Unscripted is a puzzling show and not in a good way. The HBO series stars three aspiring actors Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg, and Jennifer Hall as semi-fictional versions of themselves. Produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, it's a mix of improv and reality like K Street, the duo's strained HBO reality drama based in the D.C. political world. Having actors play overripe versions of themselves can create great balloon bursts of comedy David Duchovny on The Larry Sanders Show comes to mind. But Unscripted feels like a very subtle mockumentary...so subtle it's devoid of laughs or insight.
It's nice not being manipulated into feeling a certain way about a scene. But one should at least be able to determine if that scene is meant to be taken at face value or with a dash of irony. The acting classes the leads attend are, for instance, littered with the clichés of their teacher, Goddard Fulton (Frank Langella). Typical line: ''You have to want to be an actor because you simply cannot live, breathe, think, or eat without it.'' This isn't satire because it's not funny and it's not documentary, because documentary filmmakers would edit out this pap. Perhaps the crew behind Unscripted believes we'll find the mechanics of acting enthralling simply because it's about acting. The theory is both smug and wrong.
The series does have clever moments. Greenberg the one regular who can make a scene zing is a master of awkwardness, getting busted after inflating a role on his résumé. ''Isn't... when you have a line...aren't you a costar?'' he stutters. Allen, who starred in the soft-core Emmanuelle series, snips all the sexy spots from her reel and ends up with a 90-second tape. So far, Unscripted has yet to play with a more interesting Allen tidbit: She's Clooney's ex. It seems a squandered opportunity for a much-needed wink.
It's real-life Hollywood players who put the most snap into their scenes. Director Garry Marshall is a free-rambling hoot; Hank Azaria is hilariously sad-sack, hosting a poker game Greenberg attends and repeatedly calling into the next room for his ex-wife, Helen Hunt. ''She hasn't answered in four years, so something's up,'' he mutters. But these moments are rare respites from Unscripted's slog of auditions, rehearsals, and rejections. ''The real test of an actor is to take a scene...and thrill us,'' Fulton scolds his students. It's a good rule for a TV show, too.