I probably receive an average of 30 hours of programs to review each week, not counting the shows that don’t send out advance copies or that I simply watch for the fun of it. It can sometimes be a slog to wade through it all but I do it in part because I’ve promised I’ll review everything that comes my way. That promise is a good thing for our readers, but it also turns out to be a positive for me. Because there are some shows that I might not watch under ordinary circumstances. Maybe the premise doesn’t appeal to me or I simply don’t think it’ll be worth the investment of time.
But as a critic one of my purest joys are those moments when I watch something that completely surprises me. There are those moments that you’re captivated instantly and it isn’t until the first episode is over that you realize just how much you enjoyed the ride. It’s those moments of joy that keep me wading through hours of programming involving Cajuns, ghost hunters and lonely singles living in Manhattan.
I had one of those moments of joy earlier this week when I watched “Granite Flats,” the new Cold War drama from BYUtv.
I’ve written a few times about my frustration with the lack of original entertainment programming coming from the dozen or so established religious-oriented cable channels. For the most part, these channels are content to air a few sermons, some fundraising pitches and a lot of old classic TV along the lines of “Happy Days” or “Touched By An Angel.” Once exception to that rule has been BYUtv, which is owned by Brigham Young University and based in Provo, Utah. The network had been rolling out an expanding roster of original programs, and this week is premiering “Granite Flats,” its first scripted series.
The drama is set in the early 1960s and centers on the fictional town of Granite Flats, Colorado. The recently widowed Beth Milligan (Annie Tedesco) and her 12-year-old son, Arthur (Jonathan Morgan Heit), have recently moved to the town from California and struggle to get settled into a new routine. On the first night in town Arthur sees what he believes is a comet and that sighting sparks a series of events that trigger a wave of Cold War paranoia in the area.
Beth works as a nurse at a nearby military base, which also employees most of the town’s residents. That fallen comet (or was it an alien craft?) sends shards of metal across the town and one piece causes an explosion on base that kills a Corporal. The explosion also convinces a number of residents that the Soviets have attacked and the ensuing panic is a pretty good representation of America’s mindset during that period.
Arthur and two fellow outcasts from school (Charlie Plummer and Malia Tyler) investigate the comet sighting on their own and it isn’t long before the trio are embroiled in possible espionage, mysterious men in black cars and a healthy dose of paranoia.
“Granite Falls” has a surprising amount of depth for viewers accustomed to the cookie-cutter feel-good stories seen on former broadcast shows such as “Touched By An Angel.” As the backstories of the characters are revealed, their underlying motives offer up some meaty subtext. My favorite being the father of the school bully. We’re first introduced to the bully Wallace when he confronts Arthur in the cafeteria. But in episode two we learn that he lives alone with his father, who is haunted by a decision that resulted in the death of most of his squad during a battle in some undisclosed Asian war. There is a scene when Wallace discovers his father drinking and as his dad begins to rant and cry you’re drawn into this glimpse of a world that must be horrifying for any 12-year-old to experience. You see why he’s a bully and that recognition brings a sadness to his character that is honest and unexpected.
There are a lot of unexpected moments in the first two episodes and while the show isn’t perfect, it may be the best family-oriented drama on TV right now. The acting is uneven at times and there is a tendency to have the characters explain out loud what their motivation is or what they’re thinking.
But there are so many great things about “Granite Flats” that it’s easy to overlook the problems. The show has emotional depth and it does a solid job of capturing the life of a small military town in the days of the Cold War. BYUtv ordered eight episodes of the series, but with any luck it will be successful enough to inspire not only more episodes, but other scripted shows at the network.
If nothing else, “Granite Flats” will remind viewers that “family-friendly” programming doesn’t have to be painfully earnest and terribly boring.
For more information on BYUtv, visit AllYourScreens.com.