Dylan McDermott does something in Fox’s new LA to Vegas that I didn’t know he was capable of.
Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. McDermott has played a romantic lead a few times, was Julia Roberts’ husband back in Steel Magnolias (though that ended tragically), and I’m pretty sure you can see him grin while accepting his 1999 Golden Globe, even if his lips never fully open. But from the moment he came to television 20 years ago to play The Practice defense lawyer Bobby Donnell (the role for which he won that Globe), McDermott has specialized in grimly self-righteous men who express themselves only via whispers or shouts, sometimes in the same sentence.
Playing intense men with names like Carter Shaw (Dark Blue), Jack Larsen (Stalker), and Max Canary (The Grid) has been a lucrative business for McDermott, but a creatively limiting one. Even his stint in the original season of American Horror Story had him in angry mode, albeit in a story that mostly painted the McDermott type as a schmuck who was harmful to himself and his family. The longer he does this type of thing, the more in danger he becomes of seeming stiff and self-parodying.
Then again, self-parody’s not bad if it’s meant to be that. After a long career playing dull authority figures in movie and TV dramas, Leslie Nielsen reinvented himself in Airplane! and The Naked Gun films by tweaking his persona ever so slightly to let you know he was in on the joke. Rob Lowe, having hit a rough patch in both his career and personal life, leaned into the ridiculousness of his own good looks and found a whole new creative path to travel as a light comedian in shows like The West Wing, Parks and Recreation, and The Grinder. (When he’s tried to go back to being wholly serious, like in The Lyon’s Den, it hasn’t worked.)
With LA to Vegas, it’s time for McDermott to go the Nielsen/Lowe route(*), and to do it shockingly well.
(*) At two years older than when Nielsen did Airplane!, but looking younger, because visibly aging in Hollywood has fallen out of fashion.
The comedy, about the crew and weekend regulars on a low-budget airline route between the two title cities — it debuts tonight at 9 (I’ve seen three episodes) — has other charms, including Kim Matula (UnREAL) as a flight attendant aspiring to work for another airline where the passengers aren’t “looking to cheat on their wives or butt-smuggle molly,” Nathan Lee Graham as her unflappable colleague, Olivia Macklin as a cheerful stripper, Peter Stormare as a degenerate gambler who bets on anything and everything that happens on the flights, and Ed Weeks as a college professor who thinks his NPR tote bag makes him better than the other passengers. But the main draw is McDermott as the plane’s smug plot, Captain Dave.
Sporting a delightful painter’s brush mustache, aviator sunglasses, and a complete lack of vanity, McDermott isn’t so much spoofing himself as spoofing a certain type of alpha male who’s not as alpha as he used to be, but can’t bring himself to admit it. Captain Dave is cocky, oblivious, and transparently lonely: asking a member of the crew to sign his cast after he injures his arm, he explains, “I have a date tonight and want her to know I have friends.” Creator Lon Zimmet (who’s previously written for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Happy Endings(*), and others) gives McDermott punchlines to deliver here and there, but for the most part seems to trust that his star’s genial, physically loose performance will do most of the comic heavy lifting. Scene after scene, McDermott gets laughs out of things that don’t seem like they’d be at all funny on the page, like the way Captain Dave tackles an unruly passenger, or the sheer joy in his eyes when he’s posing for a magazine photoshoot. That smile that I didn’t know he had? It’s both unnerving and hilariously ingratiating.
(*) One of Zimmet’s Happy Endings episodes was “Boys II Menorah,” so it may not surprise you that the second episode features multiple performances of “Hava Naglia.”
The third episode even gives us the Derbel McDillet(*) singularity, where Captain Dave’s nemesis Captain Steve is played by McDermott’s longtime name/face doppelganger Dermot Mulroney. Mulroney has more experience doing comedy, but he wisely opts to mirror the man with whom he’s so often confused, down to a similar mustache, and it’s marvelous to see.
Though McDermott’s the big name, Zimmet and company use him sparingly, with Matula functioning as the actual lead. This is a mixed bag, as McDermott’s far and away the most reliable comic force on the show, but in a role that would probably verge on cartoon if he was featured too much. These early episodes have some of the usual growing pains first-year comedies go through as the creative team figures out what’s funny about each actor and character; they’ve already solved McDermott/Dave, so you have to wait to see if the others can catch up.
And even if it doesn’t work, I can only hope this is the start of a long and funny second career act for both Dylan McDermott and his pearly whites.