But sadly, there’s no motion to this ocean. For one thing, it’s hard to avoid the fact that Boogie Nights makes no sense if it’s not set in the actual porn industry, since a man with a monstrous endowment is not really all that marketable to your average straight woman, especially in recession-era Detroit, and particularly when he’s a charmless, bitter, middle-aged gym coach—and one not notably skilled in bed, judging from the show’s funny-dark, graphic sex scenes. (Also, there’s no mention here that sex with decently endowed bitter middle-aged men is available for free, any time of day, on Craigslist.)
Part of the problem is that Thomas Jane, appealing in other roles and theoretically a physically attractive man, is peculiarly off-putting as Ray Drecker. The character stinks of defeat: He’s an ex-jock, not too smart, and he sulks around his grim suburb brooding over everything from his ex-wife’s rich husband to the burned-out house he can’t rebuild because he was too flaky to send in the insurance payment. (We learn all this in voice-over, a lazy device used better on Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl.) To Ray, everyone is a “fucker,” which might work if the show didn’t validate this lazy contempt: Like About Schmidt (also directed by Alexander Payne), it’s stuffed with easy satires of self-help seminars and yuppie dermatologists. Basically, Ray is Rabbit Angstrom, except he’s not all that observant.
Adams nearly saves the show as Tanya, an unhappy temp who suffers from what Ray describes irascibly as “veganism and the yakking and the coming that had no beginning and no end.” At once acerbic and pathetic, Tanya has real comic chemistry with her fellow sad sack, and she’s the one who designs the marketing scheme, branding Ray as a “happiness consultant.” Anne Heche plays Ray’s ex-wife, a shallow nitwit the show struggles to make layered and succeeds only in making incoherent. Ray’s twin teenagers are more interesting, puffy weirdos with reason to loathe their parents, but it’s not enough—the emotional engine never kicks in; the comedy stalls.
Now, this is HBO: There’s some smart dialogue and pleasantly goofy riffs on Tanya’s own idea for a business (pastry stuffed with poetry, like “a croissant folded around Maya Angelou’s ‘Phenomenal Woman’ ”). It’s not impossible that the show might become, as it seems intended to be, a sitcom take on Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, a perverse fable about the way a man emasculated by the economy learns to strut. But to do that, it would have to have a grander, more empathic vision of the world around Ray. Right now, it just doesn’t go deep enough.
Meanwhile, on the USA Network, Royal Pains is a crappy but watchable series about a “concierge doctor” in the Hamptons, radically unambitious but better at balancing the guilt with the pleasure. The strangely adorable Mark Feuerstein stars, surrounded by cooing heiresses in bikinis and Campbell Scott with a German accent. It’s Gossip Girl as a medical procedural, which may not be a recipe for quality, but I’m a weak woman, and it works for me on a hot day.
For some decent pulp sci-fi, try Torchwood: Children of Earth, a five-night mini-series on BBC America involving possessed blond moppets and a lush-lipped crew of Scully-Mulders. “Children, sir!” intones a suit in the first episode. “It’s the children!”—and I was in for the duration and did not regret it. No spoilers, but the whole thing is very V, with a side order of Communion and Children of the Corn. With British accents and a refreshing dash of homoeroticism, it works nicely for a midsummer binge.