One of the intended highlights of tonight’s episode is the introduction of the actual “Willie Wanker,” whose male same-sex phone sex business Sean has appropriated. Angry about having his act stolen, Willie tracks Sean down, barges into his house, cusses him out, and befouls the floor of his bathroom. Willie is played by Victor Garber. Garber might not be the last person with a SAG card one would think of casting in a role like this. The last person might be Fred Dalton Thompson, though I’m sure he’d consider it if the money was right. (With other possible candidates—Clint Eastwood, Ed Asner, Donny Osmond—it would probably be a matter of catching them in the right mood.) But Garber’s name would surely be in the upper reaches of the top 10.
It turns out that there’s an idea behind this apparent miscasting: Sean is a much better Willie Wanker than the man himself. He brings commitment to the role, he tears it up with his Foley work, he’s a good listener, and he has a good improv actor’s adaptability when it comes to adjusting his role-playing according to what his individual clients actually want. As a gifted man who took ideas that may not have originated with him but made a quick buck by improving on them, he likens himself to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Nope, scratch that —he says that he’s really more like “Steve Blow-Jobs and Mark Fuckerberg.” He certainly seems to deserve the credit, or the blame, that goes with the title “Willie Wanker.”
In the end, Garber can only concede defeat and, in the same breath, thank him for liberating him to “pursue my own dream” as “a singer-songwriter-entertainer. I never thought I was worthy.” I suppose some will want to give the show credit for taking a joke that had all the juice beaten out of it ages ago—the sex-phone worker for whom it’s all just a job, to the point that the fantasies he’s peddling don’t even gibe with his own orientation—and, unable to make it funny again, found a way to make it a little more unpleasant than it’s ever been before and, at the same time, sell it, half-jokingly, as kind of inspirational.
That’s the biggest chunk of dead weight taken care of. The episode opens with Cathy and Paul going at it in bed, with so much enthusiasm that, for a moment, she’s afraid she might have killed him. He’s not dead, though, just winded and, at the same time, surprisingly quiet. If he’d been that quiet when he was having his heart attack, the people at the insurance company would have thought he was just asserting his right as an American to take a floor nap. Having checked his pulse, Cathy asks him, “Do you think we’re crazy to be talking about adopting a kid?” Paul doesn’t think so, but he may not be the best person to have a vote. If these people are talking about adopting a kid, that might make a nice break, since mostly all they talk about is how they narrowly cheated death but still have one foot a piece in the grave. That doesn’t make it any less worrisome. Does the show think they’re nuts? More to the point, does the show know they’re nuts? How close to I Am Sam territory are we meant to be getting into here?
Both Cathy and Paul deal with their disappointment in their own ways. Cathy heads straight to Lee Tergesen’s bar, now firmly established as her personal Dreamatorium, where she goes to lie her ass off and give us a glimpse of the life she sometimes wishes she had. (She tells Tergesen that her son, Adam, is in pre-med, and that she also has a daughter, who’s nuts about ballet.) She also steals some paperwork from her doctor’s office and tries to forge an official statement to the effect that she’s healthy enough to adopt. Paul is quick to tell her that this is crazy, and it’s a sad day for anyone when Oliver Platt is their voice of reason.
Platt, once again, gives this episode its brightest moment, when he and Cathy attend one of Joy’s seminars and she pulls him onstage to talk about how having slow-danced with death has affected him. Platt makes a meal of it: Speaking extemporaneously, Paul struggles to find any words, then gets in touch with his inner life cheerleader and steadily builds a stirring monologue about how he saw the light at the end of the tunnel before returning from the ecstatic relief of being “enveloped” in “every wonderful thing you can think of” and “came back to my bills and my problems and my bullshit,” before realizing that he has no right “getting stressed out about anything, when I know that light is waiting for me.” By the end, he looks ready to start his own religion. That might be a good idea for a show, though it might mean dropping the focus from Cathy. Even she might think that’s not a bad idea.
- Because I’m not sure how seriously we’re supposed to take the Cathy-wants-to-adopt story line, I’m not sure how hard I was supposed to laugh at her pitch to the guy at the adoption agency: “I do, technically, have melanoma.” Trying to meet the agency halfway, she then suggests that she and Paul be given one of their “less desirable kids”—an older, emotionally troubled child, or one with special needs, say. I know what she’s getting out, and still I feel fairly confident that, if I were in the agency worker’s place, I’d burn the building to the ground with myself in it before I’d recommend putting a child in the care of anyone who uses the phrase “less desirable kids.”
- Sean’s opening salvo upon meeting Willie face-to-face: “I pictured you less dapper.” In the overall scheme of Victor Garber’s career, I’m thinking this episode will end up being filed somewhere between Godspell and his stint on Guiding Light, but credit where credit is due: That’s a great line to use to welcome Victor Garber to your universe.
- Adam finally gets to first base with his Christian hottie, who denies him intercourse because she prizes her virginity. Then she says, by way of clarification, “I just mean we can’t use the front door, but you can go in the other way,” and sticks her ass in his face. Point number one: Only on Showtime are there religious virgins who talk and act this way. Point number two: Adam looks a little taken aback by her directness, which is pretty rich coming from a kid who ordered home-delivery of a hooker on his birthday.
- Not much to report about Andrea this week, except that she’s still asking everyone to call her by the new name she’s chosen to better reflect her African heritage. I would respect her wishes and refer to her by that name myself, except that the Showtime promotional department is still calling her “Andrea.” It’s as if they’re daring me to take my best stab at guessing how her new name is spelled, but I will never take them up on it, because I know it wouldn’t be good for anybody.