What happened to Heather Graham's career? She was so arresting to watch from the moment she skated onscreen as Rollergirl in the virtuosic first shot of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997). And not just because she was hot beyond belief. Her Rollergirl, the wide-eyed porn star who would take off anything but her skates, was a revelation: an overly compliant sweetheart with a damaged and fierce high-school dropout inside. Graham even held her own against the great Julianne Moore (remember the scene where, high on coke, the two women agreed to call each other mother and daughter?).
Ever since Boogie Nights, though, Heather Graham has struggled to find a place on the big or small screen. Eight years later, after appearing in a steady stream of utter dogs (Killing Me Softly, Say It Isn't So) or forgettable mediocrities (From Hell, Sidewalks of New York), she has yet to make a lasting impression in any role. What Graham has been best at is playing a parody of her own sexiness, the unwitting object of knuckle-biting male desire: Felicity Shagwell in the second Austin Powers movie or Dr. Molly Clock, the mouthwatering attending psychiatrist, in a brief guest stint on Scrubs.
One thing Heather Graham visibly isn't is the also-ran girl, the insecure wallflower who just can't seem to capture and hold a man. Not even the Hollywood logic that casts Winona Ryder as the "plain" sister in Little Women can ignore the fact that Graham is a stone fox, angel-faced and impossibly pneumatic.
Which is why it was such an odd punt to give Graham the Carrie Bradshaw lonely-hearts role in Emily's Reasons Why Not (premiering tonight at 9 p.m. ET on ABC). The sitcom, based on the novel of the same title by Carrie Gerlach (one of those chick-lit books with the obligatory cover featuring female footwear), asks Graham to dither and stumble adorably through Sex and the City-style dating mishaps, all the while narrating her neurotic hang-ups via first-person voiceover. That was irritating enough when Sarah Jessica Parker did it, but the warmed-over, nudity-free network version is well-nigh unwatchable. Graham plays Emily Sanders, an editor of self-help books in what appears to be Los Angeles. Clad in snug and sparkly pastel T-shirts, she accessorizes with a sardonic best friend, Reilly (Nadia Dajani), and a black gay buddy, Josh (Khary Payton), who pops up conveniently to dispense queeny advice: "Consider this a wake-up call, Mama."
Tonight's pilot sets up the show's gimmick. As Emily plows her way through what promises to be a tiresomely large heap of inappropriate bachelors, she decides who to keep and who to throw back based on the "five reasons" rule: Find five reasons not to go out with someone, and he's history. Victim No. 1 is Stan from marketing, who seems like a dreamy dreamboat (in a boring Clark-Kent sort of way), until the reasons-why-not begin to pile up: He cooks just a little too well. He subscribes to Martha Stewart Living. He practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu—according to Emily's sneering ex, "the gayest sport there is." In short—is there anything I can do at this point to rouse you from your profound slumber?—Stan may be more of a man's man than a ladies' man, a plot twist that invertebrate life forms could have seen coming from the first scene on.
But after rejecting him in a long, humiliating voicemail message, Emily gets served with the revelation that Stan is not, in fact, a closeted gay man. He's … a Mormon virgin! (Wait a minute … wha? Can't he be a closeted Mormon gay man and a virgin? Or a virgin precisely because he's a closeted Mormon gay man? Oh, the hell with it.)
There's so much not to like about Emily's Reasons Why Not, down to the embarrassing Asian dragon-lady stereotype of Glitter Cho, Emily's nemesis at work (played by Smith Cho, in a reprise of Lucy Liu's Uncle Tom role on Ally McBeal). Somehow, though, Heather Graham's inherent likability does shine through—it's as hard to hate her as it is to spit on a teddy bear. But with every ill-chosen, blandly played role she takes on, it gets tougher to distinguish between wishing the poor girl well and just feeling sorry for her.