Competition has largely forced the networks to abandon the personalities they had in the early days of television; they all seem more or less alike now. And yet it's probably safe to say that only CBS would take a chance on a series like "Clubhouse," and that is meant as the highest compliment. It's a sweetheart of a show.
It's also too "soft" a program for a slaughterhouse like NBC, and too subtle perhaps for ABC, which is looking for any old thing that will help stanch viewer hemorrhage. "Clubhouse," about a 16-year-old boy who sneaks away from home to become a batboy for a major league baseball team, is a warm-all-over show full of entertaining emotional rewards, so good-natured that one almost assumes it will have trouble surviving in the cynical world of today.
Jeremy Sumpter, who played Peter Pan in a lame and noisy movie last year, does a much better job in his role as Pete Young, a boy with a dream so big and insistent that it pulls him right out of the house. He has wangled a batboy job with the New York Empires, a team that had to be invented when those damn Yankees refused to cooperate with the producers.
The movie-length premiere airs tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 9; then the show moves to the rough sledding of a Tuesday-at-9 time slot. Once known by the working title "Home and Away," which suggests that heartstrings will indeed be plucked by the stories told, "Clubhouse" mixes comedy and drama as Pete learns sometimes painful truths about baseball and about life, two subjects known to intersect from time to time to time.
As the new boy on the team, he's the subject of a traditional initiation joke: One player asks him to run off in a hurry and fetch a "bat stretcher," and Pete takes it well when he eventually finds out there's no such thing. Lessons he learns along the way range from frivolous to profound, but the show doesn't have any preachiness about it, and the characters are strong enough, and so well played, that you probably won't mind when the Author's Message, as Woody Allen once called it, billows across the screen like a flying flag.
Not all the players are swell guys, but one of the team's big stars, Conrad Dean, identifies with young Pete and watches out for him. Dean is played by Dean Cain, who had been wasting away as host of the foolish freak show "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" on cable but still logged occasional exceptional performances in small films and TV series episodes. He's ideally cast as the ideal big brother, taking the place of the one that Pete never had.
Back home, Mare Winningham, as Pete's mother, is not pleased as punch to find out her son has sneaked away to the ballpark. How the boy could have applied for the job and not required parental approval, and gone about the whole process in secret, is a bit of a mystery. Maybe there's some dialogue to cover it that went right by me (as things tend to do when you pass 85 -- or for some of us, much earlier), but whatever, it naturally precipitates a showdown or two when Mom does find out and hits the ceiling after climbing the walls.
In addition, there's another big crisis brewing at the ballpark and Pete stumbles right into it. Though he has no driver's license, he quickly agrees to drop a player's red Ferrari off at a Brooklyn auto shop for repairs. Unfortunately, the shop is closed when he gets there after dark. When, the next morning, cops pull him over for speeding, something incriminating is discovered in the glove compartment. It appears to be an illegal search, but that point is overshadowed by what's found and Pete's explanation for how it got there.
He's put into a situation where telling the truth will be tantamount to treason from the players' point of view, but tantamount to even worse things if he lies. There's every possibility that his baseball career will end in its first week or so. Okay, maybe we know in our hearts that everything will turn out all right, but at least this is a show that makes you feel something in your heart. So much television nowadays appears aimed at the stomach. Or the spleen. Or sets out perversely to give you a pounding headache.
In addition to Cain as a man of wise counsel, Pete gets help from Christopher Lloyd as a brusque and crusty old codger who manages the equipment and the boys' sensitivities and egos. "You ain't arrived in this game till you've been booed," the old man tells the young man at one point, leading to a deftly ironic ninth-inning moment. The show has a handsome look and movie-quality production values -- although it does seem odd that, after being told that Pete's story about the Ferrari has made big news in New York, we don't see a single reporter or TV camera crew chasing him down the street.
The crisis with mom is resolved, thanks to the intervention of not just seasoned player Dean but another very seasoned old-timer, Pete's salty granny, Nana Georgia, played by Marian Seldes.
Many many years ago, MGM filmed the popular children's novel "The Yearling," giving it the super-deluxe treatment. Today it seems fairly hokey, although the Technicolor bayou photography is still dazzling. But also dazzling is the performance of young Claude Jarman Jr. as a boy who tries to raise a young deer on a small farm. At the very end of the film, the deer gone, the boy lies back on his bed and dreams -- dreams to the accompaniment of MGM's heavenly choir. He can see himself and the yearling romping across a field together, toward the impossibly blue horizon in the distance. If at this point you don't dissolve in tears, you're likely at least to mist up a bit.
That moment captured the dream of youth better than the whole rest of the picture. It's a dream we keep clinging to and invoking no matter how dreadful the world situation or how hopeless the future may look. "Clubhouse" taps into this dream and does it with touching empathy, and whether one looks back fondly on boyhood or girlhood, it ought to work a certain magic on you.
Television will be a better place if a show like this can prosper, or even just survive. You can sense that virtually everyone connected with it has an emotional investment in the work and that for them, as for Pete and his batboy chores, this is much more than a job. Great feeling, fine show.