The made-for-television movie, originally a product of economic necessity that combined the efficiency of the B-movies of the '30s and '40s with a low-risk way of testing prospective TV series, has always struggled for the prestige granted its theatrical competitors. Although producers of TV movies argued that their smaller scale allowed them to claim a territory of intimate personal drama that big-screen movies had abandoned, it also created a niche for safe and predictable dramas barely distinguishable from the repetitive network programming that surrounded them. As much as the networks love to advertise the occasional small-screen appearances of big-screen personalities and talk about their "commitment to quality programming," most TV movies -- for cable as well as for the networks -- are little more than filler for the holes in their weekly schedules. For every The Day After or Lonesome Dove, there are dozens of Danielle Steel adaptations and contrived thrillers like Baby Monitor: Sound of Fear.
In recent years, cable networks like HBO and Showtime have entered the made-for-TV field, widening the scope a little with films like And the Band Played On and Paris Trout, but these, too, are the rare exceptions. As two new and highly publicized productions premiering this month illustrate, the traditional broadcast networks no longer have a corner on banality. The BET Movies/Starz! co-production Funny Valentines and Showtime's Free of Eden are both strategically placed to debut during Black History Month, though race is only a marginal issue in them and history virtually nonexistent. Both have strong performances from players better known for their work in theatrical films, and in both cases the stars receive credit as "executive producer," a sign of the importance of attracting name talent to TV product. Both are ambitious and overplotted, wandering into stray subplots and trying too hastily to tie everything up in the last 30 minutes. Though one nearly succeeds in spite of its faults and the other is a total failure in spite of its brief flashes of charm, both ultimately run for the cover of trite, feel-good conclusions. Both are, in a sense, representative of the average made-for-TV movie's notion of "quality programming," still more of a marketing gimmick than an actual method of production.
Funny Valentines, based on a short story by J. California Cooper, is about friendship and family ties, about small-town life and traditional values, encouraging the viewer to simultaneously view its characters with a nostalgic respect and feel superior to their parochialism. The always watchable Alfre Woodard plays a Manhattan housewife who abandons her unfaithful husband to rediscover her Southern roots, taking her two daughters (one a typically sullen teenager) to visit the small Southern town and the beloved, mildly retarded cousin (Loretta Devine) she hasn't seen in years. Why haven't these two once-inseparable friends stayed in touch? You don't even have to follow the hazy flashbacks to guess that deep, dark secrets are due to be revealed, lost memories will be recovered and old wounds will be reopened and finally healed. Though Woodard and Devine are both very good, their friendship often genuinely moving, the film winds itself through one melodramatic twist after another (rape, romance, a death in the family, even a snakebite), all of them forecast so clearly that the audience spends most of the film waiting for the characters to catch up.
What makes Funny Valentines disturbing and even painful to watch is an unspoken cynicism lying beneath its sentimentality, a sense that audiences won't be troubled by the predictability of the drama. This even extends to the selection of the director. In 1992, when new black filmmakers were as fashionable as "independent" ones are today, Julie Dash made one of the most acclaimed films of the decade, Daughters of the Dust, but her only subsequent jobs have been as director of Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" music video and as a contributor to the HBO anthology Subway Stories. To the producers of Funny Valentines, Dash isn't much more than a name they can exploit, and despite the attractive cinematography and fine performances, her contributions are diminished by the sheer triteness of the script. She's allowed a few flourishes here and there, but the film itself is duty-bound to plod its way through its tiresome plot paces. If its own lazy storytelling and uninspired plot resolutions weren't bad enough, it's also proof of the fickle nature of film culture, where the independent voice heralded in one season becomes just another employee clocking in in the next.
(Julie Dash isn't the only director whose faded promise is exploited by made-for-TV producers. Steve James, who directed the acclaimed Hoop Dreams and followed it up with the barely released Prefontaine, is represented by another cable premiere this month, TNT's Passing Glory.)
Showtime's Free of Eden, directed by Leon Ichaso, is in most respects even more contrived and unbelievable than the psychodrama of Funny Valentines, yet the film itself is far more entertaining. The story is simple enough to pass as an Afterschool Special with rough language, and a handful of unnecessary subplots -- including those involving a murder in a restaurant and a woman in prison for murdering her abusive husband -- are barely distractions, but the film survives on the strength of its two central characters. Sidney Poitier plays a successful businessman, while his daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier plays a girl from the Brooklyn projects who decides that her only way out is to convince the older man to give her a basic education.
This contrived situation, the stuff of a screwball comedy, is muddled and its "Reading Is Fundamental" message a familiar one, but director Ichaso manages to avoid the story's potential to become "My Fair Lady meets Clockers" and allows the central performances of Poitier pere and fille to hold centerstage. Sidney Poitier is, of course, an extraordinarily compelling, if frequently underrated, figure, and his daughter holds her own against him, never suggesting that hers is a vanity casting. The film itself is self-conscious and didactic but in a way that recalls Poitier's own work as a director in the '70s. In dramatic terms, Free of Eden cheats, compressing too many plot points into a quick conclusion, but you can almost forgive it, thanks to the complexity Poitier brings to it through sheer iconic strength. A banal message is redeemed by the power of his personal presence.
Funny Valentines shows at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 on BET; Free of Eden premieres at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 on Showtime.