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In America, it’s Halloween weekend, filled with youngsters dressing up in costumes and visiting door-to-door, gathering candy and listening to spooky tales.  The tradition comes, at least in part, from old Gaelic festivals, in particular one called Samhain.  It marks the end of the harvest season, and in some places begins the Gaelic New Year.  It is also the dividing line between what is known as the “lighter” and “darker” halves of the year.

While many think of the time as one for spirits and ghosts, the Samhain interpretation would mean the beginning of darkness, when the lines between the two worlds are the thinnest.  Bonfires are lit to preserve the light, and the forces of evil, in disguise, come to visit the earth.  In the case of one FOX television show in 2005, it would remind us of one girl’s future also on the edge, and her fate and behavior very much depends on the road taken from here.  Ultimately, the influences upon her and the people she meets, both good and bad, might change the entire world.  The sad part is, as the old proverb goes:  Sometimes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

What path to take?

Welcome to the small coastal town of Point Pleasant.  A sleepy little bedroom community an hour or two south of New York City, the town’s peaceful existence is suddenly interrupted by a freak storm, which washes up the body of a teen-age high-schooler named Christina Nickson (Elisabeth Harnois).  She’s revived by a local lifeguard, Jesse Parker (Samuel Page), and brought to a nearby doctor’s house to rest and recoup.  Taken in by Dr. Ben Kramer (Richard Burgi) and his wife Meg (Susan Walters), she becomes friends with their tomboyish youngest daughter Judy (Aubrey Dollar).  Christina’s reluctant to even remember her past, let alone be returned quickly to her mysterious, usually absent father.

Christina has an odd effect on those in Point Pleasant, as tendencies are amplified, feelings are given voice, and inhibitions are unknowingly ignored in those around her.  Jesse’s girlfriend Paula (Cameron Richardson) is jealous of the relationship that might be growing between Christina and Jesse, and ends up with another boy, Terry (Brent Weber), causing a love triangle. (The sparks erupt at the end-of-summer bonfire — any references to Samhain are purely on purpose!)  Meanwhile, Paula’s mom, Amber (Dina Meyer), is a former classmate of Dr. Kramer, and she decides that the good doctor should provide some tender loving care for her… especially after she’s dismissed by her latest target, Lucas Boyd (Grant Show), who’s just moved into the town as well.

Lucas and Christina

It turns out that Boyd has a different target… he’s not only threatening Jesse’s religious mother Sarah (Claire Carey) because of her crusading son’s feelings toward Christina… but he’s ultimately trying to influence Christina towards darkness, as he works for her absent father.  Of course, daddy’s rather busy, as daddy dearest is apparently Satan himself, which would make the lost Christina the devil’s daughter.

She’s also the daughter of a human woman, who left shortly after Christina was born.  Christina’s search for her, and her interactions with the locals, will guide her towards either good or evil… and therein lies the conflict of the series.  Which path will Christina ultimately choose, and what will happen to the others in the process?

“It feels good having her here.  I feel good.”
–Meg Kramer, when Christina arrives in their home

While the Kramers are people of good heart, they’ve also dealt with tragedy along the way, as their daughter Isabelle died a few years earlier.  Christina’s entry into their life seems to have brought new hope to Meg… but temptation is finding its way towards her husband, thanks to Amber. Burgeoning boyfriend Jesse and new companion Judy are trying to help, but have their own issues to deal with.  The junior love triangle is starting too, but all these things are being nudged along by Boyd’s machinations and Christina’s emotions… and heaven (or hell) help those who get her angry.

Christina doesn’t know her capabilities early on, let alone the abilities of Lucas Boyd.  Her presence seems to erase inhibitions, letting the true nature of the people around her come into play.  And more often than not, there are other than just pure reasons for any particular action taken along the way.  Christina is learning… but is she learning the strength of good?  Or the anger and betrayal of evil?

“One of the challenges is to make it seem like it could happen to you.  That struggle in the Christina character between the dark and the light seems to us to be a very good metaphor for being an adolescent.”
Point Pleasant Creator Marti Noxon

Little do they know what's coming....

Marti Noxon was one of the people behind Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Just as fighting otherworldly forces was seen in Buffy as a metaphor for the alienation of high school and the trials of those young people finding their way, so too were the efforts of Christina and the residents of Point Pleasant to be seen as a supernatural search for morality and meaning.  The struggles of each of the characters adds to the choices Christina ultimately has to make, and whether she comes down on the side of good or evil depends more on their natures than any one of them realizes.  And once Christina makes her final choice, the fate of the world could depend on it.

