Banking on Blandness
Apart from gorgeous panoramas of the snowy Rockies, Everwood offers little fresh material. The story begins as famous neurosurgeon Andrew Brown (Treat Williams) neglects his wife, son Ephram (Gregory Smith), and daughter Delia (Viviene Cardone). After his wife dies in a car accident on her way to their son’s recital, which he misses, Brown decides to move to Everwood, Colorado, a town his wife once called a “heavenly” place where she would have loved to live. He intends to start a free medical practice and become a model parent. I know what the show is getting at, but as I watched the pilot, packed with numerous poignant moments, my own strongest feeling was a longing for South Park‘s biting critique of “quiet little mountain towns.”
Executive producers Greg Berlanti and Mickey Liddell seem to have culled the show’s main dramatic conventions from other successful dramas about small-town family and community life. Most obviously, Dr. Brown moves to a small town from the big city like the protagonists of Ed and Providence (in fact, his talks with his dead wife recall Sydney’s conversations with her dead mother). Everwood also airs right after 7th Heaven, a moralistic drama about a preacher’s family living in a small town.
Still, the creators of Everwood miss any compelling aspects of the storylines they ransack. In interviews, Berlanti has compared Everwood‘s focus—Brown’s relationship with Ephram—to that of Gilmore Girls, about a mother-daughter relationship in yet another quirky small town. But a single woman who chose to have a daughter at 16 and raise her on her own while holding a full-time job has little, or rather nothing, in common with a world-famous neurosurgeon who moves to a small town on a whim, having raised his children by proxy, with enough money saved to play doctor for free. Girls, in other words, explores a set of class and gender issues that Everwood avoids.
In crafting this fantasy, the show does a disservice to diverse populations living in small Northwestern towns. And that includes the white middle-class people at the center of Everwood, as well as those it leaves out, for example, the seasonal immigrant and tourism industry workers who populate most small Colorado towns. The only racially provocative storyline in the show underscores Everwood‘s homogeneity. Dr. Brown hires local nurse named Edna (Debra Mooney), who served two tours in Vietnam, rides a motorcycle, and is married to a black bus driver, Irv Harper (John Beasley, also the voice-over narrator). It turns out that the local doctor Harold Abbott (Tom Amandes) is her son, had employed her as a nurse, and fired her because she married Harper. Unfortunately, Edna and Irv appear as aberrant, oddball characters in otherwise snowy white town.
In short, Brown and Ephram’s emotional problems are completely insulated from any social, economic, or other everyday-life concerns. Ephram seems only to resent his father for forcing him to leave New York and for being “10 years too late” in parenting. At one point he screams, “I wish you died instead of mom.” It is difficult to see how this basic generational conflict might sustain the series, particularly since father and son arrive at quiet reconciliation by the end of the pilot.
Everwood‘s lack of context is particularly odd since Berlanti worked for a year on Dawson’s Creek, where the main characters have much more complicated intellectual and social histories. Unlike pop-culture-savvy and hyper-articulate Dawson, Ephram musters only one meta-cultural comment in the pilot—that a move to Everwood would be “Harrison-Ford-in-Mosquito Coast crazy.” How disappointing for a brainy adolescent musician from New York.
Once the family arrives in Everwood, however, they do form some relationships that promise more complex plot twists. Ephram romances the extremely attractive Amy (Emily Van Camp), who has two ulterior motives for flirting with him. She hopes Ephram’s dad can help her boyfriend, who lays in a coma in a Denver hospital, and she wants to get back at her father Dr. Abbott, whose local practice is threatened by Brown’s arrival. Van Camp is very good as a teenage girl trying to be a femme fatale, a character similar to her role in last year’s Glory Days. And Van Camp’s and Smith’s tandem performances are more subtle and believable than the overwrought father-son conflict.
Predictably, this show trying so hard to glorify quirky small towns is as a perfect example of Hollywood’s assembly-line production and marketing. Television producers, it appears, like the show even more than their target demographics. Variety reported that “all” network executives wished to have Everwood on their schedule. Perhaps they like the show because it lionizes their own self-serving practices under the guise of a small-town drama. Brown’s conflict with the town’s doctor can be read as a primer for corporate takeover: Brown sets up his clinic right across the street from Abbott’s office, hires Abbott’s former nurse, and offers his services for free. Hard to compete with that.
Or, more likely, TV networks just prefer to invest in predictable and banal storylines that pacify and reassure rather than challenge viewers. WB Entertainment President Jordan Levin explains to the Hollywood Reporter why he banked on Everwood‘s blandness: “It’s an incredibly flexible piece—it has numerous time slots that it can play in.” Sadly, the producers’ formulaic strategy has paid off, at least for now. Nielsen reports that Everwood beat last year’s same slot season premiere of the dark urban vampire series Angel by 51 percent. It is not clear whether the pilot succeeded because post-9-11 viewers long for sentimental life-affirming dramas, or because the WB began aggressively promoting it in June. I hope the latter.