by Danny Stout
Metal objects are falling from the skies. Is that a broken carburator over there or part of an alien spaceship? A Russian bomb perhaps? And the bright lights; a UFO? Such questions drive BYUtv’s dramatic series Granite Flats, set in a small Colorado town in the 1960’s. All three seasons are now streamed on Netflix. The show has high production values, is family-oriented, and features reputable actors such as Christopher Lloyd, Cary Elwes and George Newbern. But, is it in the same league as the major studios? Like in a BYU football game, let’s show the world our best! But this is not football, and on Netflix it’s harder for a dramatic series to score a touchdown.
The underlying theme is the Cold War tension between the U.S. and Russia. Oddly, most main characters have some tie to a foreign spy, the American military, or the Communist Party. The bad guys are still at work in postwar Granite Flats, and three bright kids, in the spirit of Nancy Drew, solve the puzzle of the falling objects. Right after the era of bomb shelters, and sirens warning of air attacks, paranoia lingers in a town that’s more consumed with the Commies than watching The Flinstones or Leave it to Beaver after a long day of work or school. No, we’ve got to stop those infiltrating Reds! (i.e., communists)
The kids commence their investigation of the falling objects. These chaps should have met the gang in Stand by Me, the coming-of-age movie about four boys in Oregon. “Holy smokes, back to headquarters!” one of the Granite kids exclaims. While the Stand by Me guys talk like regular kids, such as arguing over the best TV shows and whether Mighty Mouse could beat up Super Man, the Granite youth dialogue is contrived, not colloquial. Perhaps Executive Producer Scott Swofford felt natural talk would somehow lower the credibility of a Church-sponsored production.
Granite Flats is a world without malice, real anger, or annoyance. Perfection is quite common: Would someone check whether any of the actors have dirty fingernails?
Madeline Andrews (Malia Tyler) the little girl, speaks like an adult, the kid with the glasses, Timmy Sanders (Charlie Plummer) over-acts and tries so hard to be uptight. A contrasting dialogue in Stand by Me , on the other hand goes like this:
Teddy: “I am acting my age. I’m in the prime of my youth and I’ll only be young once.”
Chris: “Yeah, but you’re gonna be stupid for the rest of your life.
The most exciting lines from the Granite kids are:
“Oh my goodness!”
“The bravest thing you can do is tell the truth.”
“Let’s go get your mother’s good cooking.”
Although the story is klunky at first, and with all dramatic series, it takes time to get to know the characters, Granite never produces enough dramatic tension. Young viewers, regrettably don’t know Cold War history and related espionage. Some characters did bad things for the Russians and might be willing to kill again, but the story flows like an average juvenile novel. With the exception of yelling and skirmishes in key scenes, it’s a world where everyone basically feels great. Army and nurse uniforms look new and pressed. The kids are never sloppy; they don’t even let their shirts hang out of their pants or go with shoes untied. The connection between Church-sponsorship and the depiction is an interesting, and perhaps a good topic for a Master’s thesis.
One exception to the dearth of realism is a scene where one of the kids can’t tie his tie and doesn’t want to go to Church. That’s bad, but also good because he’s real!
Intermittently, the program interjects gospel messages: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but to change the nature of the one who prays,” the boy says. He’s quoting his deceased father in a tender scene with his mom, and child viewers may decode such sacred admonitions, but it seems forced. The line, “I am never going to drink alcohol” also appears.
In the climactic scene, the young detectives uncover the sinister characters and some anemic surprises are attempted. Again, the dramatic tension during the narrative isn’t sufficient to deliver a climax that knocks you off your seat.
It is curious that the Cold War era fight against Communism is the lit motif. There was a subgroup of Mormons at that time that belonged to anti-Communist groups such as the John Birch Society. Perhaps a strain of that history filters down into Granite Flats in the Cleon Skousen tradition.
My supposition is that audience members will be divided about the entertainment value and the strength of the moral punch here. In this reviewer’s mind, it is an uneven film, but the underlying values in 1960’s Mormon history make the it worth watching.
(As of the date of this post, Netflix viewers give Granite Flats a 4 out of 5 star rating.)