Monday, September 6, 2010

Today, kittens, we join HIGH SOCIETY - the absolutely fabulous sitcom that proved to be just too delicious for CBS.

Coming off a nauseating period of stale, family-friendly sitcoms, where touching female friendships cluttered up the airwaves, 1995's HIGH SOCIETY, was a refreshing breath of fresh air. This fast-paced, brittle comedy features dialogue positively strewn with innuendo, double entendre and insults. Nothing and no one is sacred.  (You'll need a score card to keep up.)

From the opening credits, High Society announces itself as aggressively retro. "The Lady Is a Tramp" is heard as our heroines make their entrances at a glamorous Manhattan party. Jean Smart (Designing Women, Frasier) plays the trampy Ellie Walker, a Jackie Collins-style writer who drips diamonds even during the day, when she wears purple suits and silly hats that look both expensive and garish. Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves, Donnie Darko) plays Dott Emerson, her chic, ladylike best friend and publisher.

Ellie likes to drink and is frequently seen drinking. Or hung over. We first meet her passed out on the dinner table at Dott's swank Manhattan apartment, begging for nicotine: "Just put a tailpipe in my mouth and turn the engine on!" While Ellie sucks on a cigarillo and pops countless pills, we hear all about her blackouts at a party the night before-and how she "thinks 12-stepping is a country dance." Her career is an afterthought: a support system for her plastic surgeon. She's a bad girl of a certain age who parties hard, chases young male flesh and doesn't remember a thing in the morning.

The divorced Dott is the smart one, (which means she remembers to check her makeup in a silver compact as she enters the party). While the interaction between these two women is priceless -- each bit of dialogue sharp and stinging – its Ms. McDonnell who dances off with the show, providing a delicious wry delivery that wrings the most out of some lame situations. When she decides to cook a motherly meal, she walks into her own kitchen with the intimidated look of a child entering a dark fun house. "This room is bigger than I remember," she says with comic wonder. Ellie and Dott drink and try to cook; they're not exactly Lucy and Ethel. More like Mame Dennis and Vera Charles (for you Auntie Mame fans out there – but that’s another review all together).

As escapist sitcom heroines go, we'll always choose a champagne-swilling, man-hungry romance novelist or a vain, tart-tongued book publisher over one more mousy former housewife looking for her identity. And these characters are so deliciously dramatic and shallow that it's almost impossible to get enough. Neurotic, caustic and over the top, Dott and Ellie have a deep and long-lasting friendship bordering on co-dependency. Into this world steps frumpish housewife Val (Broadway's Faith Prince) -- an old college friend who is leaving her cheating husband. Val is everything that Ellie has worked so hard to leave behind. And without even an inkling of the style, taste, or the drama that our two ladies have come to appreciate as their cherished way of life, she comes off as rather annoying, making her the perfect foil for the self-centered Ellie's snippy remarks:

Val (to Ellie): I know you try to look tough but, deep down, I can tell you're just chock full of nice.

Other characters include Dott's cradle-robbing business partner Peter (a delightfully snarky David Rasche); her young Republican son Brendan (Dan O'Donahue); and Dott's justifiably arrogant, gay, immigrant assistant Stephano (Luigi Amodeo). Jayne Meadows is also on board, as Dott's deliciously acerbic (and equally as shallow) ever-marrying mother, Alice Morgan-Dupont-Sutton-Cushing-Ferruke.

Critics had mixed reactions to the series. Most loved its vicious sniping, but some panned the show -- unjustly comparing it to the highly overrated (and poorly written) Cybil. Others were quick to dismiss the show as an inferior rip-off of the British phenomenon Absolutely Fabulous. And although audiences were beginning to appreciate High Society's outrageous writing and camp sensibilities, CBS asked the creators to soften the dialogue for future episodes in order to make the characters warmer. Knowing that this would ruin the whole dynamic of the series, the production team opted not to continue. CBS finished its initial 13 episode run and sent the show on hiatus -- from whence it never returned.

Fortunately, yours truly, foreseeing the inevitable, recorded every delightful episode for a lifetime of savoring. And while I am just thrilled to have my wonderful homemade versions on dvd,  I can only hope, for posterity's sake, that some savvy, commercial dvd outfit will offer them up professionally (with menus and scads of bonus goodies) some day soon. Until that glorious day, as Dott so eloquently puts it in episode one, "I'm not depressed...  just deeply introspective - with a slight dramatic flair."

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I'm just an ordinary housewife and mother...just like all you ordinary housewives and mothers out there.