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October 9, 2008 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | October 9, 2008 |

The neurotic woman is a staple character for most shows, comedy or drama. That’s fine. All women (and men) are neurotic; some are just better at hiding it than others. The neurotic woman can be a breath of fresh air in a TV show, bringing everything from self-depreciative rants to slapstick humor to emotional breakdowns, all of which make the viewer think “Hey, she’s like me! I’m insane, too!” It’s cathartic.

What works more like a deadly carbon monoxide leak is the neurotic woman who is neurotic for no reason. She overanalyzes everything for the sake of overanalyzing and her biggest concerns revolve around her and her relationships and her friends and, well, her. Not the world around her, not current events or foreign affairs, just her. “Sex and the City” and “Grey’s Anatomy” characters come to mind when trying to define the female infecting the airwaves lately in the disguise of empowerment. The latest incarnation of this soul-sucker just might be in the form of Bella Bloom (Elizabeth Reaser), the lead character in CBS’s “The Ex-List.”

Bella - who I’m actually going to refer to as “BB” on the basis of morally objecting to someone who works in a flower shop being named Bella Bloom - surprises her sister, Daphne (Rachel Boston), at Daphne’s bachelorette party with a trip to a psychic. When it’s BB’s turn, her fortune is a doozy: She has a year to marry, or else she never will, and she’s already met the man who is the love of her life. The psychic won’t give her specifics, so BB doesn’t know if the man is a former lover, or a friend, or a one-night stand, etc. At first, BB is skeptical, but after a few signs she sees as fateful, she sits down to make a list of all of her exes, perhaps planning to go through them one by one to discover her diamond in the rough. It sounds simple enough, and as a friend pointed out, the plot could make a cute romantic comedy film. An hour and a half of this is all we need, evil TV executives. But in TV, we don’t always get what we need.

Instead, in the pilot we are subjected to BB following her signs to a boyfriend she dumped seven years ago on his birthday. No longer the fledgling, whiny rock star he was, this guy (don’t remember his name; we’ll call him Rocker) has made a hit out of being a male Alanis Morissette and screaming about the cruelties BB inflicted on him by breaking his heart. BB goes to see Rocker in concert and is attracted. Rocker is reluctant at first, but eventually decides he’s willing to give her a second chance — right there on the floor of her flower shop. Unfortunately for BB, Rocker is still whiny. Unfortunately for Rocker, BB decides to dump him again, this time by acting overly needy to try and get him to dump her first. He won’t do it, though, switching his personality in between normal and clingy, but ultimately revealing he was just seeking revenge on her for hurting him, and he dumps her publicly (via another angry song). BB appears to have learned her lesson until another sign leads her to another ex, whom she adds to her list in an ominous manner that brought the next 21 episodes - roughly 924 minutes - before my eyes. BB is going to tear out the sutures on all of her previous relationships, get-togethers, you-name-it to try to figure out just who Mr. Right is, whether her old flames want to see her again or not. Her first go-around got her burned, deservedly, but why should that stop her? Hint: Common decency isn’t an option. As if this plot, or the mind-blowing fact that Timothy Busfield directed the pilot, weren’t enough to make me hate BB, I learn she has friends.

BB lives near the beach, let’s say in California, with three roommates — Augie and Vivian, who are dating, and Cyrus, who is just there. I only know their names because I looked them up on CBS’s Web site, that’s how much they appear to suck as people. Cyrus (Amir Talai) doesn’t work, I think, and Augie (Adam Rothenberg) has a job that lets him wear PJ bottoms and UGGs to the beach to work on a laptop, and Vivian (Alexandra Breckenridge) competes with BB on who can wear the skimpiest outfits. We’re introduced to Vivian through a bizarre plotline that involves Vivian shaving her nether region and showing it to BB — a plot my Southern, near-Puritanical upbringing will not allow me to discuss much further. Augie doesn’t like it, and they fight. Cyrus is still just there. BB is busy making her list and saying snide comments to her most recent ex, Elliott, who keeps popping up to say hi or pick up the dog he and BB share custody of. The two split because Elliott (Mark Deklin) didn’t want to get married and BB did, but he appears to still be after her. His stopping by produces the best line of the pilot from BB: “I want a life partner, not bi-weekly sex and a hangout buddy! I’m on the soul mate path, man. No stopping or standing.” Yes.

That is BB’s life. She sits in a kiddie pool in her front yard with her friends, has a hard time remembering all the men she’s ever been with, and seriously, her last name is Bloom and she works in a flower shop. She’s not stupid — the writers try to make them all witty — but she doesn’t have a challenging job or an interesting hobby or smart friends. No wonder a fortune teller’s prediction consumes her mind; there wasn’t much standing in its way. Perhaps she’ll grow as a person, but why must we torture ourselves by witnessing the process? In between scenes of her dredging up past romances in hopes of finding the perfect one that got away, we have to watch her interact with friends who never mentally graduated from college? Her neuroses are fine, but you’ve got to give me something more. We need neurotic women with layers, women who can be silly and obsessive but also caring and serious and witty - women who talk about things other than relationships, as a start. Reaser has had supporting roles for awhile now, most memorably as the “Mask”-esque plastic surgery/amnesia patient on “Grey’s Anatomy.” “The Ex List” seems like a step in the wrong direction for a talented actress, but hopefully for everyone’s sake, Reaser will prove to be the saving grace of an ill-conceived show.

Maybe it will get better. Maybe I’m just bitter from a society that tells me I should be happy I’m seeing a woman on my TV screen at all, real and fictional, regardless of what kind of person she really is, or what she thinks or says or knows. I should just be thankful it’s a woman. Maybe I shouldn’t read so much into an innocent TV show, and my own neuroses are standing in my way of liking a simple comedy. Maybe. Or maybe I’m just in desperate need of seeing on the screen, real and fictional, a woman I can look up to. BB just doesn’t cut it, and her exes could have told us that.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.

Where Have All the Real Women Gone?

"The Ex-List" / Sarah Carlson

TV | October 9, 2008 |

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