On Mitchell and Ivanek: when good actors go bad

As any avid television fan knows, one of the most disheartening events in one’s life is realizing that a personally beloved actor has been cast in a show that’s simply not good. Over the years, I’ve watched this phenomenon happen several times. Whether due to cancellation, the show’s natural conclusion or the actor’s decision to prematurely leave because of “creative differences,” these people are forced to find new work or risk fading into obscurity. Since networks are releasing an increasingly high number of freshman series in the hopes that one or two will become breakout hits, the quality of these new shows is bound to be varied. While some have succeeded, many others have failed miserably. Although these failures are usually due to the coalescence of several shortcomings, there are instances in which great actors just can’t elevate the shoddiness of the material. In this column, I will lament the fates of two such actors who, for different reasons, have found themselves trapped in series beneath their talents.

Best known for her role as the enigmatic Juliet Burke on ABC’s “Lost,” Elizabeth Mitchell spent four years on that show, providing her ambiguously defined character with enough strength, tenderness and intrigue around which a showrunner could have built an entire series. While ostensibly a supporting character, Juliet could easily have taken the lead actress reins from the petulant and occasionally one-note Kate (We get it: she’s a fugitive with a heart of gold. Did we really need to see an entire flashback episode of her robbing a bank for a sentimental toy airplane to know that she’s not the cold-blooded criminal she appears to be?). On the other hand, Ms. Mitchell’s phenomenal performance in the season three episode “One of Us” has to be one of the most emotional hours of television in the past five years, largely due to the marked contrast between flashbacks of Juliet’s hesitant submissiveness and her steely resolve in the present timeline. The final scene in which Ms. Mitchell’s expressions seamlessly transition from surprise to joy to regret while watching a video feed of her long-lost sister still has the power to make any cynic a little misty-eyed.

Unfortunately, she’s since been relegated to the cheesy alien invasion series “V,” also broadcast on ABC. While I didn’t expect it to rival a critical darling like “The Wire,” a reboot of the original ’80s series at least in theory sounded like an entertaining guilty pleasure. When the show eventually premiered, I realized how wrong I was. Any sense of humor was clearly left at the writers’ room door, as nearly every moment of the show became infused with such self-seriousness that no characters ever questioned the ridiculousness going on around them. If I were one of them I’d start with the question of how exactly does one of these aliens (who are essentially giant lizards disguised in human skin) manage to impregnate a human woman? They’re not even members of the same species! Even though Ms. Mitchell was given the starring role this time, she was forced to divide her screen time between playing the boring, no-nonsense leader of the underground alien resistance and the mother of a moody teenage son so disagreeable that viewers are compelled to wonder why she’s trying so damn hard to save the human race in the first place.

My second example is Zeljko Ivanek, a prolific character actor who has guest starred on numerous hit shows from “24” to “House” to “True Blood.” In the first season of “Damages,” initially broadcast on FX and now airing on DirecTV, he played Ray Fiske, a lawyer defending an Enron-type CEO who had defrauded his company before walking away with billions. While his role of the Southern-accented, closeted homosexual Ray could easily have slipped into caricature, Mr. Ivanek brought a subtle pathos to the part that, despite his obvious transgressions, genuinely made you sympathize with the character’s impossible dilemma. As a showcase of his acting abilities, I recommend the episode “I Hate These People” in which the lead prosecutor blackmails Ray into turning on his own client. I’ve never seen such a quietly desperate performance that has been able to elicit so much compassion for a character who essentially serves as one of the season’s primary antagonists.

NBC’s “The Event.”
(Courtesy of treworld.com)

More recently, however, Mr. Ivanek joined the ensemble cast of the NBC series “The Event,” which throughout the course of its first (and only) season must have accomplished some record for the most wasted performers on a network show. In addition to Mr. Ivanek’s vaguely sinister Director of National Intelligence, other talented actors, including Blair Underwood, Virginia Madsen and Hal Holbrook, briefly appeared only to have their storylines put on the back burner as the narrative continually jolted from its many loosely connected plotlines, making it increasingly clear that the showrunners simply had no idea as to where their story was ultimately headed.

Although “The Event” started promisingly with an interesting, high-concept pilot, it quickly devolved into an incoherent mess destined for cancellation after one season. At least Mr. Ivanek can finally look for a show whose definition of character development is a bit more nuanced than “squinting menacingly into the camera.”

It’s really a shame that these two fine actors must take work that is so obviously below their skill levels. While Mr. Ivanek’s career will probably be better off in the long run now that the network gods have freed him from his lackluster supporting role on “The Event,” Ms. Mitchell seems caught between choosing the lesser of two evils. “V” represents her first starring role on a television series (in effect, a promotion from her role on “Lost”), but in the process, she has found herself shouldering a creatively malnourished project. She has chosen to stay for the time being, but that decision in turn presents a difficult quandary for the loyal fan: suffer through the show’s mediocrity for the chance to see an excellent actor at work or stop watching entirely. Right now, I’m still in the first camp, but I can only take so many lizard babies before I finally decide to cut my losses and jump ship.

Johnny is a senior. He can be reached at jtaesch1@swarthmore.edu.

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