Television reviews

And you thought your teenagers had troubles


The Tomorrow People. 9-10 p.m. Wednesday. WSFL-CW 39.Instruments of Change. 9-10 p.m. Wednesday. WLRN-PBS 17.

The lives of mass-media teenagers have gotten a lot more complicated than the days when Archie’s most profound existential dilemma was whether to go out with the busty, apple-cheeked Betty or her rich, slinky BFF Veronica. Meet Stephen Jameson, who lately has been going to sleep in his own bed but waking up in between a distinctly unamused married couple in another building. Or arguing with the voices in his head, who say stuff like, “Just because I’m only in your head doesn’t mean I’m not real.” (Of course, that’s just what imaginary voices would say, right?)

Happily for Stephen, he’s not crazy, just a dangerous genetic mutant the government is trying to kidnap and enslave so his telepathic powers can be used to, I don’t know, melt Julian Assange’s eyeballs or something. Oh, man, I probably shouldn’t have written that. Can’t you just hear the phones ringing around Washington as NSA computers call their human masters to report that, at last, the phrases “telepathic powers” and “melt Julian Assange’s eyeballs” have been found in the same sentence, a clear sign that the Apocalypse is at hand? I’m telling you, reviewing TV shows is more complicated than it looks.

Anyway, getting back to Stephen, you NSA guys should note that he’s not actually a real person but the hero of The CW’s newest wallow in adolescent angst, The Tomorrow People. Which, if you’re a connoisseur of teenage grandiosity and paranoia, is not a bad show.

It seems that Stephen, hunkily played by Robbie Amell of Revenge, is unknowingly part of a species that modestly refers to itself as homo superior. Equipped with an extra gene that manifests itself in adolescence and enables them to engage in the “three Ts” (teleportation, telepathy and telekinesis), its members can do stuff like beam themselves into abandoned subway stations. Remarkably, this isn’t as much fun as it sounds. “Living down here like rats, it gets real old real fast,” confides one.

The hideout is necessary because the homo superiors have splintered into factions that are essentially at war with one another. One group, the ultras, has turned traitor, aligning itself with the sadistic evolutionary biologist (hey, another check mark on my bucket list of phrases I’ve got to write before I die) who heads a government drive to round up the superiors and use them for various Strangelovian purposes.

And some of the superiors have just plain gone off the rails, taking the traditional teenage impulse toward vandalism to exuberant new heights by Tweeting out the U.S. nuclear attack codes. (Hmmm. You don’t suppose Miley Cyrus...?)

All these various groups are chasing Stephen, whose powers are superior even to those of the superiors. Especially appealing are the blandishments of that mean evolutionary biologist (Mark Pellegrino, Supernatural) who seems to have some creepy connection to Stephen’s mom, and the superior honey Cara (Peyton List, Mad Me), whose best arguments are hormonal rather than intellectual. I think even Archie could figure that one out.

‘Instruments of Change’

Genes also play a key role in the WLRN documentary Instruments of Change, but in this case we’re talking about the one that control skin color. Instruments of Change is the story of South Florida music teacher Ruth Greenfield, who in 1951 set up the Fine Arts Conservatory, the state’s first racially integrated arts academy. As the bad old days of segregation fade further and further into memory, it becomes difficult to imagine that there was a time when anyone would object to black kids and white kids doing a few ballet steps together. But oh, there was.

The most touching parts of Instruments of Change are the interviews with black men and women, now creeping toward their 70s, recalling a deeply southern Miami where they couldn’t play in the parks, swim in the city pools or try on dresses at Burdines. Says one man, remembering the painful childhood day when his mother explained to him the racial facts of life: “You wonder what you did. You must have done something wrong.”

In a society like that, the Fine Arts Conservatory’s integrationist sentiments were barely short of revolutionary. For $1 a class, the school taught everything from tap-dancing to painting to any kid willing to show up, regardless of skin color. Its former students smile fondly at memories of the novelty of racially mixed classrooms, and wryly at those of the various locations where the perpetually underfunded school set up shop. The conservatory’s vagabond travels resulted in kids learning more than the cello: Some of them got their first glimpse of a corpse when the school shared quarters with a funeral home.

Instruments of Change mars its essential poignancy, though, by allowing Greenfield and her family to rewrite history. They claim to have been branded “communists” solely for letting black and white kids sing together. No doubt that Ruth Greenfield and her lawyer husband Arnold incurred plenty of abuse for defying the segregationist ethic of the day. But to the extent they were called communists, it certainly had more to do with the fundraising party they held at their Palm Island home in support of efforts to free convicted Soviet spy Morton Sobell from prison. Sobell was no innocent victim of McCarthyism; after serving 18 years, he finally admitted his guilt.

If you hunt around on the Internet, you can find an old issue of the Miami News featuring a photo of Arnold Greenfield (to whom Instruments of Change is dedicated), angrily trying to snatch a camera from a photographer who showed up at the fundraising party. If the issue of communism had to be raised in Instruments of Change, that picture belongs in the film, not hidden away on Google.

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