Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This is a Career?: Cynthia Stevenson

Cynthia Stevenson is awesome.

I first became aware of actress Cynthia Stevenson when USA Network started rerunning the 1995-1997 NBC flop Hope & Gloria in the fall after it had been cancelled. Now, Hope & Gloria was not a great sitcom, or even an especially good one. But even as a twelve-year-old, I was captivated by her offbeat-yet-shockingly-sincere delivery of stale sitcom punchlines. Somehow, on a TV show that also featured Alan Thicke chewing scenery like he was selling a trip to Las Vegas, she managed to convince me that Hope was an actual human being. I was astonished, and I became a fan for life.

I can’t find any decent clips of Hope & Gloria online (You’d think the Enrico Colantoni fansites would be all over that), nor can I find clips of the next place I saw her. Three years earlier, she had played Bob Newhart’s daughter on his failed sitcom Bob. I saw a few reruns on TV Land in the late 90s, when they filled time by showing failed sitcoms rather than reality shows (Weren’t those the days?)

Clearly, she wasn’t the best thing about this show opposite a legend like Newhart, but she held her own. Bob had resisted having kids on his hit sitcoms, and having an adult child here could easily have flopped. It didn’t, and that’s because Cynthia Stevenson was perfectly cast. Her flippant, wise-cracking delivery is about as far as you can get from Bob’s signature stammer, and the generational bafflement was all there in the performances. Too bad the scripts weren’t up to the same standard.

In the years since her failed sitcoms, Cynthia’s been working steadily, and she’s been wasted consistently – as the mom in the Air Bud sequels, as the mom in Agent Cody Banks, as George’s mom on Showtime’s Dead Like Me, as that one guy’s mom on ABC's Men in Trees. In all of these roles, she has the same snappy, believable delivery she always had, but she gets nothing interesting to say.

The one role I’ve seen that really allowed her to display the range of her talents was in Todd Solondz’s Happiness. Most of the praise directed towards the movie focuses on Dylan Baker’s role as troubled, twisted pedophilic father Bill Maplewood. But Cynthia matches him as his cheerfully, pathetically, heart-breakingly oblivious wife Trish. At the beginning, it's a pretty typical performance for her - the same smirk, the same wisecrack-y delivery. As the picture goes on, it becomes clear that much of that is a mask because the character can't bear to deal with the reality of her everyday life. It’s an amazing performance, and she deserves the chance to do that all the time.

I’d like TV and movies a lot more if Cynthia Stevenson wasn’t wasted all the time.

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