Ask Matt: The Brilliance of Michelle Williams, a ‘Star’ Is Unborn, Debating ABC’s Norman Lear Tribute, and More

FOSSE VERDON -- Pictured: Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon. CR: Pari Dukovic/FX
Pari Dukovic/FX

Welcome to the Q&A with TV critic (also known to some TV fans as their “TV therapist”) Matt Roush, who’ll try to address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today’s vast TV landscape. One caution: This is a spoiler-free zone, so we won’t be addressing upcoming storylines here unless it’s already common knowledge. Please send your questions and comments to [email protected] (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter. Look for Ask Matt columns on most Tuesdays and Friday.

Michelle Dances Her Way Into Fans’ Hearts

Question: I just finished watching Fosse/Verdon. I’m heartbroken. Such a tragic story. I know a large part of Gwen Verdon’s career was due in part to Bob Fosse, but I’m left wondering what her career would have been like if she had never met him. The final few minutes, her calling him for help with Sweet Charity, only to have him end up credited as the director, made it feel like she wouldn’t have been someone without him. My heart hurt for her, living in his shadow. But my question is actually about Michelle Williams.

I’ve been a fan of Williams since Dawson’s Creek. After Jen’s death scene, I told anyone who would listen that the actress was going to be huge someday. She’s been nominated for Oscars, Tonys and others, but the only big win to her name is a Golden Globe. I don’t understand that. I really don’t understand how she hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy, much less won one! After Fosse/Verdon, do you think this could be her year? I know there are some great limited series this year, so I wonder if Fosse/Verdon might be overlooked. As much as I loved it, as much as every actor brought life to their character, I can’t help but feel like something was missing. It doesn’t seem like this series was as talked about as last year’s Feud, and I can’t figure out why. Is it because the main characters weren’t as well-known as Davis and Crawford? Was there less promotion by the network? If this is the case, will it hurt her chances, despite it being (in my opinion) the television performance of the year? All I know is that I’m more in love with Michelle Williams than ever. — Mark

Matt Roush: I agree with your rave for Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon and will be adjusting my Emmy predictions in her favor. (Her most serious competition will likely be from Amy Adams for HBO’s Sharp Objects and Golden Globe winner Patricia Arquette from Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora. All are worthy.) I’m not surprised this will be her first time at the Emmy party, though, because the TV Academy almost never acknowledges teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek, but now that she has established herself with such great screen and stage credentials, she is a lock for an Emmy nomination. You may be right that Fosse/Verdon didn’t generate as much buzz as Feud, which was a much more heightened show-biz story about higher-profile film legends (Bette Davis and Joan Crawford), and while Williams and Sam Rockwell are major stars, there was something about the casting of Susan Sarandon against Jessica Lange that felt a lot less niche than this dark Broadway fable. That said, I’m confident Fosse/Verdon will be well represented in a very competitive limited-series/movie field this year.

Empire Could Use Some Star Power

Question: I was very surprised to hear that Fox recently cancelled Star. The reason why the network brass cancelled it sounds very stupid: so they could give more attention to promote the final season of Empire (even though the show retained most of Empire’s audience)! Since Lee Daniels (the creator of both Empire and Star) tried and failed to find Star a new home on either a cable or streaming network, couldn’t he just bring over the characters from Star to crossover to the final season of Empire to wrap up those cliffhangers and bring closure to those characters? He did a crossover between Empire and Star before, so I don’t see a reason why that can’t happen again. They can make wiggle room for the Star cast on Empire now that Jussie Smollett is no longer a series regular on Empire anymore! — Chris B

Matt Roush: I’ve heard worse ideas. At the very least, within Empire’s final season it would be a service to fans of Star to at least mention what’s heppening in that world, since the shows were always intended to coexist for narrative purposes. But I wasn’t that surprised that Fox pulled the plug on these fading music-drama franchises, especially in such a transitional year for the network. Giving Empire one last round (with or without Jussie Smollett) makes sense, but not devoting the entire night to shows with so little future momentum. Still, your suggestion has merit, and would help provide a fitting end to both series.

Praise Be to OWN

Question: I really enjoy some of the shows on OWN, especially Queen Sugar and Greenleaf. I know Queen Sugar is set to return with new episodes, but I have not seen or heard any news about Greenleaf. Do you know if it will be returning with new episodes? — Cee Zee

Matt Roush: Those are easily my favorite dramas on the OWN network as well, and I’m happy to report that while Queen Sugar is back sooner, with new episodes starting June 12, the juicy soap about the Memphis church family was also renewed — but as of now, no air date has been announced for Greenleaf‘s fourth season.

What’s in a Name?

Question: What is the meaning of the show title, Whiskey Cavalier? — Phyllis

Matt Roush: In ABC’s short-lived spy romp, “Whiskey Cavalier” was the code name for the FBI agent Will Chase, played by Scott Foley, mentioned early on in the season but maybe not so much as the series progressed. (Funny, I only now realized how odd it is for this fictional character to have the same name as an actor with a fairly robust TV and stage career, including on ABC’s former drama Nashville.) I’m not sure a different and more relatable title would have helped the show survive past the first season, but it does kind of sound like a show about a carefree bootlegger.

