There’s a small moment in the second episode of Showtime’s I Love That For You that proves Molly Shannon is this season’s MVP of TV comedy.
Shannon plays Jackie Stilton, the reigning queen of a home shopping network who’s been forced to mentor Joanna Gold, an unhinged newcomer played by Vanessa Bayer. Over a tray of snacks they’ve stolen from the company fridge, Jackie idly compliments Joanna’s bracelet, and Joanna admits that she’s worn it for years because she saw Jackie selling it on TV.
From there, you can see Jackie process twenty things at once. How does she feel about this? Is Joanna a stalker? Should she be flattered? Should this make her feel like a star, or an old lady who’s been on TV too long? She settles on kindness, and she really seems to mean it when she says how touched she is that Joanna has been wearing her bracelet for so long.
It takes an actor of Shannon’s skill to pull that off — to communicate the thinking and then the decision. And when you consider that just a few scenes earlier, she also nailed a scene where Jackie was the perky, friends-with-everyone superstar at a network meeting, you appreciate how swiftly she shows us Jackie’s depth.
But what’s most amazing about Shannon's performance in I Love That For You is that it's her third showstopper TV role in the last 12 months.
It was just last fall that HBO Max premiered the second season of The Other Two, in which Shannon plays Pat Dubek, mother of one teen pop star and two other kids who are struggling to make it in the entertainment business. Without even really trying, Pat becomes the host of a wildly successful talk show, and she spends most of her time trying to please everyone who wants her to sign something, attend something, or give up her time to hear some random story.
Pat might sound similar to Jackie, but while they’re both TV stars, Shannon ensures that they’re not the same. In public, Jackie is flirty and charismatic and maybe a little desperate, but underneath she’s genuinely compassionate. Pat, meanwhile, is everybody’s mom when she’s out in the world, but in private she’s adrift in confusion, grief, and self-doubt. Shannon’s remarkable warmth as a performer grounds both women, but Pat is falling apart in a way that Jackie isn’t.
That tension between the surface persona and the woman underneath is also what drives her work in The White Lotus, which aired on HBO last summer. On that show, she’s a full-on monster pretending to be a good-time gal. She plays Kitty Patton, who crashes the tropical honeymoon of her son Shane (Jake Lacy) and his new bride Rachel (Alexandria Daddario). She fronts like she's just there to offer good wishes, but Kitty mostly wants to control the dynamic that Rachel has suddenly disrupted. Between airy little comments about the decor in the hotel, she makes it clear that she will not let this new young chippy upend the family she’s spent so long perfecting.
It’s a sensational performance that gets precariously close to camp without tipping over. Shannon lets us sense Kitty’s mania, but she maintains the character's self-imposed performance as a confident woman of the world. As the events of the series get more outlandish, that control becomes even more compelling. It’s clear that no matter what happens, a woman like Kitty is going to win.
That's yet another facet of Shannon’s apparently limitless ability to play captivating women who will never be what we expect. Lucky for us that she got to show so much of her skill in a single season. It's hard to imagine the year without her.
I Love That For You airs on Showtime Sunday nights through June 19th. The Other Two and The White Lotus stream on HBO Max.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.
TOPICS: Molly Shannon, HBO, HBO Max, Showtime, I Love That For You, The Other Two, The White Lotus, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Lacy, Vanessa Bayer