“It’s all about duality, it’s about the best of people and the worst of people.  The fate of the world is going to come to a head in this really ordinary place.  It’s kind of fun, because it gives you an excuse for people to really look at themselves and say, you know, what do I want to be?”
–Marti Noxon

This is just a much more modern-day approach to the whole idea of Halloween, and some of its antecedents.  The observance of All Saint’s Day in many Christian religions is also traditionally the same weekend as Samhain, giving the “holiday” a feeling of yin and yang, of dark and light… a duality, just as Noxon and Point Pleasant were going for.  Characters did things you didn’t always expect, and even the best person in town had, if not evil, at least some doubt as to their own place in the occurrence of events larger than themselves.

This wasn’t necessarily even the big battle between good and evil, although the outcome would portend such a thing.  The battle on Point Pleasant could be likened more to the preliminaries of a chess match, where certain characters (instead of chess pieces), each of different strengths and weaknesses, fought more for position and possibilities than for ultimate domination… although such a thing might ultimately come.  And, opposed by enough lesser pieces, even the best and brightest of those among us could fall.

Who's influencing whom?

These are sometimes uncomfortable choices for everyone, and yet they are choices each of us makes every day, in matters large and small.  Unlike the characters on Point Pleasant, we aren’t archetypes on a canvas where we’re influencing the anti-Christ, but we are in a position where our choices influence those we love, those we interact with, and most importantly, how we see the world each day.  Marti Noxon is right when she sees Point Pleasant as a metaphor for these types of things, but they’re not just symbolic of choices for adolescents.  As soon as we are responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for shaping our own views on the world around us.

The scariest part of all this is not even how our choices affect us, but how they affect those in our lives.  For that is the part which is really out of our control, and yet all we can do is present, hopefully, the best of ourselves to everyone around us, to display the virtues of compassion, empathy, love, and honor, even when our own natures (and our own dualities) want us to do otherwise.  Perhaps this is reading too much into a prime-time television series like Point Pleasant, and yet it is part-and-parcel of the influences of viewers’ lives, and one would hope that the lessons learned there would be good ones.  Because otherwise, television becomes the good-intentioned road to Hell its worst critics believe it to be, instead of what its supporters hope for… a path, not to Hell, but to a better place for all.

ELISABETH HARNOIS (Christina Nickson) was almost born an actress, starting her career in front of the camera at the age of three.  As a tween into a teen, she was Alice, the lead in the live-action TV version of Adventures in Wonderland for The Disney Channel.  After Point Pleasant, she appeared as a recurring character on One Tree Hill and is now a regular on the current season of CSI.

SAMUEL PAGE (Jesse Parker) earned a college degree in ecology, and promptly came home and announced to his family that he was moving to Hollywood to become an actor.  The move turned out successfully, as he’s played regular and recurring roles on American Dreams, Shark, Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, and Gossip Girl.  He’s also modeled, and appears on the cover of the current Xmas catalog for the J. Crew clothing brand.

RICHARD BURGI (Dr. Ben Kramer) was the star of one of the few UPN hits not named Star Trek, in the 3 1/2 seasons of The Sentinel.  He’s also had runs in Judging Amy, The District, Harper’s Island, and Desperate Housewives.  Fans of short-lived series almost saw him as another hero, as he was one of the rumored candidates for the lead in the CBS series The Flash.

SUSAN WALTERS (Meg Kramer) was a regular on both Hotel and Nightingales before finding a lasting series in Dear John.  After Point Pleasant, she was seen in both One Tree Hill and The Vampire Diaries, in addition to a soap role on The Young and the Restless.  During an earlier stint on the daytime series, she’d met her soon-to-be-husband in real life.

AUBREY DOLLAR (Judy Kramer) has been featured previously on this site as the young reporter Cindy Thomas on Women’s Murder Club.  Another actress who started young, her first movie appearance was just prior to her teens.  She appeared for three seasons on Guiding Light, and also had a recurring role on Dawson’s Creek.

GRANT SHOW (Lucas Boyd) also started in soaps, playing on Ryan’s Hope for three years.  He hit prime-time stardom on the original Melrose Place, and was later seen in Swingtown, Accidentally on Purpose, Dirt, Private Practice, and Big Love.

CAMERON RICHARDSON (Paula Hargrove) started as a model before making the jump to acting.  Her first role was as a regular on the series Cover Me, which was later followed by Skin, 12 Miles of Bad Road, and Harper’s Island.  Now a new mother, she recently modeled for Forever 21’s maternity line during her pregnancy.

