Judged by its plot descriptions, this week’s new made-for-television movie would seem ripe for either piousness or exploitation. The fictional Doing Time on Maple Drive is about the way a family deals with a son’s announcement that he’s gay. But rather than simplify the issues it raise or reduce its themes to soothing psychobabble or moral lessons, this movie does its best to draw you in with simple realism, which allows for complication, ambivalence, and other good things.
During the first 45 minutes of Doing Time on Maple Drive, it’s impossible even to imagine just which one of the Carter family’s problems the movie is going to concentrate on. The Carters are upper-middle-class dysfunctional: When dad Phil (Doogie Howser’s James B. Sikking) wants to assert his authority, he summons his three grown children to the tennis court of his posh home and humiliates them into submission with his power serve and bullying demeanor.
The result of such behavior over the years? Phil’s wife, played by Steel Magnolias’ Bibi Besch, is meekly resentful; oldest son Tim (In Living Color’s Jim Carrey) still lives at home and drinks too much; daughter Karen (Jayne Brook of Kindergarten Cop) doesn’t want to have a baby with her husband, Tom (Soapdish’s David Byron), until Dad thinks the couple can afford it; and youngest son Matt (William McNamara) gets himself engaged to nice, innocent Alicen (Full House’s Lori Loughlin) because he can’t bring himself to tell his family that his true love for the past three years has been a guy, Kyle (Bennett Cale).
Maple Drive takes place over the course of a week, in which the family gathers to celebrate Matt’s engagement. On the surface, everything is swell, all towel-snapping horseplay; whenever two people are alone, though, bile and rage seep out. When Dad catches Tim taking an afternoon nip, he sneers, ”Every time I look at you I thank God I have another son”; when Karen’s husband suggests they have some fun, Karen snaps, ”We’re not on vacation, we’re visiting my parents.” The Carters see family life as a prison — ”Doing time on Maple Drive” is Tim’s bitter joke about living at home.
Director Ken Olin knows how to create tension in suburbia, and perhaps because he used to portray the control-freak yuppie Michael Steadman on thirtysomething, he’s careful to prevent Sikking’s iron-willed character from becoming a stiff buffoon. Olin is aided both by screenwriter James Duff, who sets up one carefully shaped confrontation after another, and by the actors, all of whom bring humor as well as gloom to their serious roles. Carrey, known exclusively for his work as a wacky physical comic, is especially subtle here.
When Alicen discovers a letter to Matt from Kyle and forces the issue of Matt’s sexuality, the Carter family explodes with repressed frustration. Some of Maple Drive is a bit too psychologically pat, and its tender ending rings false, but this project is a big step forward for the Fox network’s young TV-movie unit, which has never offered a film this good.
Fact-based dramas appeal to viewers who don’t want to feel manipulated by the twists of fiction — they want to know what ”really happened.” This week, however, the complex, conflicting emotions of real life seem more compelling in the made-up drama of Maple Drive. A-