QUEERTY BEHIND THE SCENES — Have you ever heard a straight man say the words “absolutely fabulous” in a hetero monotone? This was our introduction to the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City where the rent-a-cop peeked in my car, took one look at me and my friend George in his Gaultier glasses, and flatly asked, “Absolutely Fabulous?” Try saying “absolutely fabulous” with no emotion. It is laughable. George and I repeated it in our best straight man voices sporadically throughout the evening — an evening spent remaking the hit 1990s comedy Absolutely Fabulous
I pushed past the civilian peasant audience members, because in true AbFab style, I was on the VIP list. I waited in line while the people ahead of me, playwright/director David Mamet and his wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon, were checked in, clearly there to support his daughter, Zosia. When it was my turn, I gave them my ID and the woman, Deputy Lopez, scanned the list for our names. After a good five minutes she handed me back my ID and said that our names were not on the list—also in true AbFab style. I insisted that Deputy Lopez call the production office where my VIP status was confirmed.
The set was lit and ready when we were seated. We faced the living room, the walls turquoise and lime green. A patio with chaise lounges and a city backdrop abutted the living room. The over-the-top minimalist chicness of the BBC AbFab set was lost to an underwhelming comfy-contemporary blah-ness. A sign on the door to the apartment read “PH 2”: Penthouse 2. A high-rise apartment in LA. I guess they’re in Century City.
I left my seat in the audience, ripped off my guest pass and made a face like I really belonged so I could wander around Stage 28. The Married With Children logo was painted on a door. Chills. Television greats like David Faustino and Buck The Dog had walked these same cement floors—I was truly a part of television magic. If my damn friend hadn’t been with me, I would have just stayed backstage, hung out in the green room, watching the monitor with the agents, managers, and writers, but I thought if David Mamet can sit in the audience, so can I.
The saddest job in Hollywood is the audience warm-up guy. They are the quintessential show business failures who somehow weasel their way onto a television set but have nothing to do with the actual production itself. They are there to “entertain” the audience between takes and to remind them to keep their energy up as a half hour show taping can last a good four hours. This guy was perfect—always smiling with his big ol’ white chompers, leathery face—think Bob Barker before he had white hair—and annoying as hell like a fucking clown mixed with a bad standup comic. I avoided looking him in the eye so he wouldn’t speak to me. After reminding us that we were a part of “television history, ladies and gentleman,” this hemorrhoid of a man began introducing the director and actors.
He began by introducing James Burrows, who I recognized mulling around the set from his stint on Lisa Kudrow’s fantastic but ill-fated HBO series The Comeback. Burrows is a sitcom legend, having directed Cheers, Taxi, Friends, and Will & Grace. Another Comeback alum (and Lisa Kudros’s producing partner) Dan Bucatinsky was also on set.
Kathryn Hahn was presented to the audience appearing as a dead-ringer (albeit younger) for Jennifer Saunders’ Edina. Her costume was true to one of the many incarnations of the BBC’s Edina, with a Boho/ fashion-conscious Buddhist-looking Indian silk robe in vibrant aqua paired with a purple blouse and a long strand of pearls. But it was a little too well put together.
Kristen Johnston came out dressed as her character, Patsy, in a hot pink sweater with faux fur collar, leather mini skirt, metallic silver tights and red pumps. The only thing reminiscent of our beloved Joanna Lumley’s Patsy was the blonde hair piled high on her head but even that was marred by a cheap elastic headband you might see a teenage girl wearing. One of the important distinctions between Patsy and Edina was that Patsy actually had a penchant for style. Edina was the one squeezing herself into too-tight mini skirts and label-laden blouses. Patsy Stone knows three things: fashion, fucking, and substances. And that you can (or could) rely on. Joanna Lumley spent the first few seasons of the BBC series in smart skirt-suits referring to one vintage Chanel suit as her baby.
