Sunday, March 18, 2007

TV: The Road to Boyville

We usually make it a point not to read reviews before we write our own. Friends will sometimes complain that ___ totally distorted their show in a review and that's generally the extent of our knowledge of other reviews. This week's different because Rebecca made a point to summarize the Idiot Bellafante's New York Times scribbles.

Apparently, tired of distorting and attacking Gloria Steinem, Idiot Bellafante wanted to share with the public how tremendously stupid she was. She conveyed that quite clearly. October Road started its six week try out on ABC last Thursday. Idiot Bellafante watched, she just didn't have a knowledge base.

What's October Road? It's like a really bad Diane Lane movie without the saving grace of Lane. (Especially think Indian Summer.) But the plot? We've seen it all before even if the Idiot hasn't. The lead character is Nick Garrett, played by Bryan Greenberg, who writes under the name "Nicholson Garrett." What does he write?

Pay attention, Idiot Bellafante, he writes a tell all on his home town and then returns there. Are you already getting the connections? If you have a brain, you made them immediately. Peyton Place, Return to Peyton Place -- films or books. So Allison MacKenzie's become a man and psuedo-feminist Bellafante can't even note that? Well, she's a special kind of idiot: The last one to the Water Cooler after the Set's moved on.

Allison MacKenzie really only worked onscreen in the TV series Peyton Place. Played by Mia Farrow, MacKenzie was the ultimate waif. Given a penis by Andre Nemec and with a name change to Nick, the character's still a waif. Returning home for the first time in ten years, Nick is supposed to deliver a speech at his alma mata. He can't manage a speech, he can't manage questions and answers, he flees the auditorium at a fast run. With Farrow's long locks flowing after, it might have worked. It doesn't and that's because Bryan Greenberg is a lot like Patrick Dempsy before he finally found his footing (the mini-series Crime and Punishment). Apparently, Greenberg missed the fact that Nick was supposed to be tormented?

The show comes without a voice over. We feel we need to note that and note it early because it feels like it has a voice over. Or, as Big Cat tells Nick, "Shut up, man, you talk too much."

Never has one hour played so slowly. Though Greenberg's got no handle on the character from the start, the fast edits of the opening scenes suggested the show might move quickly. Those scenes were set in NYC (which, the show tells you, does have minorities -- two Hispanics, one African-American). They were howlers (such as the woman who apparently carries trashy novels with her when she goes to a dance club) but they moved quickly.

Then Nick returns to the mythical October Road, MA and we started wondering if the setting should have been Vermont? The oh-so-slow pace suggested molasses. Tom Berringer shows up a little thicker and a little grizzlier as Nick's father. You're supposed to believe Berringer's graduated to "character actor" but that would mean he'd achieved something elsewhere first and, let's be honest, that never happened. He gives the same performance he gave as the bi-sexual or gay character who killed Diane Keaton in Looking For Mr. Goodbar. He's given it his entire career. It wasn't pretty in the 70s and, thirty years later, it's still DOA.

The whole show is, a dreary little drama about Nick and how will he reconnect with his former friends, with his brother and father, with his ex-girlfriend, and, most of all, does he have a second novel in him? Idiot Bellafonte tells you it's a "soap opera" which only demonstrates how dull her own life must be.

It does have fantasy elements. Such as the fact that Nick has a place in NYC that's like a slacker's wet dream (note the Kurt Cobain photo). Nick's written one book that's sold okay. He's unable to write his second book, even with his publisher breathing down his neck. At what point does Nick get a day job? That's a serious question considering the rents in Manhattan. Do people really think a semi-successful novel is a lotto ticket? Apparently the creator of the show does, but will audiences buy it?

The shoddy manner in which the series is written suggests people think the audiences will buy anything. Ten years ago, after high school graduation, Nick went on a six-week trip to Europe and never returned home. Check your calanders, but we believe that would mean Nick graduated in 1997. So, while it's not surprising that he would have a photo of Kurt Cobain, it is surprising that moldy, oldies like "The Boys Are Back In Town" and REO Speedwagon are points of reference for him and his high school buddies. Thin Lizzy's song came out in 1976. His father could have been listening to it. 1987 was the last year REO Speedwagon cracked the top thirty on Billboard's Album chart. Nick, and his friends (with the exception of Hannah), would have been eight-years-old.

