When Bad Actors Happen To Good Shows

It happens every Thanksgiving or Easter or Christmas. All the relatives get together at my parents' humble little cottage for a big old family dinner. My mom spends 12 hours in the kitchen. We all put on our Sunday finery. And then, once the potatoes have been mashed and the corn has been buttered and the cranberries have been lovingly removed from the can and stirred up to make them look like they were fresh, we all sit down as a family to have a civilized, pleasant meal.

And we give it our best, just like Frasier's David Hyde Pierce exhorts us to do in those "The More You Know" commercials on NBC. The fine china sparkles. The conversation is spirited. The ham is succulent. And love -- honest-to-goodness family love -- is heavy in the air.

Which is about when, towards the end of the meal, my dad lets out an eardrum-busting, picture-rattling fart.

And that's the cue for everything to go to Hell. My sister starts crying and my brother-in-law just sadly shakes his head and my mother screams at my father and then demands to know why I haven't gotten married before she hastily adds that she'll still love me even if I move to West Hollywood with a hair stylist named Brad, which is about the time that she runs from the room bawling about how nobody has any time for her.

Which is my dad's cue to fart again.

My point -- other than the fact that any psychologist out there who just read those last few paragraphs is probably thinking, "Hello, grant money!" -- is that it only takes one small mishap to take something wonderfully sublime and absent-mindedly flush it down the crapper. That's true of anything, whether we're talking about disaster-plagued family get-togethers or once-phenomenal television programs.

And that brings me to Homicide.

Those of you who lead active social lives, you've probably never seen Homicide. But those of us who've been reduced to spending many a Friday night folding laundry and defrosting chicken pot pies, Homicide has been the one beacon in our otherwise joyless weekends.

Since its debut in 1993, Homicide has consistently turned in some of the finest work on television. Its stories are gripping, laced with dark humor and, at times, even disturbing. The Homicide cast continually turns in the best ensemble work you'll ever find on television, I don't care how many laurels the Screen Actors Guild wants to toss at those nancyboys on ER. And while some cop shows can get bogged down in the melodrama they create for their characters -- I'm looking in your direction, Mr. Bochco -- Homicide never stops focusing on the story... on crime and punishment in all its messy, always untidy splendor. (That's why it was our choice for the first TeeVee award for Best Drama.)

Or at least, Homicide used to do all that. Lately, like an old, busted record player or a stand-up comic who's played one too many showcases at Krazy Karl's Laff-O'-Plenty, Homicide has been missing a beat. The shows have seemed flat, almost dull at times. The scripts -- once Homicide's hallmark -- seem to be just going through the motions. The pilot light appears to be flickering.

You can pin the problem on any number of reasons. The stories just haven't been as compelling as in past seasons. The outstanding Andre Braugher -- a stand-out actor in a show that's teeming with them -- has shrunk back to the sidelines, giving substance to those rumors that Braugher will be packing it in once the season draws to a close.

Kyle Secor and Clark Johnson -- Homicide's other acting luminaries -- have spent more time behind the camera directing episodes this year than appearing in them. Michelle Forbes left the show just as her coroner character was becoming interesting. New characters played by Callie Thorne and Peter Gerety haven't fully developed yet. Richard Belzer's John Munch seems even more of an afterthought this year than in seasons past. And that's meant far too much screen time for Reed Diamond, whose cop-on-the-edge routine gets more tired with each passing week.

Those are all fine reasons for turning a weary eye to Homicide this season. But I think I've found a better one -- a clear, concise explanation for why Homicide has done a half-gainer off the high dive board that would make Greg Lougainas proud. The show's precipitous decline in quality began last fall... apart the same time that Jon Seda) joined the cast as Detective Falsone.

Coincidence? I don't think so. Because Jon Seda is the fart at my Thanksgiving dinner.

Seda's Falsone embodies every tough-as-nails-cop-with-a-heart-of-gold cliche that's ever graced the boob tube, right down to his Mott Street accent and emphatic hand gestures. It's almost as if Falsone was airlifted into Homicide straight out of NYPD Blue or Brooklyn South. You expect to see Nicholas Turturro burst on to the Homicide set, demanding that Jon Seda give him his identity back.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Falsone oeuvre -- and how I envy each and every one of you -- here's the run-down. Falsone is one of those detectives obsessed with ridding the world of evil. We know this because he tells us whenever he gets the chance via none-too-convincing speeches punctuated with many, many emphatic hand gestures. Falsone is divorced and has a young son whom he -- and here's your heart of gold coming up right now, sports fan -- loves very much. Falsone used to be an auto theft detective, but transferred to homicide because, as he explained in the season premiere, "Homicide cops are the best, and I want to be the best."

