Thursday, February 13, 2014

Greta Gerwig is Starring in What?!

I thought we'd gotten to the point where movie actors taking on television work was no longer something to get worked up about. I mean, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are currently headlining HBO's "True Detective," Kevin Spacey is on his second season of "House of Cards" for Netflix, and even Philip Seymour Hoffman had a pilot in circulation for a Showtime series, one that a lot of the TV critics were buzzing about. Television has gotten a huge boost in artistic credibility in recent years thanks to a flood of highly regarded prestige projects. So it no longer seems like a risky move when you hear that an established movie star has agreed to lead a new cable drama, or a budding young talent is working on a comedy pilot. Everybody wants to be the next Lena Dunham.

But then the news came in this week that Greta Gerwig, veteran independent movie actress and queen of the mumblecore movement, has signed on to star in CBS's new sitcom "How I Met Your Dad," the follow-up/spinoff of their long-running "How I Met Your Mother," which is currently in the middle of its final season. Gerwig is expected to write and produce the series as well as play the lead character, Sally. The role is described as a "female Peter Pan who has never grown up and has no idea of where she’s going in life," which is a description that could apply to most of the characters that Gerwig has played recently in films like "Frances Ha" and "Lola Versus." This could be a great opportunity for a promising young actress who has won a lot of praise this year, snagging her first major awards recognition for "Frances Ha."

What worries me is that "How I Met Your Dad" is not an HBO or FX or Netflix project. It's going to be a pretty typical prime time network sitcom, patterned off of a mostly agreeable, but unambitious hit show that CBS kept going for nine years. Fans of "How I Met Your Mother" tend to have a love-hate relationship with it, and most concede that it probably should have ended a couple of seasons ago. There's certainly room for creativity, but not the kind of bold, boundary-breaking stuff that characterizes a "Girls" or a "Louie." Gerwig's talents are probably not going to be very well served by the constraints of network television, especially on CBS, which is one of the more conservative networks. Occasionally FOX or NBC will turn out something idiosyncratic and unique, but CBS is the home of mostly formulaic meat-and-potatoes stuff like "Two and a Half Men," meant to appeal to very broad audiences. Sure, "How I Met Your Mother" takes place in New York, but it's not the same New York of Hannah Horvath and Frances Halladay.

Of course Gerwig being on a network show doesn't mean that her film career is over, or even on hold. "How I Met Your Mother" stars Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, and Cobie Smulders have both done a ton of film work during their tenures. Radnor has written and directed two films while Segel has worked his way up to comedic leading man status after "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "I Love You, Man." Gerwig's fellow mumblecore alum Mark Duplass also juggles acting duties on FX series "The League" with directing his own films and appearing in others. So there's no reason that Gerwig couldn't keep collaborating with Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman during her breaks, and pursue other projects. Plus, having a higher profile from "How I Met Your Dad" would probably lead to bigger parts. Currently, the most mainstream film she's done has been the Russell Brand remake of "Arthur," where she played the major love interest but was bumped off all the posters by Jennifer Garner.

CBS should get the kudos for pursuing someone like Gerwig for "How I Met Your Dad," and it is heartening to see the ranks of female creatives in television grow. When I first heard about the project, I was expecting that it would be a spinoff starring Cristin Milioti, who plays the titular "Mother" on "How I Met Your Mother." Instead, while the details are still pretty sparse, it looks like we're going to get something much more original, something I might actually want to watch once in a while. Part of me is still expects this will be another "Friends" clone, and we'll only be getting Gerwig-lite, but another part of me wants to hope for the best and root for the show to be a real showcase for her talents. Who knows? Maybe CBS has its eye on capturing a little of the prestige being showered on the cable networks.

And if Greta Gerwig wants to aim for being the next Tina Fey instead of the next Lena Dunham, that's certainly a worthwhile endeavor.

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