Due to the slowness of the characters, you wouldn't be at all surprised if they were still listening to Nirvana in 1997 (that's not an insult to Nirvana, it is noting that three years after Cobain's death, it was not storming the charts with new material). But there's no way in hell you're buying that this group of males (plus Hannah) were rocking out to crap from before they were born.

When a show wants to traffic in pop cult to add layers but doesn't care about the details, you get October Road. Remember that we said "with the exception of Hannah" earlier? Hannah wasn't 18 when she graduated high school. She was 17. The dialogue tells you she was two weeks shy of her 18th birthday when her boyfriend Nick left for Europe and didn't return for ten years. Can you absorb that?

Good. Because the writers are having real trouble with it. In a scene where Hannah is actually onscreen with another woman, she's explaining how Nick's return to town has effected her: "I saw him and it felt like I was 18 all over again." She's asked how she felt when she was 18 and she answers "scared." But she wasn't 18 when she last saw him. There's no attention to details -- which says a great deal. If anyone could have grasped that, the scene (which went right to commercial in the blink of an eye) could have Eurythmics "17 Again" playing in the background -- a song that hit the charts two years after Hannah graduated, so she'd probably know it.

There's no indication that anyone behind the camera would because it's sung by a woman (Annie Lennox) and the show plays out like bad MOR with pictures. You get a lot of shouts outs to faceless (male) bands, a lot of songs by faceless (male) bands -- male, male, male.

One of the things you may register first as the camera moves around October Road is that it's apparently an all White town. Then you may notice that women really don't seem to be present? (Which may be a sign that they were smart enough to move away from losers who graduated in 1997 but listen to MOR from their father's years.) There's a student the audience is supposed to like -- she stayed (she was the only one) around until Nick returned to the auditorium he ran out of to avoid speaking. She's supposed to be likeable but she comes off like the woman Jeff Daniels cheats on Debra Winger with in Terms of Endearment (the one who says "validate your emotions"). You've got a woman at a bar, you've got a wife of one of the buddies. (Apparently there's only been one marriage in their entire graduating class.) And you have Hannah.

Hannah's played by Laura Prepon and she's the only note of grace in the entire show. She's not playing Donna here (from That 70s Show). She's also not playing Debra Winger's character, Paula, in An Officer and a Gentleman -- though that's a comparison novelist Nick makes in print -- which makes you hope he never emerges from his writer's bloc. She's actually more like Lynette (Paula's best friend) in that there's no hope of escape for her. She's got some interesting physicality to convey that with. All her motions are tired, hesitant and slow. (That's in character, we're not calling her acting "tired.") The only exception to that rule is scenes with her young son where Hannah's body comes back to life. As later episodes play out this will become more clear, but Hannah's hopes are her son. That's who she's living for. She's giving a very adult and mature performance and commands your attention everytime she's on screen.

The rest of the cast? Some of the "boys" are actors. (Greenberg's not become one yet, despite the SAG card.) But stunted, emotional cripples really doesn't play. If Hannah's the wounded bird, the rest of the cast are the cuckoos she's flying over. The male characters are like a large Greek chorus incapable of acting independently and you're not thinking, "What a group of friends!" You're thinking, "What a group of losers!"

Never is that more clear than when it's time for the boys to rock out. They jammed twice in the first episode. The second time was to "The Boys Are Back In Town." Before you assume they have any musical talent, think again. Though they've been "jamming" together in high school and, with the exception of Nick, every Saturday for the last ten years, no one plays an instrument. They put a tune on the stereo and blast it while they pretend to play.

If that's not a sign for underachievement, what is?

Someone thought it was cute -- air drums, air guitar, etc. But it's really just pathetic to think that every Saturday, grown men are basically grabbing their hairbrushes and pretending to be Thin Lizzy or whomever else their fathers listened to. The whole thing plays out like little boys who can't and won't grow up, little boys who were told "That's so cute" when they were 8 or 9- years-old. Early on in the first episode, Nick's father asks, "What's wrong with those boys?" The audience is never provided with an answer but something is obviously wrong with those "boys."
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