Unscripted

In HBO's Unscripted, acting veers between being a noble calling and a glorified form of prostitution; performers seeking to apply their craft are forced into a degrading form of exhibitionism, wheeled out like slabs of meat to be mercilessly judged by casting agents and filmmakers. In that respect, it perfectly suits the improvised, voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall style of another 2003 show from Unscripted executive producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh—K Street similarly blurred the line between fact and fiction by casting leads as thinly fictionalized versions of themselves.

In K Street, those semi-leads were heavyweight political spin-doctors Mary Matalin and James Carville. In Unscripted, they're lightweight thespians Bryan Greenberg, a big, dopey, all-American dreamboat angling for his big break; Jennifer Hall, a singer-actress trying to break out of extras work and demeaning day jobs such as wearing a Statue of Liberty costume to lure customers into a car wash; and Krista Allen, a veteran of such softcore epics as Emmanuelle: Queen Of The Galaxy, striving vainly to be taken seriously as an actress.

None of these up-and-comers seems particularly brainy or talented, which lends the show a weird poignancy. At its most bittersweet, Unscripted captures the vulnerability of actors fighting off that nagging internal voice that says maybe they just aren't fated to make it big, and their careers will peak with bit parts, softcore porn, or roles on second-rate soaps or sitcoms. So a plot thread involving Greenberg being cast as a lead in a major motion picture opposite Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman would seem wildly implausible, if not for the fact that in the real world, Greenberg really was cast alongside Thurman and Streep in Prime.

Unscripted's breezy, featherweight tone is both a liability and one of its greatest assets. The series' 10 episodes are so slight that a strong gust of wind would probably blow them into a new area code. They're the TV equivalent of junk food: wildly addictive, yet almost wholly without substance. During most episodes, just about the only thing grounding the series is the gravity Frank Langella brings to his role as a brooding acting-class instructor, a fascinating paradox who's simultaneously a sage guru and an incorrigible lecher. Unlike Greenberg, Hall, and Allen, Langella isn't playing a fictionalized version of himself, but his performance certainly benefits from the iconic baggage he brings to it. In one particularly haunting scene, Langella wistfully catches a glimpse of his much younger self on TV (in a clip taken from 1970's The Twelve Chairs). In that moment, the intervening decades seem to take on an almost physical presence, and the students' idealized conception of acting as an honorable, long-term profession for adults doesn't seem quite so ridiculous or quixotic after all.

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