Everybody’s second act

Do you sometimes wonder whether you’re watching a TV show, or financing an actor’s therapy?

In a review of “Carol’s Second Act,” The Hollywood Reporter informs us, “CBS’ workplace sitcom stars Patricia Heaton as a plucky retiree entering the medical field in middle age.” Remove all the words from “retiree” through “field,” and you could use the rest to play “Mad Libs” with Patricia Heaton’s career.

“Everybody Loves Raymond” co-starred Heaton (in what remains her best role) as a plucky housewife trying to deal with her clueless husband and zany in-laws in middle age. (Well, it got to be middle age by the end of the series, anyway.) “The Middle” starred Heaton as a plucky housewife (again) negotiating a crazy family and harsh American economics in middle age.

There’s not a lot in “Act” to differentiate between Heaton’s characterizations in this show and “The Middle.” She’s diminutive yet feisty, occasionally dropping her smile and lifting her head above the morass to shout, “Hey! I’m down here and I’m not finished yet!” The one element they did remove from her role as Ray Romano’s wife was her hostility. The Nice Ones on TV often seemed fearful of acknowledging their dark side, but on “Raymond,” Heaton was never afraid to let it rip. In one great scene, she uncovers another of her mother-in-law’s subtle plans to undermine her. Ray doesn’t believe it was a plan until she uncovers it — at which point she wags a threatening finger at Ray and emotes, William Shatner style, “Well, who’s the crazy one now, Ray? WHO’S…the CRAZY one…NOW??”

You can argue that an actor has to make a living like everyone else, except it’s well-known that the cast of “Everybody Loves Raymond” made millions from its success. So wouldn’t you think that well-off actors could and would be a little choosier about their follow-up roles?

It’s a question I’ve pondered for decades, and the TV graveyard is littered with examples. As wonderful as he is, Dick Van Dyke tops my list. He still does interviews where he raves about the virtues of “Diagnosis Murder,” a sluggish whodunit where Van Dyke played a wily doctor who solved murders on the side. It wasn’t enough that the show covered murder-mystery territory that had already been well raked over by “Murder She Wrote.” Here’s the real acid test: If you were trapped on that storied desert island, and you could choose only one TV program to entertain you, would you rather watch “Diagnosis Murder” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show” for the rest of your life?

And those are just the well-known examples. I still remember a period in the 1990’s when Valerie Bertinelli, the perky (there’s that word again) teenage daughter on “One Day at a Time,” was getting shoved down our throats in TV execs’ vain attempts to convince us she was a sitcom star. “Sydney” and “CafĂ© Americain” were short-lived, practically back-to-back attempts to demonstrate Bertinelli’s supposed comedy chops. (As with “One Day at a Time,” she later had better luck as part of an ensemble cast, in “Hot in Cleveland.”)

And let’s not even get into America’s decade-long job as Jennifer Aniston’s self-appointed babysitter.

Part of this is television’s usual ploy to score new hits with familiar faces. Why go for fresh talent when you have proven ratings-getters waiting in the wings? (They’ll probably never quit coming up with shows for Matt LeBlanc.)

Every actor has a right to make a living, of course. But before these veterans snag their umpteenth sitcom, they might be well advised to remember: (a) no matter whom you star in a new show, it doesn’t turn New Show B into Classic Show A; and (b) when the show’s lead role is a put-upon Everyperson, don’t fill the role with someone who just returned from the bank after counting their millions.