John Corbett is Lucky,” intone FX’s promos for its new Vegas-set series, and a truer voice-over has never been spoken. Not because Corbett plays compulsive gambler Michael ”Lucky” Linkletter, but because he’s one of TV’s luckiest stars, sustaining a lengthy career with minimal discernible range. The most you can say about the guy is that he has a pleasant demeanor.
Corbett’s run of good luck began with his role as dreamy DJ Chris Stevens on CBS’ sleeper ”Northern Exposure.” He later exuded the same laid-back aura – and recurred for far too long – as Aidan Shaw on ”Sex and the City.” (Did anybody believe Sarah Jessica Parker’s cosmopolitan Carrie would find true love with an outdoorsy carpenter?) Then Corbett stumbled into a little movie called ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
After ”Greek Wedding” became the highest-grossing romantic comedy in history, Corbett’s luck appeared to have run out. Screenwriter-star Nia Vardalos and the rest of the film’s ensemble signed on for a CBS sitcom spin-off, the surefire hit ”My Big Fat Greek Life,” but Corbett couldn’t join them since he’d agreed to headline the obscure basic-cable dramedy ”Lucky.” As it turns out, though, fortune may still be smiling on him. ”Greek Life” is a big fat bummer, and FX is suddenly the hot network, thanks to its Emmy and Golden Globe victories for ”The Shield.” Smartly written and stylishly shot, Corbett’s vehicle proves to be a coolly addictive lark – albeit one that utterly miscasts him.
With his rugged looks and soothing voice, Corbett can convey a pro gambler’s outer confidence but not his inner doubt. Lucky is beset by personal demons (his wife recently died, and he also lost a $1 million poker jackpot), yet Corbett always seems to be at ease. His character constantly addresses himself in the mirror, an ill-conceived gimmick for such a fundamentally unreflective actor; his monologues sound more like Stuart Smalley than Travis Bickle.
How serendipitous that Corbett is surrounded by costars who perfectly suit the series’ skeevy milieu. The little-known Billy Gardell and Craig Robinson swipe their every scene as Lucky’s scam-artist buddies, Vinny and Mutha. In the April 15 episode, they pose as orthopedic surgeons to infiltrate a convention of potential marks. The delicious result is like ”The Sting” rewritten by David Mamet. And when it comes to playing scumbags, no one’s better than Dan Hedaya (”Blood Simple”), who’s a scream as a loan shark with a soft spot for the canine comic strip ”Marmaduke.”
The only authentically Vegasy aspect of Corbett’s Lucky is his Elvis-worthy pompadour and ‘burns. Like Samson, Corbett’s strength has long emanated from his mane. Steven Eckholdt (”It’s Like, You Know…”), who replaces him as Vardalos’ WASPy husband in ”Greek Life,” aspires to a Corbettesque coiffure but falls short in this and other areas. While Corbett was typically relaxed, Eckholdt comes across as tentative – the new kid in Greek class. His performance isn’t the only difference between the sitcom and the movie. The newlyweds have been renamed (Nia and Thomas instead of Toula and Ian) and they now live across the street from her family’s diner instead of next door to her pushy parents (uncured hams Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan). The latter change was probably made to keep ”Greek Life” from seeming too similar – and paling in comparison – to ”Everybody Loves Raymond.”