Two-way TV chemistry, from crackle to fizzle

New York Times News ServiceNovember 11, 2013 

From left, Nicole Beharie as Abbie Mills and Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane in "Sleepy Hollow."

BROWNIE HARRIS/FOX

Do a show’s characters mesh, and can viewers stand to spend time with them? A lot can go into whether a television show succeeds – time slot, subject matter, budget – but sometimes a series rises or falls on the strength of two pivotal actors.

This fall’s season has brought an assortment of shows that put a lot of weight on the shoulders of two actors. Some are getting it right, some aren’t. Here’s a sampling:

Working nicely

The improbable description of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” made it seem a novelty entry at best. Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) wakes up in the 21st century and finds that the headless horseman is there, too. Crane forms an alliance with a sheriff’s deputy, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), to battle the malevolent forces that have been unleashed.

Mison and Beharie and the people writing their dialogue have elevated this premise from the B-movie horror concoction it might have become to a witty, smart blend whose characters, despite the fantasy framework, are very believable. Mills and Crane are about as different as two people can be: She’s black, he’s white; she’s Internet-age, he’s pre-electricity. Beharie and Mison work these contrasts with a subtle humor that helps offset the gruesome goings-on.

Working but wobbly

Although NBC is still the butt of a lot of jokes, it may have the fall’s most addictive new series in “The Blacklist.” James Spader is Red Reddington, a creepy criminal who decides he wants to help the FBI and CIA catch even creepier criminals, but only if he can work with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a young FBI profiler.

Spader is in something of a straitjacket, forced to be annoyingly coy and emotionless. And Boone’s character is an increasingly improbable combination of dumb and smart, taking an inordinate amount of time to ask the question viewers were asking halfway through the pilot: Might Red be her long-lost father? So far, though, the actors have made this intriguing enough that the show has been worth keeping up with, Boone managing to be alternately vulnerable and annoyed, while Spader does his cryptic thing.

Beginning to work

The new fall show with the most attention-getting pair of names atop the bill might well have been the CBS comedy “The Crazy Ones.” It stars Robin Williams, a comedy god to many, as an aging adman, and Sarah Michelle Gellar of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame as his daughter and co-worker.

The pilot didn’t bode well for this series. Williams was doing his Robin Williams shtick, while Gellar and everyone else around him was acting. It was clumsy and, worse, laugh-free.

But as the weeks went along, a funny thing started to happen, in several senses. Gellar began to learn how to react to Williams’ excesses – she can be deadly with the deadpan expression – and, more important, began to assert her own comedy credentials.

Not Working

The Fox sitcom “Dads” might be the most awful new comedy that has survived into November. (Inexplicably, it has even been extended.) It’s about two friends in their 30s (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) whose fathers move back in with them. This might sound like an ensemble comedy, but it’s more like two two-handers in the same show: a pair of sons and their dads.

Ribisi’s father is played by Martin Mull, but there must have been a mix-up at the hospital, because there’s no way that Mull’s character, who is a moron, could have begat Ribisi’s.

Green and Peter Riegert, who plays his father, are even less comfortable together. There may be real father-and-son pairs who interact like this, but you wouldn’t want them in your living room.

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