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TV Reviews : ‘Good Old Boy’ Anachronistic and Heavy-Handed

“Little did we know how little left there was of the innocence and magic of our childhoods,” intones narrator Ralph Waite, introducing the World War II-era Southern childhood fantasy “Good Old Boy” (airing in two hourlong parts, beginning tonight at 7 on Channels 28 and 50 and at 8 on Channel 15, and concluding next Saturday).

After a foreboding promise like that, a viewer may come to expect major-league deflowering of youth, or at least a more morbid “Stand by Me"-style coming-of-age saga, but no go. This is part of PBS’ “Wonderworks” anthology, and even by the time all that innocence and magic have allegedly passed on at the end of the second show, the emphasis is still heavy on the wonder, which doesn’t work.

Based on Southern writer Willie Morris’ autobiographical novel of the same name, “Good Old Boy” follows the mostly escapist exploits in 1944 of a 12-year-old Willie (Ryan Francis) with a summer full of nothing but leisure time, cavorting with his mischievous Huck Finn-wanna-be pals and the sweet young female thing who’s starting to catch his eye. The picture jarringly shifts between dewy-eyed, nostalgic realism and complete fantasy, in the time it takes to shift from a banjo-and-harmonica sound track to a wall of ominous synthesizers.

It’s hard to dislike any picture billing the late Anne Ramsey as “The Hag.” But when she turns out to be as nasty a villain as she at first seems, what’s the message for kids? That you and your pals really should band together and drive any suspected witches (or, in this case, river pirates) out of town?

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One doesn’t have to be a grown-up to be put off by the historical and geographical anachronisms here, or the wide-eyed overacting of the kids on screen, or the silliness and heavy-handedness of the few plot points that do develop over two hours--but it helps.


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