DINA MEYER (Amber Hargrove) has been featured on Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original) and Miss Match.  She’s likely more familiar to genre audiences, having appeared in Johnny Mnemonic, Dragonheart, Star Trek: Nemesis, Starship Troopers, and the Saw movie series, as well as starring on the TV series Birds of Prey.  Athletic by nature, she has performed many of her own stunts on-screen, and suffered a concussion during one particularly nasty stunt on Starship Troopers.

BRENT WEBER (Terry Burke) was discovered by a modeling agency when he accompanied his sister to an open call.  His career includes guest spots on Scrubs and CSI: Miami, and a featured role on the daytime soap All My Children.

CLARE CAREY (Sarah Parker) was a featured player on the comedy Coach, playing daughter Kelly Fox.  She was the “mother” of the Olsen Twins in the series So Little Time, and also a regular on the first season of Jericho and Crash.  She’s most recently been featured in multiple episodes of Chuck.

Point Pleasant is, thankfully, available on DVD, including five episodes never broadcast during its original run.  Since it was designed as a mid-season replacement, there’s a definite conclusion to the series if you get to watch all thirteen episodes… and a choice is made, although there’s plenty of room for more of the series to continue, had it been successful.  Alas, it was not, as FOX pulled the plug after Point Pleasant failed to garner the desired ratings, especially up against hits like Grey’s Anatomy and the original CSI.  Somehow, a series all about choices wasn’t one viewers made the choice to watch.  Maybe some of the less than perfect decisions of the characters hit a bit too close to home….

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”
–Dr. Leonard McCoy, Star Trek

OK, so I’m a Star Trek fan from way back… so sue me.  But in this case, I think this is the most appropriate quote to describe Point Pleasant, and the displayed duality between good and evil.  If you wish to go another route, famed Christian writer C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) described in his book, The Screwtape Letters, how ethics really fell into four categories… and how “good” only fit one of them.  A person making the right choices for the right reasons is doing “good”.  A person doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons is obviously evil.  But “right things for the wrong reasons”, and “wrong things for the right reasons”, are, to Lewis, simply rationalizations for evil masquerading as good.  Hence, the old saying about how “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

As we examine ourselves and the lives we lead, how many choices do each of us make which would fall far too easily into the “rationalization” categories?  Those are the ones which cause each of us doubt, and reflect upon those around us, positively or negatively… and we don’t always know how they’re seen.  Even if you aren’t religious in any way, those choices in life still have to be made, and still will be part of how we know ourselves… and how others come to know us.  We all have a duality inside… it’s what we create from it that makes our entire world… for good or evil.

Vital Stats

13 hour-long episodes — 8 aired — 5 unaired (all available on DVD)
FOX Network
First aired episode:  January 19, 2005
Final aired episode:  March 17, 2005
Aired at Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, FOX premiered the series on a Wednesday night, before the series settled into its regular Thursday night slot at 9/8 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Halloween weekend is upon us once again.  Unlike last year’s rather more gentle Eerie, Indiana, this year it’s time to take a look at a show that might portend the end of the world… if the right choices aren’t made.  There’s a point to everything, as you’ll see….

Five quotes:

Sometimes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

“One of the challenges is to make it seem like it could happen to you.”

“The fate of the world is going to come to a head in this really ordinary place.”

…we are responsible for shaping our own views on the world around us.

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”

OK, so one of those quotes isn’t from this particular show… but it still fits so very well.  You never know what might enter your life unexpectedly, for good or evil… and how decisions both large and small make a difference.  See what I mean, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“Space, the Final Frontier.  These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  It’s five-year mission:  to explore strange new worlds… to seek out new life, and new civilizations… to boldly go where no man has gone before!”
–The opening words to the original Star Trek series

Certain shows are just exciting to me.  Just the first two minutes prepared me for adventures, drama, laughter, and suspense.  I was excited just to start watching.  And those shows often become “destination television” for me, especially long before the existence of the DVR, let alone the VCR.  If you wanted to watch a certain program back in those days, you were either in front of the screen at the appropriate scheduled time, or you simply missed it completely.  And there was no Hulu, no internet, no DVD release where you might be able to catch up on the adventures of your favorite characters.  If you weren’t in front of the screen, you missed out.

People weren’t able to find out all the information they can now about upcoming programs, or even ones that have already been on the air for a while.  If your newspaper didn’t have a television critic, you pretty much didn’t know anything beyond the two-line description in TV Guide about what was going to be on until you actually watched the show.  Producers knew this and, as a result, they made certain there was a way to gently ease viewers into the experience, and that became known as the saga sell.

