Sunday, June 3, 2012

Pretty Fame-ous Actress

Hard to believe, but this week marks the third season premiere of "Pretty Little Liars".  I mean it doesn't seem all that long ago that the show made its debut and last season's shocking finale only seems like it aired a couple of weeks ago.  Of course a lot of the credit for that goes to ABC Family's ingenious way of airing its episodes...they break each season into two mini-seasons meaning that even though there's two major breaks between new episodes each year, they're only half as long as the traditional gap between seasons and that helps keep the momentum strong!  A lot more television shows would do well to adopt this model.

Not too long after the series started, it became a firm favorite of mine - a total cross between Desperate Housewives and Twin Peaks.  Well-acted, written, directed and beautifully shot (with a nice healthy dose of all out creepiness each episode), it's one of those rare shows that forces you to pay attention - you can't just have it on playing unattended in the background.  Blink and you may miss a subtle clue in the corner of the screen at any given moment.

(PLL's classic opening theme ... and The Muppets' spoof of it!)

What initially drew me to the series was the announcement before shooting began that Nia Peeples, Laura Leighton, and Chad Lowe were going to be on a show together called Pretty Little Liars.  That's all i knew at the time; i knew nothing about the kind of program it would be and i hadn't heard of the book series it was based on...just that combination of actors was enough to pique my interest!  Then of course in the time between that announcement and the debut episode, i learned the premise and of its pedigree and even though my hopes weren't as high that it would be any good, i tuned in - and was blown away.  My concerns about this being a disposable piece of fluff evaporated pretty quickly once "Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter" appeared on screen as she's one of the most outstanding directors working in television so i knew if she was directing the pilot, this was going to be a quality program.

I've known of Chad Lowe (Byron Montgomery, Aria's dad) for a long time and i always loved Laura Leighton (Ashley Marin, Hanna's mom) on Melrose Place (Heather Locklear may have been the "name draw" but it was always Laura Leighton and Marcia Cross that you'd be talking about at the watercooler at work the following day!)  But i was especially excited to see Nia Peeples take on the role of Pamela Fields, Emily's mom.  Nia had been one of my favorite actresses on Fame - my favorite show during high school.

For those too young or who don't remember, Fame (based on the 1980 film of the same name) was basically the 80s version of Glee - a musical drama based on the lives of the students and faculty of the New York High School of the Performing Arts.  Nia's character, Nicole Chapman, didn't come on until season four (though she did have a three-line role in a season two episode) but she immediately became one of my favorite characters in between her overachieving perfectionist streak (which i totally identified with at the time) and her amazing voice.

Nia's work on PLL has been especially strong and she has one of the cast's biggest challenges - to make what could easily be a very unlikable (and easily stereotypical) character into a three dimensional sympathetic one.  Because of Peeple's performance, the Mrs. Fields of the television show is nothing like the one from the books.  Nia plays a mother with a strong conservative background having to come to terms with her daughter's coming out as gay.  Instead of the cardboard villainess most shows and actors would choose to portray such a character as, not only do we see her go through all the multi-layered steps of acceptance, but we feel her pain and struggle as much as we do the daughter's.  This is not a role for a lessor actress and Nia has really been just beautiful with her performances.  I really look forward to when she's onscreen...and with the amount of talent that makes up the PLL cast, that's saying quite a lot.

So during those breaks in between new episodes, seeing NP's work on PLL had inspired me to go back and check out the old episodes of Fame for pretty much the first time since the show ended its six year run.  Like meeting an old high school friend you haven't seen for years, there's much anxiety over whether you'll still like them - if the show still holds up after all this time...but three decades later, the show holds up remarkably well.  The show's fifth season is easily its weakest as they rely too heavily on far too many fantasy episodes, but the sixth and final season redefines itself with several new characters that one wishes they could have gotten to know more by the end.  (Carrie Hamilton - Carol Burnett's daughter - particularly stood out as performance-art-obsessed Reggie during that final season and overtook Nicole's spot as my favorite character.)

So with this post, i thought it would be fun to take a look back at my some of my favorite musical numbers featuring Nia Peeples (which not all too unsurprisingly were some of my favorites from the show as a whole.)

...So if you only know Nia as "Mrs. Fields", hold on 'cause you're in for a surprise!!!

(But first, no "musical look back" at Fame would be right without the classic opening theme ... so here's both the first and last season's versions.  The first is sang by Erica Gimpel and the latter is Loretta Chandler.  Irene Cara originally made the song famous for the film's soundtrack.)

And now starting our tour of Nia's best musical moments, here's Nia with Cynthia ("Holly") Gibb and some actress named Janet.

"Never Outrun the Night" - a song so good it had the rare distinction of being sang by Nia twice in different episodes.  (I dare PLL fans not to laugh at the part about "Pretty Eyes")

With Carlo ("Danny") Imperato and Jesse ("Jesse") Borrego (I love the staging of this one!)

 Nia takes on Aretha Franklin's "Another Night"

Now this one's a real treat...SUSPENSE!  Not only is this one of my all time favorites from the show's run (appearing in one of my fave episodes, "The Monster That Devoured Las Vegas") but this one also features Valerie Landsburg's Doris - who was my favorite character/singer during the series' first half.  And if that wasn't enough...FLYING FRUIT at 1:48!!!


And okay okay...i just couldn't help myself but include this.  This song is NOT from Fame.  It's the music video to Nia's first official single since leaving Fame.  I remember seeing this in the record store and swapped it up not having previously heard the song and knowing what it would sound like...just thrilled that Nia was putting out her own records!!  Then i played it when i got home and it was the cheesiest most cliched late 80's disposable dance junk imaginable ONLY salvaged by Nia's vocals.  The video's equally cheesy.  (Hmmm...i might just request this to be played on "Cheeze Pleeze")


...And since i'm not so cruel to finish on that note, here's a true grand finale...the final number from the show's last episode...the cast - past and present - perform the theme song.  Now Nicole had been killed off mid-season so she's not seen here...but i think she can still be heard!  During the line "Ooh, I've got what it takes" (at 2:24), that sure sounds like her singing and i'd be willing to bet (though i've never seen it acknowledged anywhere) that she sang in the finale without appearing onscreen.  Whether or not she's actually included, this was the perfect ending for the show - and this retrospective.

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