Friday, July 14, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 13: Everwood

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls

The further I get from Everwood, the more I realize it was something of a sneaky Trojan Horse that used some of its conventional trappings to slide through development on a network that really doesn't seem like the most obvious home for it. This Greg Berlanti-created show debuted on The WB in 2002 and at first blush, seemed to have one foot in the "family drama" groove held by 7th Heaven and another foot in the "teen drama" one.

The backstory: Treat Williams plays Dr. Andy Brown, a world famous neurosurgeon who's left to raise his two kids teenage Ephram (Gregory Smith) and 9 year-old Delia (Viven Cardone) after his wife dies in a car accident. In a sudden, seemingly spur of the moment decision, he quits his Manhattan practice and uproots his kids to a small Colorado town called Everwood. There, the predictably quirky locals buzz about the arrival of the new doctor who's been on the cover of TIME, though his new (free!) practice leads him to quickly butt heads with the town's family doctor Harold Abbott (Tom Amandes.)

Ephram, who has long butted heads with his distant father, finds himself in another complication. The cute girl he likes, Amy (Emily VanCamp, in one of the best teen drama "teenage girl" roles ever), wants him to convince Andy to do brain surgery on her boyfriend, left comatose after an accident. As if competing with a guy in a coma wasn't enough for Ephram, Amy's father is Dr. Abbott.

It soapy when you lay it out like that, but the pilot is one of the best examples of how to introduce a complicated ensemble with a lot of connections to each other. If there's a core relationship in the pilot, it's the tension between Ephram and Andy, which at once point devolves into a shouting match where Ephram says (and means) "I wish you'd died instead of [Mom]!" It's raw, painful stuff, and it's not fixed by the end of the pilot. The two spend years rebuilding their relationship with a lot of one step forward, two steps back moves. There eventually comes a time when Andy does something unforgivable and an entire season is spent waiting for Ephram to discover it, with the viewer knowing that neither of them can come back from it.

It's a teen show where the main character is a man in his fifties, and about half of the ensemble is his age or older. It's a family drama where even a detente between parties doesn't lead to any resolution. It's a show that doesn't take the easy route of demonizing the manipulative popular girl OR the brash bully that's her brother.

Oh, I forgot to mention: Chris Pratt is in this, playing Amy's brother Bright. NOW will you check it out?

The seemingly simple tropes that each character falls into upon introduction belies the depth revealed as the story goes on. There are entire seasons where Amy Abbott is frustrating and exhausting but it's always compelling because Emily VanCamp and the writers sell the shit out of it. Same with Ephram, there are so many times where you know you should want to smack him but you can't help but understand his point of view. And Andy... this is the story of Andy Brown learning to be a father and a human and I like that it's not easy in the least.

Is there another WB show where one of the main cast relationships was an interracial marriage between a couple in their 70s?

This is another one of those "character first" shows where the writers found wonderful ways to weave in social issues and hit them from all sides by using their entire ensemble. A standout from the first season is "the abortion episode," where Dr. Brown is asked to terminate a pregnancy and the request sparks tension between not just him and the conservative town, but Harold as well... and not for the reasons we'd expect.

Some of the social issues were "hit and run" topics for one episode. (Television Without Pity had a fantastic moniker for these "Medical Epidemics Of the Week" or MEOW.) Here they'd hit topics like "teen sex parties" or "teen pregnancy." Other topics provided fodder for an entire season, as when Harold's sister returns from Africa and joins her family practice... not revealing until much later that she's HIV-positive. It stokes concern and mistrust in the town and destroys Harold's family practice entirely.

The Ephram and Amy relationship provides the expected amount of teen angst, but unlike other series, that plotline doesn't exist in its own bubble and so the ripples from that will touch and affect other plots like the Abbotts' marriage and the dynamic between Andy and Harold. This is one of those writings things that's generally invisible when it's done well.

If you watch most shows carefully, you'll start to sense divisions between various plots or "pods," as I call them. Supporting characters may have parallel stories, but you won't often see a lot of butterfly effect where one subplot knocks over major dominos in another subplot. (This is particularly true of The WB at the time. On Gilmore Girls, it was rare for anything happening with Rory at school to somehow impact anything going on with her grandparents.)

Everwood was never afraid of emotion, or of showing flawed characters who took time to evolve out of those failings. The writing always seemed to come from genuine emotion and this is an incredibly strong ensemble cast. I'm a big fan of Greg Berlanti's work in the DC Universe but for my money, this is is masterpiece.

The entire series is available to stream for free on CWSeed. Season One is that rare beast where I'm not sure there are any duds at all. Watch the pilot - study how it efficiently introduces such a large ensemble and let that pilot force you to watch everything that follows. If this show premiered today on Netflix, we'd be holding it up as another example of "Peak TV."

For further reading, check out this Oral History of Everwood from

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