Revisiting ABC’s Norman Lear Tribute

[Editor’s note: We received a lot of mail after our first posting on ABC’s recent special, Live in Front of a Studio Audience, which recreated episodes of Norman Lear’s sitcom classics All in the Family and The Jeffersons with contemporary stars. Because of its resonance with TV fans, we’re devoting the latter part of this column to a sampling of those reactions and will let these be the last words for now.]

From Steve: “I just wanted to let Matt know that I completely agree with his opinions on Woody Harrelson‘s take on Archie Bunker. That’s the only criticism I have. Edith (Marisa Tomei) was perfect! She should get an award for that performance. Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson was on the nose as well. The other actors in the All in the Family sketch were mediocre but entertaining. I liked The Jeffersons better, too! Lots of laughs and the actors had the characters down! I especially enjoyed having Marla Gibbs play her original character of Florence.”

From Kendall: “Wild idea, but I think Billy Gardell would’ve been a more ideal reenacted Archie. There’s a giant heart and underdog quality that Carroll O’Connor himself had, though, and no one is gonna top him. Nobody topped the original casts, but Marisa Tomei, Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington did decent interpretations. Gardell probably would’ve had better chemistry with Foxx, too.”

From Rich: “How could they get Archie so wrong, man? Archie Bunker is one of the most iconic television characters ever. Woody was a joke.”

From Sharon: “I didn’t enjoy it as much as most. For me, both shows came off as a parody or SNL skit. Instead of playing the script, the actors mimicked the actors who previously portrayed the characters (i.e. Jamie Foxx did a great impression of Sherman Hemsley playing George Jefferson instead of just playing George Jefferson. Same with Marisa Tomei as Edith). I agree that Woody Harrelson (whom I love!) was miscast as Archie. He played him for laughs and Carroll O’Connor never did that. Nice effort, but the whole thing fell short for me — except for seeing Marla Gibbs! Love her, and the cast themselves seemed surprised to see her when the door opened!”

From David: “I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical as hell about them doing the live special, because I was terrified it’d be a mockery and that the casting was the worst I’ve seen. Happily, I was wrong about at least Marisa Tomei and Jamie Foxx, and Wanda Sykes wasn’t as bad as I thought she’d be, though still lacking what Isabel Sanford embodied as the tough, loving, classy and sharp-witted Louise Jefferson. The thing is, though, that while Woody Harrelson is a terrific actor, he was an AWFUL choice for Archie Bunker. At least Jamie Foxx ended up really doing a great impression of Sherman Hemsley’s mannerisms and cadences, while Woody made Archie a complete caricature — and the accent? Why do you think his interpretation was so off? Is Archie Bunker just that hard to channel or what? I knew nobody could ever pull off Archie Bunker better than Carroll O’Connor, but damn.”

From Lane: “I’m just gonna be honest and say that while the live shows weren’t offensive as a fan or necessarily bad, for me Marla Gibbs and the Jamie Foxx flub were not just the best parts, but the few really funny moments of the whole thing. I love that there was a genuine effort, though, and that the cast and Jimmy Kimmel seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about this. Though I watched the original episodes, and it was like night and day in the quality and acting of the originals to the live shows. What is your opinion on the shows? Do you feel like these were worth it or do you feel they should’ve just left the shows alone? Because I’ve seen some negativity about how dated and corny these were by some critics and social media.”

Matt Roush: OK, a few final takeaways. Everyone seems to agree that Marla Gibbs was a highlight and that Woody Harrelson was the wrong way to go for Archie. (I like the Billy Gardell idea, but also think a character actor like Kevin Dunn might have been a more suitable choice.) The problem, as noted earlier and above, is that Woody played the character too lightly, reaching for obvious laughs in a way that Carroll O’Connor’s more grounded and authentic characterization never did. This was obviously the toughest role to attempt, but the producers seem to have gone for name recognition here — another wrong move, because Carroll O’Connor was not an A-list marquee star until Archie came along. In the bigger picture, I feel like many others do that the live special was a genuine and well-intentioned homage, and I’m glad if it stimulated new interest in Norman Lear‘s classics. The material didn’t seem dated or corny to me. In fact, there’s a boldness to this content (even when bleeped for today’s sensitivity standards) that makes most of today’s network offerings seem regrettably timid. All in all, a noble effort, but I’d be OK if this was a one-time thing. Instead of remaking the old, maybe invest some creative energy into shaping new classics that will stand the test of time.

That’s all for now. Thanks as always for reading, and remember that I can’t do this without your participation, so please keep sending questions and comments about TV to [email protected] or shoot me a line on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush), and you can also submit questions via the handy form below. Please include a first name with your question.