Field of Vision is the sixth in the series of "Family Movie Night" TV films co-sponsored by Procter & Gamble and Walmart. The most ambitious and highly touted of these so far was probably last summer's sci-fi adventure The Jensen Project, which had a cast full of former TV series regulars (LeVar Burton, Patricia Richardson, Kellie Martin), and which immediately established the whole project's commitment to excellence by spelling LeVar Burton's name wrong at the website. The most familiar face in Field of Vision is that of Faith Ford, who used to play the grown-up mean girl Corky Sherwood on Murphy Brown but who hasn't been seen much since the quiet death of her later series, Hope & Faith, a sitcom that appeared to be filmed during her co-star Kelly Ripa's coffee breaks away from Regis Philbin.
In promoting Field, Ford has talked about how, "because I was born in ‘64 and raised in the golden age of television, [family movie night] was part of our lives, to sit around the TV watching together. With all the changes and everybody having a TV in their room, it all became separated and everybody would watch something different.” Ford also wants her fans to know that she would prefer to play a good mother in some piece of family-friendly dreck than a sexpot in some smutty sex comedy “because Lord knows there's enough of that going around", though she probably doesn't have to worry too much about her agent badgering her to go out for those kinds of roles, because, well. she was born in '64, and once starred in a sitcom where she was supposed to be less sexy than a character played by Kelly Ripa.
For the people who sign up to work on these things, part of the appeal has to be that it gives them a chance to boast about how they're supporting entertainment that the whole family can watch together. It may also be part of the appeal that, if the results are something that no family member of any age would want to watch voluntarily by himself or with anyone else, it's not as if many people will ever know. The Jensen Project was only able to scrape together 3.86 viewers, with a 0.9 rating among adults between eighteen and forty-nine, even with all those LeVar Burton fans tuning in. (Maybe if they'd postponed the premiere until after the last season of Community, a few non-fans would have at least tuned in ironically.) Directed by Gregg Champion, Field of Vision is to an actual movie, or even a halfway decent TV show, what a dried-out can of Play Doh is to Michelangelo's David.
Ford plays a high school guidance counsellor who takes an interest in a transfer student, the troubled and motherless Cory, who looks a little like Eric Stoltz as Rocky Dennis in Mask after trained professionals have spent most of an afternoon painstakingly sandblasting his face. Actually, nobody in Ford's family can bear to leave the new kid alone. Her daughter, Lucy (Alyssa Shafer), connects with Cory through their shared love of reading, a pastime that they both seem to engage in passionately but very slowly. She trades her copy of Black Beauty to him in exchange for his copy of Knights of the Round Table, an act that she seems to intend partly as a hint; she's been feeling that horses might somehow be connected to his destiny ever since the magical video camera that a kindly shop owner gave her just before Cody arrived in town began showing her images of horses cantering in a field.
If you saw the words "magical video camera" and didn't blink, you're this film's ideal viewer. Not only does the movie taken the camera's existence with a "Look, just go with us on this!" shrug, but nobody else who discovers its secret seems the least bit fazed, or even curious, about it either. (One suspects that the true secret to the camera's existence and central role in the story is that they were always planning the air this the weekend that Super 8 came out.) That includes Ford's son, Tyler, the star quarterback of the football team, who is goofing around with the camera at school when it suddenly decides to show him instances of Cory being bullied by a couple of his teammates. The bullying looks about on the level of what the Beaver had to put up with on a rough day before Ward would sit him down for a lecture on sticking up for yourself without resorting to fisticuffs.
However, the Beav didn't live in a world where the kind of people who want something the whole family can watch together on a Saturday night (We're watching this because it'll make us a better family, now put the @#$%!ing Game Boy down or I'll split your head!) are likely to have spent their weekday afternoons watching Dr. Phil give them the latest statistics on how many victims of high school bullying commit suicide every year by classmates who have exhibited sixteen of the seventeen tell-tale traits of a future serial killer. So Tyler swallows deep, reports his friends' naughtiness to his coach, who's played by a made-for-TV Keith David, and soon the bad eggs have been suspended just before the big game, and Tyler is taking crap from his remaining teammates, even as all the adults pat him on the back for having done the difficult right thing. Will Cory, who has sworn to have nothing more to do with football, suit up and single-handedly assist Tyler in his march to victory, after a pep talk from little sis in which she points to the King Arthur book under his arm and tells him she knows he "can win the battle"? Will Cory pick little sis up and stuff her in the nearest trash bin for telling him that "When I'm sad, I open a book and have an adventure"? Sadly, only one of these things comes to pass, and I didn't get a vote on which one.
Field of Vision is too concerned with being reasonable and fair to everyone to risk being dramatic in even a cheesy way. Once Tyler has outed the worst of his teammates for the vile crime of bullying, he tells the guy—who must have it in for Cory because he, at least, is still an age where he can look plausible when cast as a high school student, whereas the bully looks as if he must have been flunking out for the last ten years—that he hopes they can still be friends: "Sometimes, you get a little crazy, but that's what makes you such a good football player." Since the character is written and played throughout as a mean, stupid load instead of as a good guy with some bad instincts, you have to figure that speech is there just because somebody decided that bullies watch TV on family night, too, and there was no sense in alienating a key segment of the audience.
That's the kind of thinking you have to expect in a show that, while serving as an excuse for wall-to-wall commercials for the sponsors' products, also includes commercials for those products within the show itself. Driving his sister to school, the campus hero pulls a Sierra Mist from between his legs and, in response to her saying that he's not supposed to drink caffeine, launches into a testimonial to its delicious, decaffeinated goodness that sounds just like the ones in the ads for Sierra Mist that appear before and after the scene itself. "You sound like a commercial," sis tells him, har-de-@#$%!ing-har. There are also tie-in commercials for the next Dateline expose on the scourge of teen bullying, to the point that you can only thank God that neither Walmart nor NBC has an actual magic video camera to try to sell you.
Everything about Field of Vision is on a par with the "Christian rock" that blares out of the teenage son's car stereo: a slick substitute for "real" pop culture that's meant to resemble normal mainstream product but is supposed to be morally superior to it because it's just a little bit blander. I don't know what's sadder, the fact that there are people who now look back on the time when everybody watched the same crap on the same TV set in the set room as a lost golden age of family togetherness, or the fact that the notion of bringing families together around the set is supposed to make it seem ennobling to make this junk. Or maybe it's just the fact that, as far as scripted shows are concerned, this is what the networks have decided is worth throwing away on Saturday night, which could make you nostalgic for the one-two punch of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.