at the end of the credits: “And Kirstie Alley as [enter name of character here]”). It seems unfair that a talented and hilarious comedienne like Alley is forced to slum in such mild dreck. If there were any justice, actresses of Alley’s age, beauty, and talent would have their in-trays collapsing underneath the weight of network TV offers.
But she’s not alone. Perlman won an carload of Emmys for her role as the mean-spirited waitress Carla on Cheers. Thelma is a slightly softened version of that character – and it’s merely Perlman spitting out lines intended to be witty and biting, but end up hokey and tired. And Richards seems rather confused, unsure if he’s supposed to bring back Kramer or what (there are shades of Kramer in his performance).
That only leaves Peterson – the relative unknown among the starry names. He’s a comfortable and genial presence, but is easily overshadowed by his more seasoned costars, all of whom run comedic circles around the guy – though it’s not a fair fight because at their peaks, Alley, Perlman, and Richards were responsible for some of the funniest TV in the last 30 years. But his character is interesting in that he gets to play the proverbial fish-out-of-water, marveling at his mom’s glamorous and opulent lifestyle (at one point he refers to her as “lottery rich” and suggests that she’s the “white Oprah” – really, Oprah Winfrey rich jokes in 2014?).
Is there promise for Kirstie? Maybe, but it needs to shake off the dooming sense of nostalgia that permeates everything that TV Land touches. The show needs to prove that its stars aren’t merely TV has-beens who are attempting to claw their way back to TV stardom, but that they are vital and interesting performers, capable of doing some quality television. Alley and her writers need to work on broadening her comedic alter-ego, and shift away from the Norma Desmond mold that she seems to love to employ. If not, Kirstie will only prove to be another misstep in an already-frustrating career.