Not Ned Beatty and Stacy Keach. Though Judge Chris Claro likes to think of what kind of married couple they might make.
A marriage of inconvenience.
Prior to Will and Grace, but after Wings and long before Sideways, Thomas Haden Church and Debra Messing were Ned and Stacey, a sardonic ad man in a marriage of convenience with a goofy writer.
Facts of the Case
In 1966, Michael Callan (Cat Ballou) starred in Occasional Wife, a series in which Peter Christopher, a swinging bachelor executive, needs a wife to land a big account. Enter Peter's upstairs neighbor, Greta, willing to play the part of Mrs. Christopher. Hilarity ensued, if only for one season.
Thirty years later, creator Michael J. Weithorn (The King of Queens) thought the angle still had legs, as he made it the basis of Ned and Stacey. Though not the first time a series concept was co-opted—Arrest and Trial was an early '60s drama in which the crime took place in the first half and the conviction in the second; it pre-dated Law and Order by almost thirty years—Ned and Stacey was probably the most hackneyed idea ever to be revisited.
In 1966, the idea of an unmarried man ascending within the corporate structure was foreign enough to make Occasional Wife somewhat plausible. Add the element of Peter making an "honest woman" out of Greta, and the requisite smirky sexual tension, and Occasional Wife was timely, if forgettable, entertainment.
Fast-forward 30 years, and neither single women nor unmarried corporate climbers are exactly anomalies. The very idea that an employee would be denied advancement based on marital status is inflammatory enough that just thinking about it could get an executive sued. Ned and Stacey asks the question of whether such a preposterously retrograde idea could be the basis of a comedy in the 1990s. The answer is, "sort of."
When Ned Dorsey's boss off-handedly mentions that Ned's promotion is contingent on there being a Mrs. Dorsey, Ned, ever the operator, hits the phones. Rejected by everyone including his cleaning woman, Ned instead "proposes" to Stacey, on the rebound from her own busted engagement: "Here you go, front door key, laundry room key, engagement ring. See you tonight, Honey!"
Coming off a five-year run as Lowell Mather on Wings, Thomas Haden Church put his sloe-eyed sarcasm to good use on Ned and Stacey. Church's Ned was a player who slithered along on charm. His performance, however, offered Ned and Stacey a sardonic credibility that it sorely needed to sell its ridiculously trite premise.
Debra Messing, in her first series, had yet to master the nuances of sitcom acting—such as they are—when she co-starred on Ned and Stacey. Her strident portrayal of Stacey matures throughout Season 1, but it has a novice quality about it. She's so undistinguished that she looks like a girl who hit the stardom lottery and won the lead in a comedy series. (In fact, in the generally unmemorable 20-minute retrospective, Weithorn reveals that Messing was more or less forced on him by the network despite her unimpressive audition.)
As is often the case in a series like Ned and Stacey—or Will and Grace, for that matter—the sidekicks and supporting players are as vibrant, if not more so, than the leads. Greg Germann, who would gain notoriety as a co-star of Ally McBeal, plays Ned's mousy co-worker, Eric, a cubicle-inhabiting drone who's also Stacey's brother-in-law. Though built from stock character elements—faceless corporate cog, henpecked husband—Germann plays Eric as a proxy for the audience, rooting for Ned while resigned to his life married to Stacey's less-then-flexible sister, Amanda.
Nadia Dajani makes Amanda equally accessible, if not as likable as Eric. Her exasperation with Stacey's flightiness is tempered by genuine concern for her sister, even if it's usually expressed with a measure of venom. Dajani's snippy interplay with Church gives Ned and Stacey a prickly spark of conflict that elevates the show's comedy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The (mostly) good acting only takes Ned and Stacey so far. Many of its plots—being mistaken for gay, married man in drunken supermodel's hotel room—seem to have been popped out of the same can that's been providing sitcom contrivances since the beginning of TV. While Weithorn and his crew—which included Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation)—peppered their scripts with great lines, they didn't make the same effort with the stories. Church also takes credit, in a less-than-charitable gesture, for "punching up" some of the scripts. His comment comes off as disingenuous, as any series lead—any with an investment in his series, anyway—would have input in the writing process. They just wouldn't necessarily take credit for it.
Featuring three standout comedy performances from game actors clearly up to the task, Ned and Stacey is an entertaining, if lightweight late-millennium comedy. Populated with appearances by guest stars like Paulina Porizkova and Jason Bateman, the show never neither surprises nor disappoints. It also provides an object lesson, in Messing's performance, in a performer learning to master the subtleties of the form.
Ned and Stacey is found not guilty due to the snap, crackle and popping performances of Church, Germann, and Dajani. Ms. Messing, however, is charged with mugging with a very large shtick and sentenced to thirty days of crying out for attention.
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