BYU-TV has national ambitions, unlike KBYU, which is BYU’s public television station. BYU-TV wants to go national, be available on cable. My folks in Indiana get it, for example, through their local cable company–that’s where they watch General Conference. And so BYU-TV created their first fictional series, an 8-episode, hour-long TV drama, Granite Flats, which concluded its first season on Sunday.
My wife and I figured we’d watch it, give it a chance. It wasn’t terrible. It’s also not very good, though not good in what strike me as interesting ways. If I had to describe it, it would be a cross between The Andy Griffith Show and Twilight Zone, written by a big fan of the Encylopedia Brown books. With, occasionally, just a hint of Twin Peaks.
It’s set in the late ’50s-early ’60s, soon enough after the Korean War that those memories are still raw for some of the characters. Granite Flats is a town in some unspecified state, probably in the West. Beth (Annie Tedesco), a nurse, has moved there with her 12-year old son, Arthur (Jonathan Morgan Heit), following the death of her husband, a military test pilot. Arthur befriends two other kids, Madeline (Malia Taylor), and Timmy (Charlie Plummer). The kids are all science nerds, and they eventually decide to form a kind of kid detective agency. They’re like a cross between Encylopedia Brown and Harry, Ron and Hermione, with Arthur (the outsider) as Harry, and Madeline as Hermione (bookworm brainy girl).
Granite Flats seems to be, at times, small town America, nice shops, a central Church. But it’s also apparently a military town, with a local military base and hospital. There doesn’t seem to be a non-military hospital in town, for example, though there pretty much would have to be. Anyway, Beth works at the hospital, where she becomes friends with a mysterious patient, Frank Quincy (Scott Christopher), who seems to suffer from really strange momentary lapses in memory.
Meanwhile, Timmy’s father, John Sanders (Richard Gunn) is the Granite Flats chief of police, where he interacts somewhat uneasily with the head of military police, Slim (Brandon Molale). And when a mysterious explosion at the base kills a private, an NCO, Sergeant Hershel Jenkins (Peter Murnick) appears to be responsible, and in fact confesses to having committed murder. Sergeant Jenkins soon-to-be orphaned son, Wallace (Ethan Ross Wills), is informally adopted by another hospital nurse, Regina (Jessica Wright).
But in fact, the deadly explosion seems to be related to an event witnessed by Arthur, in which some mysterious celestial object flew over the town, shredding some kind of debris. And the kids decide to investigate it, even inventing a home-made metal detector. And they find all kinds of misshapen metallic objects along the flight path of the whatever-it-is. Which Timmy then tells his police chief Dad about, who then expands the search. And why are FBI agents skulking about town? What’s going on?
So basically, the show follows four main stories. 1) The three kids and their detective activities. 2) the chief of police, the metal objects he finds, and the FBI’s interest in him and them, 3) Sergeant Jenkins, in prison, insisting he committed (and be executed for) a murder we’re pretty sure he didn’t commit, and 4) Beth’s relationship with Frank Quincy of the strange memory lapses. I would add 3a) Regina’s relationship with Wallace, this poor sad kid with the father in prison and school reputation as a bully. Also, all these characters profit variously from the advice and counsel of Pastor Todd (Mitchell Fink), a kindly young clergyman who refers to God as ‘the Guy Upstairs’ and consoles his parishioners with his famously terrible lemonade.
Re-reading this description, it seems like there’s a lot of interesting dramatic stuff going on, and that it could be a compelling and enjoyable TV series. But it doesn’t really work very well, and I think know why.
In their advertising for the show, folks at BYU-TV kept saying that they wanted to make a family-friendly TV series. And that’s fine, that’s a laudable goal, I suppose. The LDS critique of contemporary popular culture is that it’s too sexy, too violent, too profane. The lament is, ‘why can’t we go back to the time when good entertainment didn’t have all that sex and violence?’ This show is an attempt to do just that. But it seems defined by what’s essentially a negative aesthetic. By insisting on creating an entertainment that doesn’t have certain elements, they haven’t really defined what they want to do instead. As a result, the show seems peculiarly undramatic.
To take the story thread with the kids, for example. When we meet the kids, they’re fascinated by this flying object that soared over their town shredding debris. They build a metal detector, they define its flight path by the stuff they find, they map out the direction it came from and they identify where it might have landed, and they go looking for it. That’s all really interesting stuff. But it’s as though the producers or writers then went ‘wait a minute, why are these kids traipsing around unsupervised. That doesn’t show Good Family Values. They should tell their parents and turn over their investigation to grown-ups.’ Which is exactly what happens–Timmy tells his Dad, and the kids stop looking for UFOs.
