Monday, January 03, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 126: Point Pleasant (2005)


The horror "soap opera" form is a well-established one in television history.  Since Dan Curtis's daytime trail-blazer Dark Shadows (1966 - 1971), the world has also seen David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1991), a prime time Dark Shadows revival (1991), American Gothic (1995), Kindred: the Embraced (1996), The Vampire Diaries (2009) and even last year's Happy Town (2010). 

Created by John McLaughlin and Marti Noxon, Point Pleasant (2005) is another memorable example of the form.  As the critics of the day termed the Fox series, it was basically "The O.C. (2003 - 2007) meets The Omen (1976)."

For in Point Pleasant, a new arrival in town -- Christina Nickson (Elizabeth Harnois) -- is not merely a prospective hot date...she's the Anti-Christ. 

In the first episode of the series (which aired January 19, 2005), Christina literally washes into town, having fallen overboard at sea, and is rescued by a hunky life-guard, Jesse Parker (Sam Page).  Immediately, he feels drawn to her, and Jesse and Christina begin dreaming of one another.

In short order, Christina is also unofficially "adopted" by the Kramers, a Point Pleasant family which includes the town doctor, Ben Kramer (Richard Burgi), disaffected daughter Judy (Aubrey Dollar) and a matriach, Meg (Susan Walters) still in mourning over the death of her eldest daughter, Isabelle, a few years earlier.  Circling Ben like a shark is the sexy town vixen, Amber Hargrove (Dina Meyer).

And arriving in town shortly after Christina is the driving force and prime mover of the series: Grant Show's sinister  "Lucas Boyd," a Devil-worshipping, possibly demonic individual with the ability to play havoc with people's souls and decision-making processes.  Dressed to the nines (or is it dressed to kill?), Lucas begins doing favors for the town people...and then calling those favors due.

Specifically, Boyd comes to the quiet New Jersey beach town because Christina's powers have "started to manifest." As the Devil's daughter ("the child of darkness," according to Boyd),  Christina faces an important test of character and Boyd knows it and hopes to guide her.  She has seen the birthmark -- the 666 in her eye -- and she knows what she is; biologically-speaking.  But she also knows how she feels...and it isn't evil.
Christina Nickson (Elizabeth Harnois): The Anti-Christ?

And that's the rub -- and the dramatic meat -- of Point Pleasant.  Christina is not all "Carrie-at-the-Prom," fire-and-brimstone, from the first episode. 

Rather, she is simply a confused teenage girl  who was "born of a human woman" and therefore boasts a "choice" about her destiny.  Christina  seeks her identity on her own terms, beyond how others want to see and pigeonhole her. 

In other words, if Christina becomes part of a family, part of a community, part of the human race itself, she can be a powerful force of good in the world.

If, on the other hand, Christina follows Boyd's wishes and comes to see humans only as self-destructive "cattle," she will become the fearsome harbinger of our doom.  Throughout the series, Boyd does his job with glee, always separating Christina from those she loves; from her ad-hoc family, from her would-be boyfriend, even from the young Priest, Tomas, who sees tremendous "good" in her.

Marti Noxon, who did so much good with Buffy Summers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, works in a familiar and efficacious venue here too.  The metaphorical underpinnings of the show work well.  At Christina's young age, we all undergo the process of deciding "who we want to be," often over the desires of our parents. And as we start deciding who we are, those choices dictate our direction....towards the light or towards the dark. 

But there's another interesting aspect of the program's creative equation too.  And it is relevant, in particular to the "reality tv" times of the 2000s in which people like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians or Bristol Palin became famous because, well, they are famous, right? 

Christina is the daughter of a very famous personality, a "celebrity" (Satan) and so she is constantly measuring herself against others' expectations of her, given that heritage.  With the involvement of the Devil, of course, Point Pleasant is an exaggeration, but in Christina we see what it means to be Jenna Bush, or Chelsea Clinton, or any young adult who has to live up to -- or live down -- the reputation of her parents or family. 

In this Point Pleasant premise one might also recognize a bit of Stephen King's great novel, Needful Things.  Here -- as in that tale -- an evil wind blows into a sleepy little town and the denizens begin to suffer because of temptation; because of their material desires.  In this case, it isn't materialism per se,  that drives the locals of Point Pleasant, but rather all the typical human foibles: vanity, loneliness, sexual desire, jealousy, etc. 

Like his spiritual predecessor, Lucas Buck in American Gothic, Lucas Boyd in Point Pleasant does his job with great glee, watching with cynicism as he topples over human souls like dominoes.  His motto: "We're all basically bad."

Point Pleasant's greatest weakness for horror fans is likely the soap opera, O.C.-component of the series.  It's easy to take one look at the buff, gorgeous, young, sex-driven characters on the series and see this as a callow, empty-headed affair created purely to titillate. 

Yet, after a few episodes, the attentive viewer will get sucked in -- at least a little -- by the mythology, and by Boyd's constant efforts to bring diffident Christina to a boil; to bring about "The End of Days."  Harnois is appealing as Christine too: she has enough edge to seem like she could truly go dark; and yet she has a familiar, Sarah Michelle Gellar-ish winsome side that akes you want to take care of her and guide her to the light.

The individual episodes in the Point Pleasant canon are pretty variable.  There's a legitimately awful episode in the mix called "The Lonely Hunter" which features future Mad Men star John Hamm as a long-haired psychotic killer who abducts young girls and runs afoul of Christina...only to take her up as an object of worship. 

