Penelope Ann Miller is ready. Really ready.
Take a good look at "The Closer" (9 p.m. Monday, Channel 4) sometime if you can tear yourself away from "Ally McBeal" (or if you can tape it). Tell me that Miller -- playing a ditzy bean-counter in Denver's most downscale ad agency -- isn't a sitcom of her own waiting to happen.
Miller can do ditz to a fare-thee-well. In fact, she's so good in "The Closer" that it's proof positive she isn't herself a ditz, no matter how she comes off on the occasional talk show. (You can't be a ditz and play one on TV. That's because if you really are ditzy you're not sure why being ditzy is funny.)
She's so good at it in "The Closer" that it's easy to think she can't do much else. (For abundant evidence to the contrary, see "The Relic," "Biloxi Blues," "Kindergarten Cop," "Carlito's Way.")
The trouble is that she's mostly treated in the show as furniture. It's too bad, because at her time in life -- with no immediate prospects of movie stardom on the horizon -- a good sitcom would probably be the perfect place for her to stay in the pink for a while and perhaps even to cash in as never before.
Fat chance. "The Closer" is Tom Selleck's show. And with Ed Asner -- a man who's engraved forever in America's sitcom consciousness as the immortally scowling Lou Grant -- piling up a requisite large number of lines in every episode, Miller has to steal a performance through the back window.
The trouble with "The Closer" is that it's a smart show but not nearly smart enough. It understands the great secret about Tom Selleck -- that he's never more believable than when he's acting like a bully. In Tuesday's episode, his character used Selleck's6-foot-4-inch frame to loom menacingly over his teen-age daughter's unlucky suitors. And then, when they beat a hasty retreat, hewalked away chortling, "It's good to be tall."
That oppressive self-satisfaction, I submit, may be much closer to the real voice of Tom Selleck than Miller's ditz act is to the real Penelope Ann Miller. And give Selleck a world of credit for knowing it. He plays this scrappy ad agency's shark in chief, the big, good-looking four-flusher who gets business through the door.
Unfortunately, the poor blighter is up against "Ally McBeal," the most delightful show on network TV at the moment, and on top of that, on a network that looks like a TV-holic rehab program (Cybill Shepard, Judd Hirsch, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby etc. -- all back on the tube looking for a reprise of past glory).
So even if Selleck were smart enough to "Buffalo Bill" his character into the reigning, fatuous, self-adoring bully of network sitcomdom, he'd still have the almost insoluble problem of wresting eyes away from current TV's happiest invention. Selleck going opposite "Ally McBeal" is a little like Patrick Ewing trying to outcharm Tara Lipinski.
So count the episodes until they move it -- or close up shop altogether, leaving Miller at liberty to find some sitcom genius somewhere who'd know that, at the very least, she could be a liberated late-'90s version of "My Friend Irma."
Meanwhile, back in big-time Hollywood, aspiring students of the not-so-sweet science of Oscar forecasting could do no better than to watch "The 4th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards" at 8 p.m. Sunday on TNT (with a repeat at 10 p.m.).
With everybody else but the caterers setting up shop with their own award shows, SAG decided four years ago to weigh in with its own annual self-celebration, thereby providing -- accidentally, of course -- almost as good a tip-off to the Oscars to come as the Directors Guild of America awards have always been of the Best Director Oscar.
The reason is very simple: The largest Oscar voting bloc by far are the actors, all of whom have Screen Actors Guild cards. So if you want to know, for instance, how strong Robert Duvall in "The Apostle" is going to be against Peter Fonda in "Ulee's Gold" and Jack Nicholson in "As Good as It Gets," tonight is the best chance you'll have to find out. The field is exactly the same as the Oscars, which means that, despite the squeals of America's teen-age girls, Leonardo DiCaprio got shut out of this one, too.
The only thing different about the SAG field for Best Actress is that it throws in a ringer as the sixth nominee -- Robin Wright Penn in "She's So Lovely." Otherwise, it too is identical to the Oscar race.
So is the Best Supporting Actor category. The fact that Oscar nominee Joan Cusack isn't in the SAG Best Supporting Actress category may very well tell you everything you need to know about Cusack's Oscar chances.
Completing the apparent marriage of the Saggies (or whatever they're called) and the Oscars is the SAG category Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Theatrical Motion Picture, which just so happens to be identical to the Oscar category for Best Picture, except that the SAG folks were hip enough to include "Boogie Nights" rather than "As Good as It Gets," the varicose vein nominee for this year's Best Picture Oscar. (In this one category, though, it shouldn't be taken too literally, because the Saggies and the Best Picture Oscar are almost 100 percent certain to disagree.)
So with the exception of a category or two, tonight is the show to watch if you want to see the dress rehearsals for the Oscar speeches. It's also the show to watch if you want an early line on the office Oscar pool.
These, remember, are the people who may know why Penelope Ann Miller can't get traction on a major career.
Who knows? We may even get another chance to see Ving Rhames -- the hit of the Golden Globes -- give away another hunk of tin to the favorite actor of his choice.