May 27, 2013

Granite Flats

BYU-TV is BYU's satellite/cable outlet. When it's not broadcasting BYU sports and Mormon-specific religious events, it tries hard to be a generic, family-values, Christian broadcaster that anybody interested in generic family values would watch.

The programming includes reruns of syndicated "family-values" shows like Doc (with Billy Ray Cyrus), Wind at My Back (from Kevin Sullivan), old Disney flicks (and clones of same), and PBS-style science/nature shows.

It also creates original in-house content, some of which is surprisingly not generic and even pretty good, like American Ride, Story Trek, and Audio-Files. The latest BYU-TV production is a first, a scripted drama series called Granite Flats.

Here, though, they started with a good idea and executed it so clumsily that I couldn't stop being fascinated by the cinematic train wreck that followed.

Granite Flats is a period piece that takes place in 1962 at and around an army base in Colorado. The night Arthur and his mother arrive in town (his father, we are led to believe, was a test pilot killed at Edwards) he sees a comet [sic] falling out of the sky.

The next day at school, he's befriended by Madeline, the school's Lisa Simpson, and Timmy, the youngest son of the town's chief of police. Timmy's not a brainiac like Arthur and Madeline, but makes up for it with sheer gregariousness. The Scooby Gang is thus formed.

At this point, I was pretty sure we were in for a cross between Encyclopedia Brown and Mad Scientist Club, with a little Detective Conan thrown in for good measure. And indeed, they soon set off to track down the comet [sic] that Arthur saw.

Incidentally, that "comet" is indicative of an underlying flaw in the show. These kids understand complex trigonometry. They can build a metal detector out of spare parts. They darn well know the difference between a comet and a meteor. Alas, the writers don't.

The Scoobies are tracking it down when an explosion levels the motor pool shop on the base, killing a mechanic. Frank, a patient at the base hospital where Beth (Arthur's mom) is a nurse, rushes to help. He comes back with hands burned "turning off the gas." A clue!

That evening, in the best, most intense scene in the whole series, Sergeant Jenkins, the guy in charge of the motor pool, shows his son (Wallace) how to clean his .45 while rambling on about a firefight that wiped out his platoon in Korea and getting steadily drunk.

Wallace slips the gun off the table and is walking away with it when Chief John Sanders (well-played by Richard Gunn) and MP Major Slim Kirkpatrick arrive to question Jenkins about the day's events. Jenkins immediately confesses to blowing up the motor pool.

Jenkins's confession is good enough for Kirkpatrick but Sanders isn't convinced and wants to dig further. The kids resume their hunt for the "comet."

Meanwhile, Beth's boss skulks around the hospital like the Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files, involved in a top-secret conspiracy that involves Frank. And future Al-Anon member Wallace gets taken in by one of the nurses at the army hospital.

This is way too much material for a eight-show season. But aside from the business with Frank, the logical way forward is for the two investigations to eventually dovetail, revealing the connection between the "comet" and the motor pool explosion, exonerating Jenkins.

Watching the kids as they track down the UFO (they've figured out it's not a "comet") is a lot of fun. Smart kids having an adventure while they solve complex problems using their heads! What's not to like?

But then something truly bizarre happens: Chief Sanders gives up on Jenkins and takes over the UFO hunt himself, literally leaving the kids with nothing to do. When I say "literally," I mean we are treated to scenes of the kids sitting around twiddling their thumbs.

The show self-destructs right on screen.

Eric Samuelsen thinks the producers feared those "free-range kids" were setting a "bad example." Perhaps, but it may be the most accurate thing about the show. That's pretty much the way all of us suburban baby boomers were raised: "Just be home by dinnertime."

Stranger still, it's as if nobody on the staff got the memo. IMDB has four writers credited, and they must have been randomly mailing in scenes without keeping track of what everybody else was doing.

Because soon after we have MP Kirkpatrick arranging a mysterious and meaningless midnight rendezvous to complain to a newspaper reporter that Chief Sanders is too involved with the Jenkins case.

Chief Sanders already begged off the case, so what's his beef? The "crime" took place on an army base and involved only army personnel, so Sanders has zero jurisdiction in any case. And besides, what's whining to a reporter about it supposed to accomplish?

