“The Next Best Thing” would serve as a wholly successful takedown of how modern sitcoms are made without its malnourished romance.
Author Jennifer Weiner, the mind behind “Good in Bed” and last year’s satisfying, “Fly Away Home,” insists on concocting a love story so anemic even the hack TV producers in her story would reject it outright.
And that’s a shame, since Weiner clearly used her days in the sitcom trenches for a tale illustrating why so much commercial fare isn’t fit for consumption.
Weiner’s latest flawed heroine is Ruth Saunders, a television writer still grappling with the physical and emotional scars left by a childhood car accident. The crash took her mom and dad, and it forced her to live with her grandmother, a wonderful woman who cared for Ruth as well as anyone could under the circumstances.
Ruth successfully pitches a sitcom loosely based on her tender ties to grandma, but before the show reaches the small screen Ruth’s vision will be more than compromised. A gaggle of TV producers, network suits and empty-headed actresses do all they can to transform Ruth’s personal story into one any semi-capable scribe could have written.
Meanwhile, Ruth develops a crush on a TV producer who also suffered a life-changing accident. Dave uses a wheelchair, but he’s still a romance novel hottie with the requisite macho scent and muscled physique.
And that’s where “The Next Best Thing” stumbles without a test audience to show Weiner the error of her ways. The Ruth/Dave subplot feels like a contractual obligation, a story line littered with improbabilities, clunky chemistry and a superficial assessment of what makes Dave tick.
Weiner’s scathing view of commercial TV’s creative process may feel familiar to industry observers, but she lends each depressing episode a comically astute sense of detail and place. Consider Ruth’s horror when her show’s star, a naturally curvy young starlet, reappears after a short absence looking like a skeleton in high heels following a grueling fitness regimen.
Weiner clearly sees herself as a feminist, something positively reflected in much of her latest novel. Yet she treats some of the actresses in “The Next Best Thing” with disdain. Only the older actresses, and the ones who have some meat on their frames, are given full consideration.
The best-selling author is on much more solid ground highlighting the sexism rampant in the television trade, a place where “normal” women are viewed with disgust and stick-thin types get all the parts – and press. Weiner clearly knows the material in play, even if the film’s cheery finale likely requires more creative license than is normally rationed out.
“The Next Best Thing” is a must read for anyone frustrated for the homogenized shows cluttering the TV landscape. In short, networks strip away anything smart, vibrant or original until their product is as predictable as a McDonald’s hamburger.
Those looking for equally tart ruminations on love will likely be flustered, if not outright annoyed.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies