To Be Young, Different and/or Black 

Wednesday, Feb 3 1999
Photo by Sharon Stevens

The Planet of Junior Brown, coming to Showtime after finding no room at the multiplex, is a beautiful little movie about a 300-pound piano prodigy, his clutching mother, oddball instructors and street-living friends, and the lies they tell and the worlds they create in order to survive, perchance to thrive. Based on a 1972 Newbery-honored young-adult novel by Virginia Hamilton, it transplants the story from Harlem to inner-city Toronto, in whose Regent Park housing project Jamaica-born director Clement Virgo came of age; and as an African-Canadian film, it has a certain quality of being at once familiar and foreign, as well as a becoming modesty it might not have had under American wings. (Although, that said, it has something in common with the showier Rumble Fish, another art flick for kids.) Virgo, who logged time as a window dresser before turning to moving pictures, has a talent for the well-constructed yet not obviously formal image, and before a word has been uttered it is evident, as key hammers work away at curled, broken piano strings, that we are at the start of something marvelous and strange; indeed, there’s a welcome lack of exposition throughout, and the tale, in no hurry to surrender its secrets, unrolls like a mystery. And it is a mystery, in its way: a mystery of life, of love and of music.

Anatomically correct Martin Villafana, in his acting debut, plays the enormous Junior, and if his delivery is slightly stiff, the role accommodates it; he’s emotionally true, and moves through his part with the motive delicacy of the very big. Lynn Whitfield (Eve’s Bayou) is Mom, all buttoned up with nowhere to go; Rainbow Sun Francks, born about a decade too late for his name, is Junior’s friend and protector, Buddy; Sarah Polley (tiny in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, bigger in The Sweet Hereafter) is Buddy’s beloved Butter; Homicide’s subtly solid Clark "Meldrick Lewis" Johnson is a janitor-professor and builder, in the school basement, of a 10-planet model solar system (the 10th planet being Junior’s); and Margot Kidder is (I don’t want to say typecast as) a paranoid piano teacher. All are as fine as baby hair.

The titular teenage quartet of Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane (the WB’s bid to extend its highly successful youth franchise into situation comedy, Sister Sister having entered the college years) is more materially and socially privileged than the inhabitants of Junior Brown’s Planet — they’re white prep-school students, and they live in a sitcom, which means that nothing permanently bad can happen to them — but no less confused, no less alienated, no less unadapted. (This is of course the great teenage affliction, and the not-so-secret theme of all these series.) You may have heard the show described as kind of an adolescent Seinfeld, and there are superficial similarities: the central inseparable quartet, the short scenes, the NYC locale, the habitual nicknaming, the secondary grotesques (a mean girl in a wheelchair, a man with one eyebrow), the sitting around in a place where coffee is served. Woody Allen is also invoked, if not evoked: Fielding Mellish (Allen’s character in Bananas) is the school they attend, and the word transplendent is at one point waved like a colored banner.

But J.D. Salinger, bard of disaffected/self-absorbed/spiritually questing Manhattan youth, seems to me the show’s real patron saint. Indeed, Zoe (the resonance with Zooey, as in Franny &, is perhaps not accidental) begins the pilot on a subway platform reading Catcher in the Rye. ("I’m reading it for school," she tells hunky older guy Scott Foley, moonlighting from Felicity, which in a sense is a slightly older version of this series, twice as long and without the laugh track, "but I would have read it anyway.") Though the principals share their domain-mastering counterparts’ preoccupation with sex, it’s because they’ve never had any: Zoe spends one episode considering whether to lose her virginity but in the end opts for another day, or many more, of childhood. One feels that, like Holden Caulfield (or Junior Brown), she would be distressed to find the word fuck written where little kids might see it. (Here, for example.) And where Jerry & Co. are Greek-tragical cartoons doomed to perennial envy and frustration, Zoe et al. works the warmer emotions. Being young, the characters are still more defined by what hasn’t happened to them yet than by what’s gone horribly wrong; they look forward. David Moscow (Duncan, lactose intolerant), Michael Rosenbaum (Jack, willfully smooth) and Lulu-bobbed Azura Skye (cynical, sad Jane), who might have something to discuss with Rainbow Sun Francks, are all jolly amusing; but there’d be no show worth mentioning without Selma Blair’s Zoe, its center of gravity — the series was originally called Zoe Bean — and the only character who isn’t even the teensiest bit a caricature. Blair, though she is in real life already out of college, seems persuasively untested; she’s got flusterability, and a face that lights with delight. Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane has taken some knocks from the critic corps, but I find it sweet and appealing and fairly often funny — which, if my affections hold to form, means it’ll be off the air before you reach the next paragraph.

