[07/26/12 - 08:09 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Prodigy/Bully" (FOX)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2012-2013 season, now in its seventh year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!

[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]

(teleplay by Mike O'Malley; story by Mike O'Malley & John Wells; directed by Peter Segal; TRT: 21:10)

The network's description: No official description was released.

What did they leave out? The project is based on commercial director Hank Perlman's short films of the same name, which in turn were also turned into a pilot at NBC in 2006 with Josh Flitter as the title role and Perlman himself helming from a script he co-wrote with Steve Elliott.

The plot in a nutshell: "America's education system is in two words: a shambles," Lawrence McCarthy (Don Lake), headmaster of the esteemed Kaltschmidt School, notes in the opening to our faux documentary. Take fifth grader Audie Murphy (Thomas Vaethroeder), a rough and tumble kid from Lowell, Massachusetts. He's an unabashed bully at Spiro Agnew Elementary School, who taunts his classmates without blinking an eye and spends the bulk of his time in detention. But he's also something of a budding genius: whether it's spray painting math equations on buildings or creating havoc with a potato cannon. And while Spiro Agnew is likened to a prison where said skills are squandered, Kaltschmidt is a much more fostering environment. And so when an endowment fund for underprivileged kids gives Audie an opportunity to attend the latter, he's more than happy to take it.

Said decision is much to the chagrin of his pridefully blue collar father Tommy (Mike O'Malley) and perpetually annoyed big sister Jackie (Hayley Holmes), whereas his mother Celeste (Missi Pyle, who needs to be on TV each week) and younger sister Molly (Chloe Noelle) are steadfastly supportive. In either case, Audie ultimately proves to be a wunderkind, showing up dressage champion/alpha dog Colby (Cody Sullivan) in Latin class; coming to the defense of horse breeder/ingenue Teddy (Samuel J. Dixon) against an overly zealous teacher; or secretly impressing his crush/talented cellist Heather (Ysa Penarejo). That's all until he himself is bullied by Colby ("I get it if your rage stems from shame about your nascent sexuality," he taunts Audie over defending Teddy. "It's a common struggle for young homosexuals."), prompting him to punch Colby in the face. This of course riles up the students' parents and faculty, who have never seen such behavior. Ultimately he's given a choice: apologize for his actions or be expelled, a decision made all the more challenging by the fact he isn't sorry for doing it.

What works: It's got a genuinely funny hook and a cornucopia of amusing performances, especially from Vaethroeder and his classmates. From Sullivan's Colby as the effete villain (Colby: "My parents created an endowment fund to provide scholarships for underprivileged kids from poor countries. Where are you from again?" Non-white kid: "Boston."), complete with upper crust parents (Mom, played by Jessica Tuck: "There's nothing he can't do." Dad, played by Laird Macintosh: "Except fail."); to Dixon's Teddy as the hayseed scientist (Teddy, complete with arm in plastic: "Mares like me best because my arms are thin."); or the four-year-old version of Audie (Anthony Michael Brickley) fixing the family TV (Celeste: "How'd you learn to do that?" Audie: "The internet." Celeste: "Oh." Audie: "What's a MILF?"), even the briefest of characters are given the chance to shine.

Said opportunities apply to the adults as well, whether it's Lake's aforementioned headmaster, who's baffled on how to handle the situation ("I don't know, I count donation money all day long."); the mother of Ethan Dizon's sheltered Hugo (asked if he likes sports: "He's excellent at Wii, any of the Wii sports."); Audie's cousin Mark (Brian Scannell), who quickly underscores why Audie hit Colby ("I came out about 15 years ago and I told Audie, if anybody tries to use the word gay as a taunt, punch him in the face."); or obviously Pyle's Celeste ("Hey, we shop at Macy's buddy so watch who you're calling unfortunate.") and O'Malley's Tommy ("When did fighting become bullying? Bullying's bullying. Fighting's fighting. That's why they got two different words. They're two different things."). All in all, the show makes the most of its mockumentary aspects without being suffocated by them.

What doesn't: There's a manic energy that sometimes overshadows the show's naturalistic tendencies, as moments like students fleeing the school traumatized by Audie's fight overplay what's already a clean beat while a silly development like Audie strapping a former classmate to a makeshift weather balloon is needlessly called back in the closing moments. Said events run counter to the show's more refreshing aspects, such how it's a show with kids that doesn't blatantly sermonize to them. Audie for instance learns that sometimes you have to apologize to keep the things you want even though you're right, a lesson that isn't given by Celeste and Tommy on bended knee but rather like most morality plays during adolescence: being really annoyed about it until you realize it's a part of life.

The bottom line: It's a shame such a distinct show will never see the light of day.

  [july 2012]  


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