Well, we all have our dreams, I suppose.

Bad enough that the Falsone character is trite. But stack him up against the other cops on Homicide with all their quirks and complexities, and Falsone assumes all the full-bodied richness of a cardboard cutout. Braugher's Pembleton visibly wrestles with his demons and doubts every week. Secor's Bayliss has spent each of the show's six seasons struggling to find happiness that always seems to be out of reach. Even Munch's sarcastic veneer is just his way of shielding himself from the unending horror of poking over one dead body after another.

And Falsone? Well, Falsone keeps muttering about how much he loves his kid.

It doesn't help matters that Seda makes the bold if unconventional decision to mumble so badly that most of his lines are rendered incoherent. Like other greats before him -- Brando, Dylan, Miss Othmor from the old Charlie Brown TV specials -- Seda delivers each speech as if he's just swallowed a dozen or so marbles.

"How's the Jakacks case coming, Falsone?" someone might ask him.

"Mwa mwa mwa mwa mwa," Seda will reply.

And so what we have each week is Jon Seda -- marble-mouthed, vacant-eyed Jon Seda -- trying his darnedest but ultimately getting acted off the screen by his more talented cohorts.

Witness The Box, a signature scene in every Homicide episode where a detective tries to trick, bully and otherwise cajole a suspected killer into confessing. In the hands of an actor like Andre Braugher, The Box scenes can be truly chilling. Earlier this year, Braugher's Pembleton went toe to toe with a nihilistic teenager, trying to force the little punk into fingering the person who had been going around Baltimore murdering priests.

Braugher's performance was so relentless that by the end of the scene, I wanted to confess to the murders.

Then, there's Jon Seda who stumbles his way through The Box scenes like a summer stock player stricken with stage fright and in way over his head. There's no intensity when Seda's Falsone interrogates a suspect, no believability. I have a hard time believing that this guy can find his car keys every morning, let alone find out who left some old man to die in a deserted Baltimore back alley.

"What did you think when you heard that he was dead?" Falsone demanded to know of a murder suspect in an episode a few weeks back.

"I guess I didn't think about it," the understandably non-shaken suspect replied.

"I think you did think about it," Falsone snarled -- or as much as someone who mumbles so badly can snarl -- jabbing his finger in the suspect's general direction for effect.

And somewhere near my couch, the gentle sounds of sobbing could be heard.

When Bad Actors happen to Good Shows -- sadly, that's an all-too-familiar story line on TV. L.A. Law was a pretty engrossing hour of television until Bochco and the boys started busing in bland characters -- Conchata Ferrell, A Martinez, Debi Mazar -- every hour on the hour. Chicago Hope was an Emmy-winning drama, for Pete's sake. Then Christine Lahti was brought to chew every last bit of scenery she could sink her incisors into, and it all went straight to shit. And I don't think I was the only to notice how quick the drop-off in quality was on Fantasy Island when Christopher Hewett tried to fill the tiny shoes of Herve Villechaize...

Um. Scratch that last one. But I think you see my point.

Bad Actors have doomed Good Shows in the past, they're laying waste to them in the present, and they will continue to wreak their havoc in the future unless America's couch potatoes stay eternally vigilant. Even now, in the seedy back offices of Hollywood, powerful producers and dissolute agents are conspiring in secret to ruin your favorite TV programs. Jamie Farr as an FBI agent on X-Files. William Shatner as a brilliant Army defense attorney on JAG. Shannen Doherty as Rachel's long-lost sister on Friends.

And do you really want to be responsible for that?

Act now. Make angry phone calls to TV producers. Write long, polemical letters to corpulent network executives. March down to their offices and give long-winded speeches until building security guards are forced to break out the pepper spray. Whatever you do, let the TV Powers That Be know you won't tolerate Bad Actors lousing up Good Shows, no matter how much Jamie Farr needs the work.

Otherwise, when my old man farts at your Thanksgiving dinner, you'll have no one to blame but yourself.