Although some also refer to it as the “saga CELL”, the saga sell is that bit of television during the opening credits that tell you EXACTLY what the premise of the show is.  It literally “sells” the audience on what’s about to happen.  A narrator would come on, providing a voice-over description of the star character and his usual predicament.  If you’d missed the pilot episode (which was usually an “origin” story, about how this all started up in the first place), the quick-and-dirty explanation gave the neophyte viewer enough information to get started on the adventures.

“Faster than a speeding bullet!  More powerful than a locomotive!  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!  It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s Superman!”
–radio opening to Superman

Many believe these openings came from radio, and the habit of making recognizable set pieces for the beginnings of various programs.  Since there was no visual available, the only method to announce a show was, literally, a description of the show.  So began some of the more famous openings, many of which made the transition along with the presentations from radio to television.

“Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear.  From out of the west with the speed of light and a hearty hi-yo Silver.  The Lone Ranger rides again!”

This opening was featured on radio, and became the clarion call for millions of viewers when The Lone Ranger made the move to our homes and a visual medium.  Accompanied by action shots of Clayton Moore riding his faithful Silver across the western plains, everyone watching was ready for the latest adventure to begin.

Shows in the ’60’s turned this into an art form, complete with music and specially filmed inserts to create memorable moments.  Theme songs on television reached their heyday in the next twenty years, with more than a few of them starting out with some variation on “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”.  These really were letting the viewers know the entire setup of the series, in catchy musical form.  From “Let me tell you all a story ’bout a man named Jed…” from The Beverly Hillbillies to “Here’s the story… of a lovely lady…” from The Brady Bunch, audiences everywhere learned these songs as they watched the shows associated with them.  (It was said once that more people could recite the theme to The Brady Bunch than could remember the Preamble to the US Constitution… but then, Schoolhouse Rock came along and set that to music too!)

“It’s a sea shanty with foreshadowing (“A three-hour tour”), suspense (“The Minnow would be lost”), a key change when they make it through the storm and a convenient way to introduce the characters…”
–Paste Magazine.com, about “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”, in their list of greatest TV themes

And, as in radio, that’s what many of these openings became:  more of a well-known clarion call for people to gather (especially when there was still only one TV in the house), because their familiar friends from television had arrived in their homes for the weekly visit.  Without pause buttons, it gave viewers time to get settled, knowing their favorites were about to begin.  Many of these sequences ran two minutes or more, allowing audiences necessary time and giving producers precious minutes that didn’t have to be filled with original (and expensive) programming each week.

In a business where time literally is money, shaving an extra minute or two off a produced episode means saving thousands of dollars, even as far back as the ’70’s or before.  This practice was mastered by legendary producer Stephen J. Cannell, whose action-adventure shows are some of the most remembered in the television business.  But Cannell knew it was a BUSINESS, not just an artistic venture, and some of his shows (The Greatest American Hero and The A-Team being the best examples) developed ways to fill time when episodes couldn’t.

The Greatest American Hero

Especially with action-adventure, it’s difficult to time scripts precisely.  There are methods to time out dialogue, to figure out how long a speech will likely run on film.  But stunts, various cut-aways, reaction shots for other characters, and special effects aren’t nearly so neat and tidy when it comes to length, and Cannell’s shows were heavy on these elements.  So opening and closing credits were adjusted to shorten and lengthen depending on the running time of the episode involved.  Cannell shows were famous for re-running clipped versions of scenes during closing credits, then having a “freeze-frame” with the actual credits on-screen.  While it may have been a fun reminder to the audience of the sequence of events they’d just watched, the business reason was simply to fill time (and save money) on a show that came in “short” of appropriate length.

While some of Cannell’s shows used the saga sell as a shortcut, others found it a necessary addition.  Some shows NEEDED beginning sequences, simply because the premise of the series threatened to be too complex for a viewer to simply be “thrown in” without warning.  My favorite of these is Quantum Leap, a show about time-travel, a hologram for an assistant, and a hero who appears as someone else to those in the story, but as himself to us.  Imagine not knowing these things and just tuning in… it’s very possible you’d be lost.  Fortunately there was a saga sell at the beginning of every episode to let us know how it worked:

“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished.

He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better.  His only guide on this journey is Al; an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.  And so, Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap, will be the leap home.”