Contrarily, another episode really stands out as being memorable and affecting.  "The Last Dance" by Zack Estrin and directed by Michael Lange recounts some of the grim history of Point Pleasant at the same time it continues Christina's journey of self-discovery. 

Best of all, "The Last Dance" reveals Boyd's indoctrination into evil, in a 1930s dance contest of all places. 

Jesse's Mom (Clare Carey) has Iago - Lucas Boyd (Grant Show) - in her ear.
In the present, Boyd hosts a fund-raiser for the local church, St. Martins: a modern dance contest featuring Jesse, Christina, Jude and Jesse's girlfriend, Paula (Cameron Richardson) among others. 

Boyd's purpose is to cause, literally, a Carrie-at-the-Prom moment, wherein Christina will take out her rage and jealousy on Paula.  It's Dancing with the Anti-Christ.


But at the same time, the episode often cross-cuts to the dance contest of the 1930s, when things were tough in town.  When poor people danced for days in the hopes of winning prize money, very much to the amusement of rich locals

One of the contestants in that Depression-era contest was Boyd himself -- an impressionable young man in love, and one with big dreams of success.  During an intermission, he sees his partner Holly (Elizabeth Ann Bennett) betray him for cold hard cash...and heis never the same.  His journey to the dark side begins there...in the death of innocence, and the death of what he thought was true love.  After he commits murder, he is approached by a man who might be the devil (played by Prison Break's T-Bag, Robert Knepper).

In the present, Boyd's plan is almost successful.  Christina brings down a glittering disco ball out of rage, but Jude saves Paula at the last minute, and sees the dark-side of Christina's character for the first time.  Like all the best moments in Point Pleasant, this episode concerns how we choose to react -- or not react -- when confronted.  Do we fight back?  Do we turn the other cheek?  What's the right thing to do?  What's the right thing for Christina -- the child of darkness -- to do?

Fox cancelled Point Pleasant after just eight of the thirteen episodes aired, but you can see all thirteen episodes on the DVD collection (available through Netflix).  Unlike many short-lived series, however, Point Pleasant doesn't just drop off at the end, forever unresolved.  On the contrary, the final episode "Let the War Commence" ends pretty definitively as main characters die, as destinies are charted, and as Christina finally charts her course, for good or evil.  The series could have continued (and some dialogue indicates that possibility, in the next-to-last scene), but this episode also concludes the series ably.

In general, I'm not a big "soap" fan, unless that soap happens to be absolutely extraordinary (like Lynch's Twin Peaks or Raimi's American Gothic), but I was certainly diverted by Point Pleasant.  It has some great moments, even if individual episodes (especially early on...) seem to move at a snail's pace.  Although soap opera programs are always ensemble series, a big, lasting problem with Point Pleasant is that there is never any one character you really can follow or get invested in. 

Grant Show veritably dominates the program as Lucas Boyd, upstaging even the Anti-Christ in terms of evil.  It's a great gleeful, caustic performance, and yet it also represents a dangerous imbalance of sorts in the show's format.  Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- can stand up to Lucas Boyd, and so after awhile, you may not care much about the travails of Amber, Paula, the Kramers, or the young-Lucas-in-training, Terry (Brent Weber).  

Late in the run of Point Pleasant, Lucas is given a kind of Achilles' Heel in the Holly character (who re-appears after "The Last Dance") and one senses that thisoccurred to put the brakes on the guy a little.  He's an evil dynamo.  

A specter raised from the dead to kill Christina.
I really enjoyed Elizabeth Harnois's performances as Christina, but she also has a tough task, making Christina transparent enough to identify with her. 

Sometimes -- to get through the poor writing -- it just seems like Christina is weak, or goes with the wind, and that not the kind of ambivalence the character requires. 

Perhaps if Christina had started off strong, only slowly growing weaker, the character would have been easier to identify with as a lead.  Instead, Christina seems lost from the first moments of the series, and never really puts up an adequate fight against Boyd, though she does try, in one memorable episode "Swimming with Boyd."  Again, Harnois is good, but I think the writing of the character lets her down at times.

Point Pleasant is better than last year's Happy Town, and if you like the horror soap opera format, you can do a lot worse.  But in the end -- despite the game efforts of Grant Show and Elizabeth Harnois -- the series seems to definitively lack the magic -- black or otherwise -- that would have made it a huge cult hit.

2 comments:

  1. I heard of this one, but never saw any of the series. Sounds like an interesting premise, but the Boyd character (as you say) would appear to unbalance it. I mean a follower (no matter how enthusiastic) shouldn't be more of a threat than the being that is the Antichrist. That character is what made OMEN III's Damien Thorn watchable (though, that sequel still is not as good as the original film). Great look back on at this, John. And it reminds me that I definitely need to watch the AMERICAN GOTHIC series -- a friend shared the DVD set with me and I must get to it this year. Thanks for this.

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  2. Hi Le0pard13:

    You nailed the problem right there, my friend. Boyd is a more powerful presence than Christina, and that raises some issues. Still, Point Pleasant -- because it is only 13 forty-five minute shows -- is not a bad investment of time. There's some interesting stuff in there about human fallibility and nature, that I rather enjoyed.

    However, American Gothic is a real treat, a cult classic. Let me know what you think of it!

    Thank you for the great comment, my friend.

    best,
    JKM

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