Keep an eye out for Sordid Lives, an original scripted series set to debut on Logo on July 23rd. It’s the kind of quirky, unique, unexpectedly addictive half-hour comedy-drama one might associate with Showtime, the home of Weeds and Californication.
Much of the credit goes to its irresistible cast, which includes Bonnie Bedelia, Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls), Olivia Newton John, Caroline Rhea and Leslie Jordan, the latter best known for his Emmy winning turn as Beverley Leslie, the “frosted mini-wheat” who often sparred with wealthy substance abuser Karen Walker on Will & Grace. Jordan steals the show as Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, the shame of a colorful family of Baptists in the small town of Winters, Texas. A gay man who is obsessed with and dresses as Tammy Wynette, Earl has been institutionalized for over 20 years and is currently in the care of a steely psychologist who intends to “dehomosexualize” him.
Set in the late-Nineties, Sordid Lives shifts back and forth between Winters and West Hollywood, where Ty (Jason Dottley), the son of Earl’s sister Latrelle (Bedelia), is trying to build a career as an actor. He has had one brief taste of success on a soap opera and, in the series opener, auditions for a role in the musical Naked Boys Singing, despite his distress at the thought of performing nude in front of an audience. (The opening episode of Sordid Lives takes place on the day Tammy Wynette died, which would be April 6, 1998. Naked Boys Singing opened Off-Broadway in New York in 1999. Unless Naked Boys played in L.A. before then, somebody goofed.) Ty is also seeking professional help (from an ever-changing array of therapists) in dealing with his sexuality. There are all kinds of strange people in Ty’s life in L.A. (especially the therapists), just as there are all sorts of oddballs in and around his family back home. At less than 30 minutes per episode (without commercials), the fast-moving Sordid Lives does a fine job of establishing a large number of characters living in two different locations without the luxury of much screen time.
The correct title of this nutty little low-budget treat is Sordid Lives: The Series. It’s actually a prequel of sorts to the 1999 theatrical release of the same name, which followed a 1996 stage play. (Ingram family matriarch Peggy – mother to “Brother Boy” and his sisters Latrelle and LaVonda -- died in the movie, but she’s alive and well here as played by the great McClanahan.) The play, movie and series are all the work of writer, producer and director Del Shores, who has managed to create an interesting little franchise of his own. I haven’t seen the play or the movie, but I was drawn right into the mini-dramas and quirky character conflicts on Shores’ colorful television canvas. The humor amid hardship of it all reminds me in many ways of Norman Lear’s mid-Seventies satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which is reason enough to recommend it. That and the fact that it’s great to see Olivia Newton John, who was the top female movie star 30 years ago this summer when Grease was the word, in a weekly series in which she sings! (Newton-John reprises her role from the Sordid movie.)
The good-bad news is that Sordid Lives will be easy to overlook, given the glut of extraordinary scripted programming that is going to debut on basic cable later this month, joining the terrific new crime drama In Plain Sight on USA Network, the hit Lifetime serial Army Wives and ABC Family’s easy-to-take family drama The Secret Life of an American Teenager and cute action-comedy The Middleman, four summer series already in progress. USA Network’s Burn Notice reignites on July 10, TNT’s The Closer and Saving Grace return on July 14, A&E’s The Cleaner arrives on July 15, USA Network’s Monk and Psych are back on July 18, AMC’s awe-inspiring Mad Men starts its sophomore season on July 27 and Sci Fi Channel’s Eureka returns July 29. Incidentally, the Season 2 premiere of Mad Men makes clear that it has lost none of its narrative momentum or insanely clever character advancement since it left AMC’s schedule last fall. This sterling show will once again be widely regarded as the best series of the summer, if not the year.