Four sentences, and the entire series premise in a nutshell.  And the saga sell for the show wasn’t just a tool to help viewers, because an earlier version actually got Quantum Leap on the air in the first place.  While Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC at the time, was impressed by the pilot, he wouldn’t OK a series until he was sure the audience would “get” what was being portrayed quickly and easily.  He challenged series Creator Donald P. Bellisario to write a version of the saga cell, introducing Sam, Al, and the idea of “leaping”.  It had to be quick enough to not interfere with the episodes, and complete enough for someone with no background in the show to understand.  Tartikoff said he would approve the series if Bellisario could come up with a description that even his own 80-year old grandmother would understand…. Bellisario did, and the series ran five successful years.

style over substance

The “art” of opening credits also was used to create a certain tonality for a series.  Shows that didn’t use a narration or saga sell used musical themes as a way to “set the mood” for audiences.  Music writers like Mike Post and others were in high demand for their ability to present, quickly, the ideas and style of a series.  The idea of “MTV Cops” became “Miami Vice”, but it really was all encapsulated in the presentation from the outset, and the driving musical opening paired with the fast cuts and quick edits seen in music videos.  Credit sequences became more about flavor, more about tone, and the faster pace meant less opening and more actual show.

While at first networks didn’t think this affected anything, along came electronic monitoring of audience for ratings purposes to change their minds.  Once this ratings practice became standard in larger cities, the bean-counters at networks discovered something that alarmed them about the “opening credit” practice.  Viewers, now armed with “remotes” that previously didn’t exist, were using this time (and the time during the standard opening credits) to quickly and easily flip channels and see what else might catch their fancy.

“Back in the day, we used to have “remotes”.  We called them “kids”.”
–unknown comic

Combined with the spreading of the internet, the proliferation of cable, more programming choices, and the availability of more information about various shows, this all meant viewers knew what was out there, and what they wanted to see.  And programmers, selfish enough to want THEIR shows to be the ones chosen, were trying to find ways to keep people at home on their own channel.  So, why give them opportunities to switch?

Thus began the dreaded seven-second opening.  It’s almost de rigueur for television shows these days, especially on a network, to have as little opening as possible.  Saga sells may still exist, but actual credit sequences are little more than the name of the series, and a musical sting of some kind denoting the style or flavor of the show.  (Lost is the biggest example of this, with nothing more than the title shown in a mysterious ghostly form, the camera “floating” through the “O”, and ONE ominous chord played alongside.)  Instead of being a buffer to transport us into the world of the series, we are simply plunged into the adventure.  Most are used to it by now, but even seven-second openings can be changed as appropriate (as witnessed on Castle this past week, where the slightly jazzy opening was changed to a more somber one, without any usual brief animation, to reflect the tone set by the episode… which had already run for an act).

Viewers now no longer have the time to change channels during an opening without missing part of the actual show.  (Of course, many change during commercials, or even speed through the openings and ads with DVRs and such, even while other shows are recording… so the necessity of “seeing what else is on” is debatable.)  Cast and crew are noted on-screen during the next act of the episode, supposedly unobtrusively, but still occasionally distracting from the story being told.  But for some reason, opening credit sequences are now seen as unnecessary filler, something which gets in the way of the show rather than providing it a service.  Their lack also deprives a splintered audience of a uniting moment, a theme which can be used as a touchstone for those who watch.  Much like the idea of episode titles shown on-screen, theme songs and show openings have fallen by the wayside of modern television.

But all of television is cyclical, and when the need arises again for some catchy tune or necessary exposition, the saga sell and the theme song will return.  It will more likely be used as a marketing tool, a song available for download on iTunes along with the episode, but for those of us who celebrate the hits (and misses) of the past, television themes have always been our own shorthand to connect with others who share our passions.  And one has to wonder, how fans of various shows will feel with no clarion call, no explanation, no touchstone of their own for their favorites.  There’s a reason we remember some of these shows so well, and sometimes, it was for those first two minutes.

Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale….

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Time for a more general piece, and we’re going to start this one off right.  Gather everyone around the set, because it’s time for our favorite shows.  (You can tell… just listen!)

Five quotes:

If you weren’t in front of the screen, you missed out.

…the quick-and-dirty explanation gave the neophyte viewer enough information to get started on the adventures.

Schoolhouse Rock came along and set that to music too!

“He awoke to find himself trapped in the past…”

“Back in the day, we used to have “remotes”.  We called them “kids”.”

A trip through the history of a very important part of television, one that’s practically lost today.  (Or is that Lost today?)  Either way, you’ll see (and remember) what I’m talking about, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

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