Well, it's official: The nine most frightening words to cross a television screen are: "Executive Produced, Created, Written and Directed By Tyler Perry."
They are main credits of "The Haves and the Have-Nots," a nighttime soap opera that debuted on OWN Tuesday night, marking the beginning of a much touted collaboration between Perry and Oprah Winfrey.
Advance screeners were not made available to critics; one can only assume OWN hoped to prevent us from rising en masse to prevent "The Haves and Have-Nots" from ever airing before staging intervention with Winfrey, who has apparently lost her mind.
With all the resources available to her, all the talented people panting to work with her, this is what she has chosen to make her debut in original scripted drama? A show that makes the fictitious soap in "Tootsie" look good?
Loosely based on Perry's play by the same name, "The Haves and the Have-Nots" revolves around the Cryer clan of Savannah, Ga., a wealthy white family short on Southern charm (mercifully, no regional accents were maimed in the making of this show) but overflowing with by-the-numbers Southern dysfunction.
There's controlling matriarch Katheryn (Renee Lawless), dissolute patriarch (and judge) Jim (John Schneider), their anxious and self-destructive daughter Amanda (Jaclyn Betham) and not-so-recovering-addict son Wyatt (Aaron O'Connell).
The "have-nots" are headed by two non-Caucasian servants -- the canny Celine (Eva Tamargo) and Hanna (Crystal Fox), who Kathryn has hired as her new maid, complete with the whole "Downton Abbey" black uniform/white apron ensemble.
We meet Katheryn and Jim in mid-power-couple-phone-conversation; she's planning his 50th birthday party and he's doing what any good Southern judge does on his lunch hour -- ordering up a young hooker. This one's called Candy (Tika Sumpter) and imagine Jim's surprise when she later shows up at his house, introduced as Candace, Amanda's bestest friend and law school tutor.
And Jim's not the only one nonplussed; Candace turns out to be Hanna's daughter, a fact both women shamefully keep hidden -- Candy can't bear to be poor, and Hanna doesn't trust her hussy of a daughter as far as she can spit.
Whatever hopes Perry had for this overwrought, derivative story line are dashed almost immediately by acting that can only be described as uniformly terrible and an unrelenting background score the likes of which has not been heard since talkies were invented. (Jim and Katheryn do have a very nice bedroom, however.)
From the opening scene, in which Katheryn does not seem to know how to handle a cellphone and Jim fumbles continually with his cuff buttons, "The Haves and the Have-Nots" is so awful that the awfulness appears intentional. Except that might make it interesting, and it just isn't.
Characters utter meaningless sentences into the air in front of the camera and then just stare at each other while maddening mood music insists that we feel something.
Oblivious to her father's twitching face as he contemplates Candace, Amanda, who is, we are told, a cutter, bounces around like a 12-year-old. Wyatt appears, trailed by sober companion Jeffrey (Gavin Houston), and within moments has shed all of his clothing for reasons that make about as much sense as Candy showing up at the Cryer house in a skintight red dress.
Whoo hoo, hot stuff. If only any of them knew how to utter a line of dialogue or even walk across a room convincingly.
Only Fox seems capable of rising above the indignity of the situation; in an unfortunate nod to "The Help," her Hanna is the only character granted any sense or insight whatsoever. When she and Candy face off about the humiliation of poverty versus the danger of a covetous life, you can see, perhaps, the story Perry wanted to tell.
Alas, James M. Cain got there first and "The Haves and Have-Nots" is no "Mildred Pierce." Hell, it's not even "Falcon Crest." On a bad night.