Given that Out of Order is a new series about a rich, white Hollywood screenwriting couple whose worst problems are (a) deciding just how many stupid studio ''notes'' they're willing to incorporate into their latest rewrite that's earning them scads of money and (b) suffering the sort of depression that would seem easily cured by a good swift kick in the pants, the show's emotional punch is actually pretty amazing. I mean, if you'd asked me to watch a series centered on Eric Stoltz talking about how his character has always ''imagined [his] life as a movie,'' followed by a shot of a film crew shooting him as he speaks -- heck, if you'd just asked me to watch a show starring Eric Stoltz, whose careful enunciation and calibrated blandness usually aim for poignant soulfulness and miss, I'd have said, ''Well, maybe According to Jim isn't so bad after all....''
Furthermore, the creators of Out of Order, the husband-and-wife writing team of Wayne and Donna Powers, have described this five-episode Showtime series as ''a story about the beauty and brutality of a long-term marriage.'' I ask you, could professional writers craft a more perfect turn-off-the-TV phrase?
I'm front-loading this review with all the reasons you might be put off by Order; now I'm going to tell you why it works. Why, in fact, it comes damn close to pulling off its rather literary paradox, which is to cross John Updike (intricately messy arguments, good connubial sex) with Joan Didion (anomie hard-boiled in the California sun, bad furtive sex). As a television portrait of a marriage, Order ranks right up there with thirtysomething in capturing the joys and joylessness of long-term hookups plus kids. Stoltz and Felicity Huffman (Sports Night) play Mark and Lorna Colm, wed 16 years, blessed with a sweet 8-year-old son, Walter (Dyllan Christopher). Lorna is going through a bad patch; she's so down, she can barely get out of bed (''Every f -- -ing minute is agony,'' she says simply). When she does, she crawls over to her pal Steven's house to swill gin, smoke dope, and jump on his trampoline for some mindless escapism. Steven is a Bad Influence, a ''has-been who never was'' as Mark pegs him, a bitter, less successful producer played with perfect worminess by Huffman's real-life husband, William H. Macy. Huffman herself, I should say, is remarkable: She makes Lorna flinty, intelligent, wounded, and a nightmare who's impossible to either escape from or abandon.
Lorna's condition pretty much leaves Mark to raise their kid, and it's while watching young Walt at soccer practice that he meets Danni (Kim Dickens), a sleek blonde and similarly married-but-unsatisfied parent. The first thing Mark notices about her as she sprawls casually on a blanket -- and the show's dead-giveaway infidelity alert -- is the belly-button ring in the middle of her shortie-T-shirt-flat tummy (finally, a good new use for the languid camera pan shot!). They flirt, they agree not to get involved, they have a naked underwater make-out session at a pool party. Tabs of Ecstasy are involved. You know these Hollywood types.
And that's the thing -- the writers Powers (whose movie credits include the new The Italian Job) know that we know all the Hollywood decay-and-decadence stories, from Sunset Boulevard to Shampoo to The Player, yet they still manage to revitalize the cliches of the genre, such as getting metaphorically screwed by an egomaniacal director. (In this role, Peter Bogdanovich is far more effective than he is as Lorraine Bracco's droopy-lidded shrink in The Sopranos, perhaps because at least part of his Tinseltown venality in Order is no spoof: He's playing a contemporary, older version of the breezily arrogant wunderkind he was in his post-Last Picture Show '70s heyday.)
Out of Order manages to have it both ways: It takes you into the lives of privileged people -- the gleaming silver Mercedes SLK (''Don't hold it against me, okay?'' says Stoltz in a voice-over); the loose writing schedule that allows afternoons to be spent gazing wolfishly at available belly buttons -- so you can envy their material comforts and then chortle at their ultimate, empty misery. But the show also depicts marital conflict so vividly, you might see yourself or people you know in it. There's a moment when Mark runs his hands through Lorna's hair, and she says, eyes closed, dreamily, ''You never run your hands through my hair anymore.'' And he responds, ''Why is it when I'm doing something nice, you point out how I never do anything nice?'' That'll send a chill down many a married viewer's back, methinks.
And the second episode, directed by the always emotionally acute and damn-fine-writer himself Henry Bromell, is even better than the 90-minute premiere. The meeting taken with a producer who picks apart Mark and Lorna's ''chick heist flick'' (''He's going to 'logic' us to death,'' Mark voice-over-moans) is priceless. So is Stoltz's performance -- he uses that callow smirk to become a movingly conflicted man. All this, plus Justine Bateman in cool boots, making the sort of proposition to Stoltz that would have given Meredith Baxter-Birney a heart attack on Family Ties. Order has its over-the-top and underdeveloped moments (Stoltz addressing viewers as ''you, my jury'' and asking us to pass judgment on his fling mixes the show's organizing metaphor: Is his life supposed to be a movie or a trial?). But when it comes to assembling the squeaky gears and stretched pulleys that comprise a marriage, Out of Order works like the dream machine that Hollywood is supposed to be.