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Western Exposure
The WB expands its family practice
 

Date: 2003
Subject: Everwood
Article by: Nancy Franklin
Source: The New Yorker
Issue of 1/20/2003
Credit/Thank You's: equineluv

 

 


Now that the phrase "jump the shark" has entered the culture and given us a name for the point at which a TV series has peaked and starts heading downhill—the phrase is a reference to the episode of "Happy Days" when Fonzie, for some reason, attempted to water-ski over a shark—we're all hyperaware of the moment when things go sour (an element of preposterousness is often involved) and our loyalty is severed. Most TV shows, unless they've been prematurely cancelled, have a natural life span, and yet we take their demise personally: here we are, willing to show up week after week for years—how dare they decide to stop working on our relationship! Then there are the inverse moments, when a show unexpectedly succeeds in capturing our loyalty, or at least in heightening our attention. (Right now, of course, everyone's loyalty awaits deployment to the twenty-four-hour news networks if there is a war—something CNN seems almost to be gunning for, as it were, with the daily "Showdown: Iraq" hour and its theme music full of fateful nervous energy.)

I had been watching the WB's Monday-night family drama "Everwood" off and on since it began last September when such a moment came, a few weeks ago. (The episode, it turns out, was a rerun from October.) Two fathers—rival doctors in a small town, whose teen-age children are friends—had driven together to collect the two kids, who had gone AWOL from school one day and found themselves out late, with no way to get home. En route, each father spoke of how he would deal with his child. And then each did the opposite of what he said he'd do—the hard-nosed dad, who said that kids can smell fear in their parents and will take advantage of it, let his daughter know that he was just glad she was all right, and the dad intent on communicating with his son was left mute when his son angrily brushed by him, saying, "I'll be in the car." The men said one thing and did another, and you believed both. It wasn't a huge moment, but it was a complicated, memorable one that made you tip your hat to the show's writers.

One of the better shows that premièred last fall—some of the upcoming midseason replacements, at first viewing, already look more promising than most of the series that came out of the gate in September—"Everwood" was created by Greg Berlanti, who for several years was the head writer and executive producer of the WB teen drama "Dawson's Creek." Treat Williams plays its central character, Andrew Brown, a world-renowned New York City neurosurgeon, who performs miracles while neglecting his wife, Julia (Brenda Strong), and their two children, the fifteen-year-old Ephram (Gregory Smith) and the eight-year-old Delia (Vivien Cardone). We get an idea of his arrogance at the beginning of the first episode, when, during a consultation with a patient, he looks at a brain scan and says, "Glioblastoma multiforme. I like to call it the Great White of brain tumors." He's Ahab, and he's going to get that sucker—and don't expect him home for dinner. But when his wife dies everything changes, and Dr. Brown suddenly realizes what's important. He decides to move his family to Everwood, a small town in the mountains of Colorado, and open up a free practice.

"Everwood" has a few things in common with "Northern Exposure," in that it's about a New York doctor in the boonies, but in "Northern Exposure" the doctor wasn't there by choice, and everyone in his town, including the town itself, seemed pixilated. (Actually, the show's premise is closer to that of last year's ill-fated "The Education of Max Bickford," the CBS drama in which Richard Dreyfuss played a middle-aged college professor whose wife died in a car accident and who was left alone with their two children in his charge.) Everwood, the town and the series, is more earnest, and often more sappy. The show's opening credits include rough-hewn, sepia-toned drawings of the actors, and the theme music has a soaring, Rocky Mountain-high violin line. And many of the episodes begin and end with a voice-over by Irv (John Beasley), the school-bus driver and local fount of wisdom and loving-kindness—a device that has yet to add anything substantive to the show but only deflates it with spiritual gobbledygook. In one episode, Irv, talking about the beauty and utility of plants—the local florist has just died—says that they are "God's most alluring foot soldiers." At the end of another episode, he waxes teleological—you know, the whole giveth-and-taketh-away thing: "When things are working right in the universe, a loss of innocence is usually followed, in time, by an increase in humanity. Time is funny like that. For everything it robs us of, it grants us something." Honey, giveth me the remote. (Beasley plays a more articulate version of the Michael Clarke Duncan character in "The Green Mile." It seems to be the lot of black actors of a certain age and build and voice to play blue-collar workers who also happen to be holy.)


