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Forward Into the Past

6 minute read
Richard Zoglin

The prime-time Pancho Villa is a dashing figure. The Mexican revolutionary hero, who shows up in the first episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, battles gringos, champions the poor and makes inspiring speeches about the land. Yet his followers are an unsavory bunch who steal food from the peasants they are fighting to protect. “In a revolution, it’s people who suffer,” sighs a toothless old man whose chicken has been snatched. “All over the world, revolutions come and go. Presidents rise and fall. They all steal your chickens.”

Indiana Jones, George Lucas’ whip-wielding superhero, battled just about everything from giant boulders to sinister Nazis in three hugely successful movies. But those exploits pale beside Lucas’ daring in bringing his popular character to television. His new ABC series, which begins next week, follows the exploits of young Indy as he travels the world with his father, a college professor, and encounters some of the most famous people and events of the early 20th century. Indy serves as a courier at the Battle of Verdun, meets the young Picasso in Paris, goes big-game hunting with Teddy Roosevelt, matches wits with Sigmund Freud and even has a hot romance with Mata Hari. There are thrills and chills, but also — here’s where the derring-do comes in — a dose of history, philosophy and social commentary. As young Indy might put it, “Holy smokes!”

Chances are The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles wouldn’t be allowed near a network prime-time schedule if it weren’t for the name above the title. Lucas, who also created the Star Wars movie trilogy, is one of a growing cadre of ! top-drawer film directors who are dabbling in the long-scorned medium of television. Oliver Stone, fresh from eight Oscar nominations for his conspiracy drama JFK, is creating a six-hour series for ABC; Stone will disclose no details, but describes the series as “Twin Peaksy.” Steven Spielberg is working on Class of ’61 (also for ABC), a two-hour movie about the graduating class at West Point in 1861, which is the pilot for a potential series. Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Bugsy) is developing a TV movie about Baltimore cops for NBC. David Lynch, whose Twin Peaks helped launch the current wave of filmmakers experimenting in TV, is producing a new comedy series for ABC, On the Air, about a TV station in the 1950s.

The barrier that once separated feature films and TV has been crumbling for several years. Directors like Walter Hill (48 Hours) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) have done episodes for HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. John Sayles (Eight Men Out) created Shannon’s Deal, a lawyer series for NBC, and Spielberg ventured into series TV several years ago with his fantasy anthology Amazing Stories. Yet many filmmakers of the first rank still regard TV as a second-class medium. The chief drawbacks: less time to work, less money to spend and more restrictions on style and subject matter.

But as they try to woo viewers who seem increasingly bored with traditional fare, the networks are becoming more willing to let film directors try out ideas that don’t fit into the usual television molds. “TV is in a middle-aged period,” says Robert A. Iger, president of ABC Entertainment, which has taken the lead in signing big-name filmmakers. “Coming up with new ideas is difficult. We are trying different ways to skin the cat.” One innovation that ABC is touting is the limited-run series: shows that last a finite number of episodes. This format gives filmmakers the chance to do pet projects that are too unwieldy for a two-hour movie but that would quickly burn out (as Twin Peaks did) if stretched into an open-ended series.

Lucas, who runs his sprawling multimedia empire from Marin County, north of San Francisco, came up with his idea for Young Indiana Jones while working on an interactive-video teaching system for eighth graders. His goal was to involve youngsters in history while entertaining them with one of the movies’ most popular characters. “We need to introduce kids to history,” says Lucas. “I hope they will explore these characters later on their own, that these introductions are the spark that sends them off to the bookshelf.” Lucas has generated all the story lines himself, and is overseeing production. (Episodes have been shot in more than a dozen locations around the world.) “I’m doing this because I love doing it,” says Lucas. “It’s difficult to turn it over to another person.”

The show is more lushly pictorial than anything this side of the National Geographic Specials, and its seat-of-the-pants approach to history is peppy and playful. The two-hour premiere skips from Egypt, where the nine-year-old Indy (Corey Carrier) explores an ancient tomb with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), to the U.S.-Mexico border, where Indy (now 17 and played by Sean Patrick Flanery) rides with Villa as he battles U.S. troops under the command of General John Pershing. The nuggets of historical background are slipped in without too much strain (the Mexican rebels watch a newsreel showing the war in Europe), though Lucas occasionally goes too far for a historical gag. An arrogant army lieutenant strides into a bar and loudly disparages the “low- down greaser Pancho Villa” — then guns down a few partisans who disagree. “I’d say he’s going places fast,” comments General Pershing later about the hothead, who happens to be George S. Patton.

The big question is whether a TV show about remote historical events and personages will entice kids away from the Nintendo game or Beverly Hills 90210. The medicine might go down easier if the spoonfuls of sugar were sweeter. Indy’s adventures in the first episode are often unimaginative (the old mummy’s-tomb-with-a-curse routine), and the flip dialogue is too forced (captured by Villa’s men and about to be executed, Indy pleads, “If I don’t get home, my father’s gonna kill me”).

Still, Young Indiana Jones has an irreverent spirit, and no new show this season has more ambition or style. Though ABC programmers worried initially that it would remind viewers too much of earnest educational fare on PBS, Lucas was left alone to make the series as he wanted. “I don’t see this show as any more educational than Star Wars,” Lucas says. “It’s designed as a coming-of-age story.” If it succeeds, it might be a coming-of-age story for TV as well.

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