Sunday, March 14, 2010

In Praise Of Rose

By Lars Trodson
The wacky neighbor has a long and honorable tradition in the world of sitcoms, as does their habit of just bursting in the apartment or home of the actual stars of the program. That these sidekicks almost invariably outshine the leads is a cause for celebration by the audience and no doubt annoyance to the people who are ostensibly heading up the cast list. (Think Sean Hayes and Christine Baranski.)
I don’t know why I’ve always been fascinated by second bananas. It may be for the same reason that when I look at a photograph I’m always much more interested in what is happening way off in the background than I am in the so-called subject. It could be that I am a huge fan of Art Carney’s, and he was the first guy I remember seeing just bounce into an apartment unannounced. I loved the fact, also, that no one ever seemed to mind. Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden was always stewing about something, but he never asked Ed Norton to knock.
And so I am on the lookout for these neighbors. Rhoda never knocked on Mary Richards’ door. Howard the pilot just walked right in when Emily and Bob Hartley were having a cocktail on “The Bob Newhart Show.” There is of course Kramer, and Sean Hayes, who played Jack on “Will and Grace.” The list is endless, and just when it seemed to have run out of steam, along comes the gloriously goofy but lovely Rose, on “Two and A Half Men.”
I must confess that I came to this series late, and only on reruns. The couple of current episodes I have seen on prime time this year have bordered on the dreary. But when I catch an older episode, when the writing is extra-sharp (and I think this was an exceptionally well written sitcom), and I see Rose coming up over the railing on the deck, it is blissful sitcom heaven.
In “Two and A Half Men” people actually knock on the front door, and it’s usually a young woman, Alan Harper’s wife, or their mother, played by the incomparable Holland Taylor.
So, in order to maintain the stalwart traditions of the sitcom (which also includes the unseen neighbor, think of Wilson on “Home Improvement” or Carlos the Doorman on “Rhoda”), the producers of “Two and A Half Men” had to find a more ingenious way for the neighbor to arrive unannounced. So they have Rose, played by Melanie Lynskey, quietly hop the rail and walk in through the sliding glass doors. It’s pure genius.
Lynskey is part of a heritage -- a line of players who have that ethereal combination of sex appeal and humor. It’s the rarest thing -- to be beautiful and actually funny. When you see it, you’re kind of spellbound. I watched “My Man Godfrey” the other night, and Carole Lombard was stunning and hilarious. I love Judy Holliday. But lately I couldn’t find anyone who was their heir. I never cared for Helen Hunt, and Debra Messing in “Will and Grace” was just simply not funny, to me. (I also think the writers had the hardest time with her character.) But Megan Mullally on that series comes very close, but misses slightly because she could be a little annoying. 
Lynskey, like Mullally (and certainly Holliday) has that Betty Boop voice. I'm not sure why this has to be, but it could be that it is simply part of sitcom tradition. I think it once was meant to aurally invoke the idea that the character was kind of daffy. Rose is certainly cracked (endearingly so), but she is very far from stupid.
I like the world of “Two and A Half Men” because even though they all are chronically annoyed with each other, and the characters are trying to work through some realistic issues about the family dynamic, they all love each other and try to care for each other as best they can. No one quite knows what to do with Rose, but when the adults all go their separate ways, you can always count on her to be sitting on the couch playing a video game with Jake.
So it seemed fitting to honor Rose, in our own little way. She is the latest in a long line of truly memorable wacky neighbor characters that have sprung to life in the sitcom universe. And Melanie Lynskey has also made her one of the best.