Mountain lions, rattlesnakes, angry bees, pursuing bullies, a dad with a broken leg -- joey and Redhawk, two teen-age boys, certainly have their hands full. But then, they also have a lot of time to fill. "Joey and Redhawk" is the first network mini-series for children, airing in five half-hour chapters each afternoon this week at 4 on CBS (Channel 9), starting today.
The project is under the supervision of executive producer Daniel Wilson, who, along with ABC vice president Squire Rushnell, helped semirevolutionize children's television a few years ago with the "ABC Afterschool Specials." Following that network's lead, both NBC and CBS began their own occasional afternoon children's specials, with "Joey and Redhawk" the most elaborate entry to date. Superficially a perilous odyssey through miles of Southwestern wilderness, "Redhawk" is also a yarn illustrating common needs that unite diverse cultures -- Redhawk is a young Indian boy, Joey a 14-year-old white kid from Columbus, Ohio -- and navigating through other people's expectations to find one's true self. The author's message may not be a far enough cry from the blarney of Plonius, but it's smuggled to young viewers within a story of high narrative drive and considerable organic suspense.
Producer Wilson, whose company has made 10 outstanding "Afterschool Specials" for ABC and is now supplying children's specials to all three networks, said during a recent Washington stopover that he thinks this first network miniseries for kids could be a new milestone in the slow-but-sure improvement of children's programming.
"If this works," Wilson said -- meaning, if ratings are healthy -- "there could be a lot more changes, like 90-minute specials for youngsters in the afternoon, for one thing. We're taking a step not unlike starting the 'Afterschool Specials.' They said nobody would watch those, and so on and so forth, and stations didn't want to carry them at first. Now the 'Afternoon Specials' are getting bigger audiences than the programs they pre-empt."
The irony is that the networks had to be prodded and coerced into doing this kind of face-saving programming by such pressure groups as Action for Children's Television (ACT) in Boston. Once ABC got involved, it was found that children would indeed watch something besides candy-brained cartoons, and now prestigious good deeds produce substantial profits.
Wilson claims, however, that producers like him cannot get rich doing these shows. Networks pay up to $250,000 for two airings of a one-hour program, and this means Wilson must cut many a corner in production just to break even. On high-quality stuff like "Joey and Redhawk," the corner-cutting barely shows: Only, perhaps, in its trite and lulling computerized score does the program really cry "cheap."
Otherwise, director Larry Elikann, author Art Wallace and Stan Lazan, the industrious cinematographer, work the kind of wonders for which Wilson's outfit has an enviable reputation. And as usual, Wilson has found exceptional young actors for his film. Chris Petersen as Joey and Guillermo San Juan as Redhawk make their characters distinctive and believable, even when they have to recite "be yourself" platitudes at one another out in the woods.
Among the young actors whom Wilson discovered or nurtured in his "Afterschool Specials" are Kristy McNichol, Lance Kerwin, Jodie Foster, Perry Lang and Moosie Drier. Director Elikann is able to get naturalistic, unmannered performances out of these tykes that turn occasional credibility gaps in the script into mere cracks in the sidewalk.
Of course, older actors have something to offer, too, and in the fourth chapter of "Redhawk," along comes movie veteran Lucille Benson as mountain person Emma Saugus -- an invigorating arrival that brings with it the kind of rugged individualism and unimpeachable authority that Jane Darwell used to represent on the screen. Benson is a treasure.
"Joey and Redhawk" itself is in the noble tradition of American storytelling as established by Mark Twain and D. W. Griffith. Though the opening chapters are overly grim and a little poky, momentum picks up irresistibly by the third.
Wilson wants to do more children's shows like "Redhawk," and it would be nice if the networks, which have again managed to turn a public service into a money-making proposition, did more to encourage it.
"There's an audience for good children's programming," Wilson says. "You've got to find it; you've got to fight for it; you have to scream and kick and yell and battle for time periods with the networks, and then you have to make people aware of it. The reason we continue to be a dominant supplier in this area is that we get much more satisfaction from it than from most of the things we could do in prime time.
"I know how most prime-time shows are put together, and I know the pressures, and to me, it's a miracle that anything good gets on the air. Still, we've got a number of prime-time projects in development, because we can't support a company doing this kind of program, even if we did 25 of them a year."
Wilson's wild mane of hair and elastic face suggest a cross between Danny Kaye and Gene Wilder; he may be pixilated in a way that makes him an ideal producer of children's television, although he and his actress wife Zoe have no children of their own. Thanks to Wilson and his coosts, "Joey and Redhawk" represents another hopeful step for children's television, an encouraging development even if there is a journey of about 999 miles still ahead.