A Dollar & 20 Dreams
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Apparently, people who win $20 million in the lottery seem to enjoy jumping up and down for a few seconds before resuming their mopey existence. At least that’s the standard response on “Windfall,” the new NBC summer soap about a gaggle of lottery winners and their woes, which debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. Maybe that’s because the actors knew this potentially clever series concept had been hopelessly mangled by its creators, who envisioned nothing even remotely interesting about the consequences of sudden wealth. The sight of people making trampoline motions over their good fortune makes for highly tedious television, and gets compounded by the boring problems that befall the 20 lucky lovelies (not surprisingly, they are virtually all young and gorgeous) who have to split the $386 million prize.
The doomed premise involves a young couple who host a monthly party where guests contribute a dollar in return for the chance to split the winnings of a lottery ticket. The rules are rather sketchy, which raises viewers’ hopes for the kind of internecine legal wrangling that normally comes out of this sort of situation. But the co-writers of the pilot – Laurie McCarthy and Gwendolyn Parker from “CSI: Miami” – focus on the ways wealth awakens new impulses in people, imbues them with fresh insight into the human condition, and causes television viewers to yawn uncontrollably. One character feels empowered to go to work and tell off her obnoxious boss; another ends up finding love with a lawyer he hires to help manage his new money. The money here doesn’t destroy anything except the NBC Thursday night lineup.
Lines like “Money changes everything” alternate with “Money sets you free” and “What are you going to do with your money?” to keep us entertained, but instead they cause us to wonder how many times we’ve heard them before. Part of what makes “Windfall” so annoying is in watching the ways it is derivative of recent classics like “Lost,””Grey’s Anatomy,” and “24,” but only ends up mashing together serial drama and hunky dreamboats into a messy, dull soup. The incessant reliance by the networks on puffy-lipped women and square-jawed men to stand in for actual humans keeps getting in the way of plausibility; it’s starting to tear away at the inherent logic of television, as we wonder where this land of genetically superior species might be.
The most potentially interesting dynamic – involving two married couples, each with a cheating spouse – sizzles at the start of the pilot, but sputters by the end of the second episode. It might have been interesting to see the couples battle over their winnings, and their futures, but instead they all consider the possibility of joint investments. Almost no one undergoes a full change in socioeconomic status; most of them simply experience an upgrade to first class from coach, or a swankier new car. A mysterious stranger in the pilot turns out to be just another swarthy charmer with a checkered past, only played by an actor – D.J. Cotrona – with a small fraction of the charisma Robert Mitchum once brought to such roles. If you haven’t seen it all before, you’re falling behind.
How does NBC keep botching it? It seems nothing short of amazing that a network that once introduced landmark dramas like “Hill Street Blues,” “Homicide,” and “The West Wing” now wastes millions on television shows about wasting millions. Or maybe that was the whole point – to offer up a cynical commentary on the way Hollywood corrupts writers and producers with huge windfalls of its own. Sadly, a paint-by-numbers storyline and a cast that comes up short in talent and flair camouflage these comments. Actors who’ve done skilled work elsewhere – like the brooding Jason Gedrick from “Boomtown,” married here to the captivating Sarah Wynter from “24” – fall into the two-dimensional trap set for them by the writers. All the money in the world wouldn’t help these actors escape the death sentence this show so richly deserves.
My new favorite new thing to watch on television is the TiVo gears. I often find myself comforted by the sight of the faint green wheels on the TiVo home page that turn endlessly and with no variation. I consider the TiVo gears to be the 21st-century equivalent of the test pattern, which was another show I enjoyed at the end of many a long night. I realize this is a somewhat elitist taste that requires a subscription to the TiVo service, but I am making my feelings known in the hopes that the networks, or an enterprising cable operator, restore a similar visual palliative to the schedule. I find it highly relaxing to soak in the motion of the TiVo gears as I reflect on the day’s events. Maybe NBC could pick up the TiVo gears for a six-week summer run and see how it does up against “Survivor.” I’m willing to bet it would find a solid audience of viewers starved for something truly moving on television. Trust me, those gears are moving.