But that was just the beginning of the trouble with Kristen Johnston’s depiction of Patsy. Johnston is a ham, both on and off camera. She was often funnier in between takes than she was during. After repeatedly flubbing lines in the first scene (and ornery James Burrows growing steadily more annoyed), an audience member shouted, “You can do it,” to which Johnston quickly retorted, “At this point you could do it.” Johnston has a rubber-faced, Lucille Ball quality constantly giving up googley-eyed sitcom neighbor wackiness. That is the antithesis of Patsy Stone’s character. It is no coincidence that Stone is Patsy’s surname. The humor of Patsy lies in her understated, deadpan, frozen by injectables face. There is a necessary lack of self-awareness.
Oh and Patsy had not one cigarette in her hand the entire time. In fact, in her first scene she encourages Eddie not to smoke. Pardon? There are drug references and drinking, the funniest moment perhaps is taken from the BBC series when Eddie faints and Patsy sticks poppers up her nose telling Saffron they are smelling salts. When Eddie comes to, she says she suddenly has the urge to go line-dancing. The studio audience failed to respond to this gay reference but George and I were LOL’ing it up.
Hahn, on the other hand, is a nearly perfect American version of Edina who they only refer to as “Eddie” in the Fox series. In the opening scene, while scarfing down doughnuts and complaining about the pain of tobacco withdrawal, she is a mixture of Jennifer Coolidge and Jennifer Saunders — which works. Her physicality is a dead-on tribute to Saunders’s Edina from her numerous pratfalls to the way she drapes herself over the couch.
So, what’s the biggest failing of the American version of AbFab? The actresses appear too young.
While Hahn and Johnston are almost exactly the same ages Lumley and Saunders were when AbFab began in 1992, one must take into consideration that in 1992, people aged differently. Lumley and Saunders were attractive, mature-looking women. Johnston and Hahn appear to be in their early 30s and late 20s, respectively. The quest to keep up with youth culture which fueled the BBC AbFab series is lost on these women. Maybe they should try this again in ten years but I think not.
Eddie’s daughter, Saffron, is vital to the story because she represents sanity, providing the viewing audience with someone to identify with, a voice of reason. Zosia Mamet, who graduated the elite Crossroads School in 2006 making her somewhere around 21-years-old (according to her Facebook page) plays Saffron as lackluster and one-dimensional. I’m not even sure she was playing a character at all. She comes across as whiny and juvenile, a disgruntled teenager as opposed to Julia Sawalha’s perfect scolding and flustered depiction of the nerdy woman-child. Even Mamet’s untucked flannel shirt and jeans made her look more like Kurt Cobain (as Patsy refers to her in a funny one-liner) and less like Margaret Thatcher. Saffron is a perfect standout role for an unknown young actress but Mamet isn’t taking advantage. If she wasn’t celebrated playwright David Mamet’s daughter, you wonder why she was cast in the first place.
I can see the headlines in Variety now: “Fox’s ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ Not Living Up To It’s Name” — and they’ll be right. Watching the American version of AbFab is like having a dream about a beloved deceased friend. The whole time you are cognizant of the fact that it’s a foggy depiction of reality; the faces aren’t quite the same, the experience isn’t quite as good. You wake up feeling sentimental. I left stage 28 in a haze, longing for my old British friends.
Alas, there is nothing fabulous about the American version of Absolutely Fabulous. (Variety is totally gonna steal that line from me.) Maybe the rent-a-cop at the Sony security gate was a talisman, a symbol of what was to follow. Say it in your best monotone straight man voice and when you watch it: “Absolutely Fabulous.” And don’t expect much more than that.
Written by Matt Siegel. Siegel is a private liberal arts college-hopper who began at Sarah Lawrence, left his stain at Eugene Lang and finally finished at Hampshire. His unwillingness to commit now resides in L.A., where Matt has unsteadily worked for a random assortment of prominent folks, including Adam Carolla, Jill Clayburgh and Arianna Huffington. Other of his writings can be found here.
Photos: Matt Siegel; Splash News