Picks and Pans Review: Style & Substance
Grade for both: B
Why do some people take shots at Martha Stewart, the famous cooking, gardening and decorating maven (and, according to her publicity bio, "arbiter of taste")? Look at her TV show, which went daily this season after four years as a weekly half-hour. Shortly before Christmas she demonstrated how to bake the perfect fruitcake—after citing an informal survey of her friends to prove that folks sort of like the oft-maligned confection. Something in her tight smile suggested that anyone who responded, "Fruitcake? Yeccchhh!" was transferred summarily to her enemies list.
Stewart is a tempting comic target, and the new series Style & Substance comes out firing. Not at her, of course, but at a fictional central character whose resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Chelsea Stevens (Jean Smart) is a divorced mistress of the domestic arts with a magazine, a television show, a staff full of lackeys (except for new office manager Jane Sokol, played by Nancy McKeon) and zero friends (not even fruitcake fanciers). Despite an obsessive-compulsive personality that drives her to prepare hors d'oeuvres at 5 a.m., Chelsea's advice to an imperfect world boils down to four words: "Be more like me." The Jan. 5 premiere, written by executive producer Peter Tolan (The Larry Sanders Show), is often deliciously funny, and Smart (Designing Women) clearly savors her plum role. But the series risks losing its edge if Chelsea reveals too much of her lonely, vulnerable side to Jane. Watching an upcoming episode, we kept thinking, "Get Chelsea some therapy," when we should have been laughing with abandon.
Meanwhile, if you want to learn to fashion picture frames out of birch bark, the real Martha Stewart continues to provide such useful household information in a manner that is direct, polite and authoritative, though not especially warm. Her show could use a dash of humor, even if her life is not exactly a sitcom.