It feels a bit weird to be lamenting the loss of something that was clearly never supposed to be. When pilots don't get picked up, the reasons are often three-fold: part political, part based on trends, and part simply the piece wasn't up to par with the other selections. But with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's Pretty Handsome, I simply can't fathom the reason was anything other than political. The show was edgy; the show was controversial (especially for 2008; how far we can come in just a few years!); the show was ahead of it's time. But you could have said the same for Nip/Tuck, another Murphy creation that made the cut years earlier. Pretty Handsome is the kind of programming television's landscape (of 2008, of 2011, of the future) needs; it is the kind of programming that should be Murphy and Falchuk's legacies.
I wasn't blogging professionally when Pretty Handsome was in contention, so I don't know the business details behind to whom they pitched, etc. Assuming it was FX, a network with which they already had a great relationship an established success, that is a network that is more than willing to take chances. They don't just think outside the box, they claim "there is no box." So when I finally got a chance to watch Pretty Handsome, I honestly was expecting a bit of a mess. How could they have turned down anything less? But in truth the pilot was so strong, so cinema-quality, so original, and so inspiring-- both from a writer's standpoint and a television viewer's-- that it left me with my jaw on the floor. I don't usually watch the pilots that don't get picked up. I don't like to get invested in stories from which I can't see more. I went into Pretty Handsome not knowing much about it but intrigued by the (admittedly misleading) logline (thanks for nothing, IMDb!). But immediately this became a piece of television that felt like one for the history books. If there was some kind of awards show for pilots, failed or otherwise, I would give this one everything.
For those of you who have never heard of Pretty Handsome (and I'll admit, I really didn't know anything about it, either, when I sat down to watch it), the show stars Joseph Fiennes as a wealthy and prestigious doctor in conservative Connecticut. He's married to the beautiful but WASPy (at least in character) Carrie-Anne Moss, and they have two children, Jonathan Groff and Jake Cherry. He works for his father (Robert Wagner) in a private gynecology practice; he is everything you would imagine a man bred with a silver spoon in his mouth would turn into-- but he has a secret. Underneath his surely custom made three-piece suits he wears women's panties and dreams of dressing up in lipstick and being accepted as a woman in his daily life. But this is conservative, country club Connecticut, mind you, so he doesn't share his true self with anyone. Even when a transgendered man (the phenomenal Dot-Marie Jones) walks into his practice, hoping for a hysterectomy to help complete his transition, he imagines what it would be like to blurt out the truth but immediately sees looks of shock, disgust, and pity on the faces of those he would tell-- even the ones who should understand or love him unconditionally anyway-- and he holds it back. He does allow one indulgence in which he labors painstakingly over getting dressed as a woman, clearly feeling free and loving himself and his experience for the first time, but it's Halloween, so it's all done without anyone taking him seriously. The pilot set up the promise of so many of the same issues that Murphy and Falchuk have now become famous for: a teenage pregnancy with Groff's prep school girlfriend; a May-December relationship with Groff's gross jock friend and Moss; and of course, issues or fears of not being accepted for who you truly are. Pretty Handsome was just made all the more complex because its characters were colorful but also mature; this man has lived his entire life burying his secret deep behind a marriage and a couple of children, choosing to stay in the same community he knows in his heart would not accept the woman inside him; there would be a lot at stake to "come out" now.
I will spare you a full review of Pretty Handsome since, again, I don't see a point in waxing too poetic about something no one is going to experience. The show is thoughtful, methodical, emotional. It takes steps, not strides, and doesn't feature a big coming out moment by the end of the pilot. Perhaps that was part of the problem with it not being picked up; perhaps the network wanted more resolution. But the story is about a deep and long-term internal struggle and such things can not be "fixed" so easily. Personally I think that makes it all the more the kind of show our television landscape needs-- to stir up conversation, to show other ways of living, to show that these people are all just people. By denying a show like Pretty Handsome the right to exist, it is almost as if we are those same country club folk who sneer or gasp or gawk and then escort the "different" off their property. By not telling these stories, television tries to deny their existence and therefore are a part of the problem.
I have been one of Murphy's harsher critics in the past, but I'm beginning to understand why. Murphy is at his best when he is telling the stories for which he has a deep, somewhat dark passion. It is when he has to start thinking of the masses that things get muddy. His experience in Hollywood has certainly shown him that a little sprinkling of controversy is fine as long as the overall project is pretty conventional, and that's a shame. Ultimately that means Hollywood is keeping him in the creative closet, placating him by allowing him to show parts of himself but not the whole (sometimes weird but wonderful) package. I sincerely hope Murphy and Falchuk have not scrapped this idea altogether. Pretty Handsome, at its core, is a story that deserves to be told, perhaps now more than ever. Now when we have Work It setting television, as well as writers, and mankind in general, back about three decades.
Work It is a sitcom that deals with two men who are unemployed-- or underemployed-- in this terrible economy and decide they need to dress as women to get the only available high-powered jobs available in their area: pharmaceutical representatives. This is insane and audacious for a few reasons: first of all, pharmaceutical representatives are yes, notorious, for only being women but also only conventionally attractive women, so the odds that these dudes who don't even bother to shave their five o'clock shadows close to the skin would get hired? Laughable for a number of reasons. Admittedly, I assumed that these guys were only getting hired as diversity hires, the HR rep assuming they were, in fact, transitioning from men to women and wanting to not discriminate. But that is not the case: these men are actually supposed to be passing as "ugly women." Sure, Work It is a sitcom, but it's not funny to laugh at ignorance or misogyny. With Work It we can expect a lot of old school jokes aimed at the differences between men and women, like how women only eat salads for lunch and how men sit with their crotches exposed. Pretty Handsome would have forced audiences to sit up and think about how judgmental they were; Work It encourages judgment. Apparently I would make the worst development executive in the world.
I know that Murphy and Falchuk are already extremely busy, with a million and one things on their plates and stretched as thin as glee's plots (sorry, couldn't resist). Most of my criticism is that they are too distracted, juggling too many things; they are best when they can focus on what they really want to say. But in all truth after seeing the Pretty Handsome pilot, I need them to keep trying. I need them to go into pitch meetings with that still in their back pocket, just waiting for the time a network says modern audiences are ready. If not FX, then what about Showtime, guys?? I don't want them to give up on this story. Even if it means they shoot it themselves as an independent feature in a few years after some of the madness dies down.