While the WB is laying claim (or siege) to the pubescent masses, the younger set remains the property of Nickelodeon — Nielsen-certified the most successful cable network three years running. Its new Nickel-O-Zone, an hour of prime time for the 9 o’clock–bed crowd, is dominated, interestingly, by two shows with African-American leads, Cousin Skeeter and The Journey of Allen Strange. In the former, straight-arrow Bobby (Robert Ri’chard) has his life turned triply around by a move to New York, a crush on his new neighbor (Meagan Good, another Eve’s Bayou vet) and the addition to the household of his flamboyant cousin, a character so self-possessed, well-connected and loudly troublesome that nobody seems to notice he’s a big puppet (voiced by former MTV Jams host Bill Bellamy), a dramatic convenience that allows Skeeter not only to be sat upon by elephants and hurled across rooms, but to get away with behavior that would not wear so well on an actual human. I must tell you it always works out in the end. Entertaining, casually informative and likely the only place on TV to hear a line like "He’ll be on the team like a scoop of ice cream on John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme.’"

The Journey of Allen Strange, in its second season, makes the subject of teen alienation explicit, tracking a 14-year-old stowaway from outer space (Arjay Smith) stranded on Earth and still getting used to our crazy ways. Bits of E.T., My Favorite Martian and Mork & Mindy have been attached to the template of The Secret World of Alex Mack, whose creator, Tommy Lynch, is the man behind this curtain as well. Erin J. Dean, latest in a line of starbound Young Women of Nick that includes Melissa Joan Hart and Alex’s Larisa Oleynik (lately of 3rd Rock From the Sun), is Allen’s bestest friend, with her own separation anxieties (folks divorcing), and there’s a younger brother, Shane Sweet, to provide that younger-brother attitude. The fact that Allen, who is actually an amorphous collection of energy, has opted to dress skinwise in black has been impressively a non-issue — "I just picked this kind of human suit because I liked how it looked." Monday’s show, however, in honor of Black History Month, will follow that thread; you will learn that prejudice is bad, but that people are mostly okay.

Given that it was Disney that invented the teen adventure series way back in the 1500s, with Spin & Marty and The Hardy Boys run serially on The Mickey Mouse Club, it’s understandable that the House of Walt would want to get in on the new live-action action: Last fall it bowed The Famous Jett Jackson (with yet another African-American lead), about a teenage TV star who returns to his Mayberryish home town, and now comes So Weird, which, simply put, is The Partridge Family meets The X-Files — it’s shot in Vancouver, even — with Mackenzie Phillips as a version of her very own self, a pop star on the comeback trail. In a better bus than Shirley Partridge ever owned, TV’s former Julie Cooper, her two kids, a big old hairy roadie, his road-manager wife and their comic-relief son tour the country giving concerts, doing homework and encountering paranormal phenomena. Fourteen-year-old Fiona, played by perky, plucky Cara DeLizia, is the Mulder of the piece in a busload of Scullys, and her encounters with the otherworldly have been well staged, with creepy suspense and appropriate poetic detail. All right, I admit, I was scared. Now go away.

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