Not to mention that MP Kirkpatrick is an MP. Not a prosecutor. It's a scene that manages to not make sense at any level. I could only discern one reason: to dump backstory material about Sanders on the viewer, backstory material that wasn't necessary in the first place.

This happens constantly.

More discombobulated material follows, as when Madeline lectures Arthur and Timmy--in her self-assured, Lisa Simpson manner--about the virtues of secular humanism. It's cute and in keeping with her character, but what in the world is it doing in a BYU production?

I was sure they were setting up a dramatic counterpoint that'd be answered at some point. Nope.

If the "Pastor Todd" character is supposed to serve as the counterpoint, then up with atheism! He has the personality of a used car salesman and apparently belongs to the same church of "American Reform Presbylutheranism" as Reverend Lovejoy on The Simpsons.

Granite Flats does a bang-up job of demonstrating the insipid irrelevance of the modern Christian church. Or was that the intent all along? All these conspiracies are starting to confuse me.

Eric Samuelsen wonders if the weirdness was deliberate, the director attempting to conjure up a Twin Peaks vibe. My more prosaic explanation is that the editor was frantically trying to stitch this Frankenstein monster together without enough body parts on hand.

The above publicity poster gets to the heart of the matter. Jonathan Morgan Heit as Arthur is featured out in front, which suggests that his is the lead role. It's not. Malia Taylor (Madeline) and Charlie Plummer (Timmy) handily steal every scene and dominate the narrative.

The cast is so crowded it's hard to say that any actor has the "lead" role, but the one true star is Richard Gunn as Chief John Sanders. Whatever show the writer, producer and director thought they were making, it isn't the one that got made.

The kid detectives eventually take on other cases, though the writers should have read a whole lot more Encyclopedia Brown and watched a whole lot more Detective Conan. These new mysteries pale in comparison to UFO hunting. They're just plain boring.

As I expected from the start, in the end, the UFO hunt merges with the Jenkins case, but only after Chief Sanders examines a scale model the kids made as their science fair project.

Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but we're supposed to forget that when Chief Sanders took over the UFO hunt, he also took the detailed map on which the kids plotted the trajectory of the UFO. We've seen him reading the map. So, what, he never unfolded it?

And then in the big climax that follows, all the information about Jenkins that Sanders should have otherwise been uncovering spills out in thirty seconds of exposition pulled out of thin air. (You know that great clue from Frank and the gas line? It never comes up.)

Having painted themselves into a corner, the writers try to get out of it by telling us everything they should have been showing us over the previous seven episodes.

In the meantime, a bunch of FBI guys are in town. They're looking for the UFO too. Their brilliant plan is stand by as Sanders gathers up the pieces of the UFO (okay, it's a spy satellite). Then they break into his office and his house and steal them back.

I don't know about you, but I'm glad those "good old days" are long gone.

Too late to help anybody, the world's worst JAG lawyer shows up to defend Jenkins. The show descends from bad writing to insulting writing. A guy's life is on the line and it's time for comic relief? I honestly felt sorry for the poor actor stuck in that role.

Unlike Harrison Ford, bit actors in low-budget indie productions can't tell the director: "George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it."

Oh, and Frank is still tripping out on a top-secret brain-zapping memory drug (that Madeline's parents are involved with somehow).

All I can say about that particular plot line is that if you're going to conduct top-secret experiments on top-secret human lab rats, then conduct them in top-secret! Not in an unsecured facility where the lab rats can walk around chatting up the un-top-secret nurses!

The fate of Frank and his brain is left unresolved. We've got to tune in next season to find out what happens to him. As Eric says, I'll watch the first episode to see if anything's improved. But I fear any more of the above will start rotting my brain.

Related posts

The negative aesthetic
Fixing Granite Flats

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# posted by Blogger Joe
5/27/2013 11:57 AM   
Concerning the discombobulated script, try Occam's razor in that; in the minds of college writing students, nobody wins an Emmy writing Wishbone (except Wishbone won four Emmies and a Peabody award.)
# posted by Blogger Joe
5/27/2013 12:02 PM   
I think the observations elsewhere were pretty good, especially the point that when your stance is simply being against something, there is no basis upon which to build.

By implication, pretending life doesn't happen makes for really shitty drama. (Which is why nobody's interested in movies about the people saved, only the ones left behind.)