The kids go from there to solving the mystery of a missing cat (completely uninteresting), the mystery of a missing baseball mitt (totally uninteresting), and then, wow: they learn that someone’s been embezzling cash from the local hardware store. Hey, my wife and I thought, not bad, they’re actually solving a crime. It wasn’t a great mystery–my wife and I figured out who-dun-it in about four seconds. But it was pretty engaging for a few minutes there. They solve it, kudos all around. Then one of the kids’ classmates asks if they’ll help her figure out the identity of her secret admirer. It’s as though the writers went, “oh my gosh! The kids’ story-line is dangerously close to becoming dramatically compelling! I know, we’ll bring in this lame secret admirer thing. Whew! Crisis averted!”
Same thing with the FBI story thread. Chief Sanders has this collection of twisted metallic debris, and then one day, the FBI steal it from his cupboard, and take him to an abandoned warehouse or something. He’s sitting in a chair across a table from a head FBI honcho, the room illuminated by a single light bulb. He’s interrogated. It’s all very tense and dramatic. Well, we obviously couldn’t have that. So the head FBI guy affably says “hey, here’s what’s going on, let’s work together on this,” and from that point on, he and the chief are best buds. Again, it’s like someone went ‘conflict? We can’t have dramatic conflict!?!?!’
Same with the Sergeant Jenkins story thread. He’s in prison, charged with a murder he did not commit, facing the death penalty. Slim, his jailor, won’t let the chief even come see him. Jenkins has, in fact confessed to the murder. He’s been given a lawyer, the worst, most weasely and incompetent lawyer ever (can’t figure out from IMDB who played him). So, okay, there’s some real dramatic potential there. Maybe they’ll have a powerful and interesting trial scene or something. Nope. Instead the chief talks to his FBI friend, who tells the judge about the mysterious flying object (a spy satellite, it turns out, though why is it Soviet in origin?), who drops all the charges. Jenkins is in danger of his life! And then pfft. The whole conflict goes way.
Oh, and Sergeant Jenkins’ confession? To a crime he didn’t commit? Turns out all that came from his guilt over men he commanded who died in Korea. He ‘wants to die.’ The scene where he admits to that could have been interestingly dramatic too, so the show makes sure to zip through it as quickly as possible.
I mentioned Twin Peaks, and the show has a little of that going on too, but I don’t know how intentional it is. It has some of Twin Peaks’ slow pace, awkwardly long and pointless conversations, the way the camera lingers on some otherwise innocuous object in a room. But I don’t know if that’s an attempt at Lynchian weirdness, or just not-great direction. They never seem to know when to end scenes, for example, all the cuts being either a half-second too fast or too slow.
And the research seems off, though of course I may be wrong. But Beth’s husband (and Frank) both seem to have come from ‘Edwards’ which makes sense. Edwards Air Force base in the Mohave is famously where test pilots field-test new aircraft. If Beth’s husband was actually a test pilot, Edwards is where he’d have been stationed. But ‘Edwards’ is consistently referred to as an Army base. The local base in town is an Army base, as is the hospital.
It is true that Edwards was once the Muroc Army Air Field, but the Air Force took it over and changed the name in 1949, well before the period of this TV series. Also, the FBI chief honcho guy is played by an African-American actor. Which would be fine today. But under J. Edgar Hoover, it was a national disgrace how few African-American agents there were, and there were no supervisors. Minor anachronisms, I know, but they bugged me.
It was sort of fun playing ‘catch the continuity errors.’ Or arguing with my wife over which is the worst actor in the cast. And it’s always fun to see a show shot in Utah, and seeing local actor friends get work. It was fun watching my old friend Colleen Baum get arrested for embezzlement, for example. But I wish there were more local actors in the show. Most of the actors in this show were jobbed in from LA, and that seemed to me a shame. It’s not just civic pride to insist that Utah actors are as good as actors anywhere–it’s simply my professional experience, in a lifetime spent doing theatre.
I don’t know if there’s going to be a second season of Granite Flats. I suspect there might be. The first season ended with a cliff-hanger, after all, and we still have room to suspect that all may not be well in Granite Flats. Of course, based on the first season, I suspect they’ll find a way to squander the dramatic opportunities they’ve set up for themselves. But I’ll watch at least the first episode. It’s a show I keep rooting for, even when it disappoints.