Once you get past "Everwood" 's homiletic aspects, though, the show has some real charm. The WB has almost cornered the market on a particular kind of family series that appeals to teen-agers and, to some extent, to their parents, and, in some cases, to both at the same time—"Gilmore Girls" is the rare show that almost-teen-age girls will allow their mothers to watch with them. The shows are wholesome, but they don't, for the most part, pander, and they appeal to that part of all of us that is still trying to figure out and possibly repair our own family. (If you care to have an extended wallow in unconventional family life à la the WB but are busy on weeknights, you can settle in for a three-hour block of reruns of "Smallville," "Everwood," and "Gilmore Girls" every Sunday.) In a way, a suddenly-single-parent drama like "Everwood" has a dramatic advantage over the intact-family scenario, because the children and the remaining parent are forced to come smack up against each other—they can no longer hide in the convenient bustle and hum of everyday family dysfunction. And, to make things worse for the kids (but better for the viewers), it's always the "wrong" parent who dies—at least, this is what the kids can be counted on to say at some point when the surviving parent is feeling most vulnerable and inadequate.

Ephram, Dr. Brown's son, is wonderfully played by the nineteen-year-old Gregory Smith. He, as much as, if not more than, Treat Williams, is the heart of the show. Williams is beginning to grow on me, but his face, with its hooded brow, is hard to see into, and the distracting Wooly Willy beard that his character sprouted upon arrival in Everwood at first made watching him an effort that interrupted your pleasure and concentration—like having to look for a golf ball in the woods. Ephram is in love with Amy Abbott (Emily VanCamp), and she is drawn to him, too, but she already has a boyfriend, Colin, who happens to be in a coma in a Denver hospital, after a Fourth of July joyride with Amy's brother ended in an accident. (In last week's episode, Colin came home—he was operated on successfully by the amazing Dr. Brown—but now he can't remember anything or anyone, including Amy.) Ephram is in pain, and it shows all over his face, and in the way he moves. If you saw him walking down the street, you'd think, That boy needs a mother, and you'd want to pull him toward you. His very guardedness is expressive, and despite his efforts to armor himself—you can see him close down in self-protection when he's around his father—the rage and the sadness and the sweetness come through. Smith looks like a real teen-ager, too, not a TV one; he's neither geeky nor bright-eyed and buff.

The other pleasant casting surprise of "Everwood" is Tom Amandes, who plays Dr. Harold Abbott, Amy's father. Dr. Abbott has an unfortunate personality—his way of welcoming Dr. Brown to Everwood is to tell him that he's in his parking space. He goes out of his way to make sure that he'll be disliked, and then he worries about being disliked. He wrestles with his prickliness and rigidity; and when he manages to override his own worst instincts—the sarcasm, the stubbornness (both of which are pretty amusing, actually)—he has a real sparkle. He has a nice, crackly voice, too; I'll bet he does a good Jimmy Stewart imitation. In what might be considered too neat a twist, his mother, Edna (Debra Mooney), an entertainingly crusty, motorbike-riding old broad, works as Dr. Brown's nurse. And she's married to the saintly Irv.

With its mildly quirky overlay, "Everwood" also sometimes recalls "Picket Fences," which was set in a quirky small town in Wisconsin. (Berlanti, who is thirty, has said that that show and "Northern Exposure" were two of his favorites.) "Everwood" may have a formula, but it doesn't lean on it too heavily; it uses the formula well, as a way of getting at the characters' emotions. Someone told me, the other day, that he had watched an episode of "Everwood" but was embarrassed to admit it. The WB should take that as good news: when you feel embarrassed by a show, you almost always come back for more.



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