“Book Report,” the sixth episode of the Paul Dini-created high school adventure series Tower Prep, is conceptually notable for one main reason: Darin Morgan wrote it. For those who aren’t X-Files connoisseurs, Morgan originally starred as Flukeman in “The Host” and was then offered the chance to script an episode, possibly thanks to the fact that his brother Glen was a writer and both a consulting and a co-executive producer of the show. This time however, nepotism worked in a good way: Darin would go on to write four of the more memorable episodes of the series and contribute the story for another, like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” a Twilight Zone-ish episode starring Peter Boyle as a psychic that can see how people will die. (He also returned to the show as a guest star in the episode "Small Potatoes.")
Morgan’s influence was so widely felt after those five episodes that he would go on to direct and write two of the more talked-about episodes of Millennium, one of which follows a group of four demons as they kibitz about all the evil things they’ve seen and done on Earth. Since then, Morgan has worked with Glen as a consulting producer on a couple of short-lived reboots, Bionic Woman and Night Stalker, and more recently on Fringe. “Book Report” is the first piece of writing Morgan’s done that’s been produced since 1998.
But while seeing “Written by Darin Morgan” before any TV show is still a rather exciting thing in and of itself, anyone looking to “Book Report” to confirm the status of a writer whose career was miraculously established over the span of seven stand-alone TV episodes is bound to be disappointed. “Book Report” is also a stand-alone episode, but it’s also clearly clever filler material. It doesn’t seem to have much relevance for the show’s characters beyond overstating the obvious—Ian Archer must accept being our hero in order to be … our hero. While that’s never stopped any of Morgan’s best work from feeling more relevant than most of his other projects’ respective knotty mythologies, “Book Report” is just too flimsy to be worth more than faint praise.
Morgan seems to be coasting on fumes here with some very light and serviceable material that draws attention to archetypes in a way that’s ultimately not very convincing or endearing. Maybe it’s the mostly imprecise, hit-or-miss comic timing of the show’s teen protagonists or maybe it’s the fact that watching young high schoolers go on a Scooby Doo treasure hunt version of The Odyssey is only so funny. But the majority of the show’s cute and well-paced gags just don’t bring the show anywhere that memorable. I suspect this is because Morgan realizes just how moribund the show is, even if he takes advantage of its premise of corralling several different cliques of hormonal teens in the same place several times over the course of the episode.
“Book Report” begins shortly after Ian finds out that he and his fellow classmates have to cram for an exam on The Odyssey. The trouble is not one—not Suki, Gabi nor C.J.—has read The Odyssey. They try audio books and even consult a guy down the hall that specializes in speed-reading but nothing helps. They finally settle on using notes left in Ian’s book by someone named Norman to navigate Tower Prep in search of a way out that mirrors Homer’s epic poem. Except that the kids’ journey isn’t strictly limited to signifiers from The Odyssey: Ian meets a trio of feisty tank-top and panty-clad Siren-esque hotties and even finds a Cylcops skull but he also meets a Minotaur (kind of). The fact that Morgan had to throw in a mythological creature from another archetypal story proves how limited the episode’s plot was in the first place.
Or at least, how limited it is in Morgan’s hands. After all, the way that the characters self-reflexively make fun of the modern contrivances of their search isn’t necessarily the only way Morgan could have run with the episode’s central idea. But he does, and it’s effective in parts but mostly just half on-target. Jokes about spoiler alerts, GPS and potshots at the Twilight series are direct appeals to the show’s young, cynical viewers but these references really don’t connect with Morgan and hence don’t really serve as anyting beyond lip service to a demographic whose culture he’s not well-versed enough in to properly skewer. A wisecrack about when Suki tries to read the book aloud in a Wellesian voice, joking that she’s trying to talk like her uncle Orson, is a much better gag because it’s a reference Morgan obviously feels more comfortable with.
It’s possible that Morgan’s just better suited for a show with an adult sensibility but then again, he does get in some good universal jokes, like the one about how the speed-reader can only relate information he’s speed-read at super-speed or when Gabe rebuffs Ian for momentarily thinking that maybe they should give up and just read The Odyssey (“Dude, stop trying to be a hero!”). Also, the second half of the Twilight gag also works, specifically the joke about how accepting the mysteries of Tower Prep is just “like falling in love with a vampire.”
Still, these gags are a little too precious for their own good. It feels like Morgan’s just not sure how to address his audience, specifically what tone he should affect. Maybe they should have gotten Dini to script “Book Report”; he’s always been good at handling wispy stand-alone stories like it (his recent run on Detective Comics and his classic contributions to Batman: The Animated Series are both chockful of great stand-alone stories that revolve around the act of storytelling, most famous in The Animated Series’ “Almost Got ‘Im”).
And yet, in spite of the fact that so much of “Book Report” feels creatively adrift, the show has the kind of premise I can really get behind. Morgan’s script isn’t very consistent but the fact that he’s there in the first place suggests that Dini wanted to send a message to
people nerds that are on the fence about whether or not they should stick with the show or not. Like the way the episode confirms Ian’s role in the series—he is a hero and not just an eccentric outsider—“Book Report” is a strong sign that Tower Prep is dedicated to providing “quality content” for a younger audience. That is, the surest sign of quality content is a creator like Morgan, whose name is now synonymous with quality storytelling. “Book Report” whet my appetite for a show I didn’t even know existed before this assignment so all in all, mission accomplished, albeit inelegantly.
- Airmasters guns look totally ridiculous; if I were a kid, I would want three and would assuredly be disappointed after playing with just one.
- I am pleasantly confused by the use of Les Savy Fav’s “The Sweat Descends” in the Firebreather tv movie ads. Wonder if it’s any good.
- “Read it? I’ve lived it!” Say it ain’t so, Darin! Easily the worst line in the episode. So very, very lazy.