Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Male role models on TV: a reprise for Days (and Gatsby): Is Nick Fallon based on Nick Carraway?

When I was substitute teaching, I would mention young adult “role models” in Hollywood. Some female students would say, “Paris Hilton is not a good role model.” Indeed, as she couldn’t stay out of jail. I would mention Jared Paradlecki, who plays “Sam” in Supernatural, since he was named a candidate for the Presidential Scholars Program as he graduated from high school in 2000. IMDB says his favorite book is “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott FitzGerald. This is taught in Advanced Placement English these days in 10th or 11th Grade. (You can search for teacher’s sites on this novel, intended just for their classes, but still on the public web.) I divert for that great quote at the end of Chapter 3

“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

When I was on a sub AP English assignment this year, some of the kids (11th Grade) really jumped on that one passage.

I have to diverge further. Nick Carraway, as a young man, considers himself a “role model” I think (relative to the 1920s), and it seems that he is the obvious inspiration for the geeky character Nick Fallon (played by new icon Blake Berris, shown “on the beach” on an ABC series on soaps last week) on the NBC Corday soap “Days of our Lives.” The harder Nick tries to be honorable, the more of a target he becomes for corruption by members (most of all, “Katrina”) of the crime families ruling Salem (presented as being in, of all states, Ohio). By the way, it looks as though godfather Stefano (no Marlon Brando) will die of the stem cell transplant because Nick falsified the parentage report (for the unborn of the hapless Sami). (If anybody noticed, Roman is on the take, too, which is how Nick got off when he killed the blackmailing slut Willow “accidentally”.) To get back to “Supernatural,” Sam plays a law student, having just finished undergraduate work at Stanford, as he and his hothead policeman brother Dean (Jensen Ackles – both actors are from Texas) go on a nationwide roadtrip squashing the demons that destroyed their family when they were boys. Sam is the steady person, who keeps Dean in check. He even has to keep his cool when he learns that when Dean is possessed, he is destined to kill Sam. But, mysteriously, Sam sometimes gets possessed himself, although that is out of character. Sam is the “Nick” of the show. Sam is apparently a lot like the real Jared. I would tell students, you don’t make the A List by age 21 or so by skipping school when there is a sub.

But most of the male “role models” in contemporary series not only fit the genotype of the “desirable” European white male (we used to make fun of the word “desirable” in the Army by parsing it), but they also have to be supernaturally or specially created. Sam, above, after all, is a bit supernatural. So Clark Kent, who is supposed to be 20 now in the upcoming season of Smallville, is played by a youthful but 30-year-old Tom Welling. Clark, to be the man he is, had to come from another planet, and ignore the speed of light barrier in physics. One could look at him as an angel. Most of the time, he has a positive moral effect on everything, except when on red kryptonite (when he robbed some ATM’s in Seasion3). That inconsistency comes from the comic book world, perhaps. A more perfect role model might be Kyle XY (aka Noah) played by 24-year-old Matt Dallas, the wonderful teen taken in by a generous family on ABC Family, now in its second season. The trouble here is that Kyle has to be created artificially, and nurtured in an artificial womb until about age 17 (no umbilical cord). Kyle is not quite the superman Clark is, as his mentor is making him go through physical training in an abandoned Seattle (aka Vancouver) warehouse until he becomes another superman. (There is also a mysterious matching female XX who will fill the role of Lana.) I can imagine what a socially conservative writer like Maggie Gallagher might say about the concept of "Kyle XY" on a channel set up to support (heterosexual) "family values": can one take seriously the idea that the "perfect kid" can be cloned and created and born "ready to go" without years of nurturing, starting as a helpless baby, from a couple committed in lifelong marriage? (The family, though, is a stable monogamous couple with two other likable teen kids played by Jean-Luc Bolideau and Lori Trager.)

A better role model was Jake Foley, (on Jake 2.0, “The Ultimate Human Upgrade”, directed by David Greenwalt, in the 2003-2004 season on UPN) played by Christopher Gorham, a tech support guy at NSA who becomes superman when infected in an accident with nanobots. He always stands up to moral challenges (particularly in meetings with the powers that be) and does the right thing with his powers (even serving as an example for his irresponsible kid brother). Problem is, the show ran out of steam and got canceled after about 20 episodes, although ABC Family has rerun a few of the episodes. This is a great character and would make a good movie.

Another interesting example is Shawn Farrell, played by Minnesotan Patrick Flueger, who is abducted "from the future" for three years as a teenager and comes back with the power to heal, in the USA/Paramount series The 4400.

Ironically, Tim Kring 's Heroes (NBC) was so complicated that the characters it presented (the prescient painter, the scientist, cheerleader, etc) were not clearcut as "heroes" as those in the other series.

So, can you be "good" without being specially created to be such? (Critics sometimes actually compare Clark Kent to Jesus.)

We have other semi role models, some who are earth-grounded. There is the piano prodigy Ephram (Gregory Smith) on Everwood (which finished four seasons in 2006), who loses his chance to go to Julliard because of a Shakespearian failure involving his relationship with his widowed MD father; the torch passes to another kid Kyle Hunter (again, played by Steven R. McQueen). In Maryland, a composition student really did win a scholarship there recently, so maybe the show provided a preemptory lesson. You can think of others. For example, Bobby in “Jack and Bobby” (one season), or teenage lawyer Skip Ross (Jay Baruchel), in Just Legal which flopped after a few episodes because WB ran it against Monday Night Football, a big mistake.

Maybe Hollywood is getting this right with the Everyman teen character Sam Witwicky played by all purpose kid Shia La Beouf in the new Transformers. He runs with that rubic cube the way a receiver runs with a football.

In the gay series "Queer as Folk" on Showtime, Randy Harrison, as artist Justin Taylor, plays the role of hero. There is one line where he says, "I am the only kind of man I can be."

By the way, if Salem in Days is run by pseudo-Mafia; families of witches rule Harmony in the similar Passions. The latter soap the other day had an interesting confrontation where Teresa confronts a gay man who also slept with her about the medical dangers he could have posed to her. Some good writing there.

As a general rule, in developing a story (a screenplay or a novel) with this sort of character as a protagonist, it often seems more effective to start the main part of the story in the teen years or young adulthood. Smallville (after the 1989 meteor shower prologue) picks up when Clark would be 14 but looks and acts like an older teen, almost an adult. Kyle XY is literally created to be 17, and Shawn (in the 4400) starts out at 17 and, after three years as an abductee, comes back without having changed physically. He gets to take over the 4400 Center at "19".

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