Here’s something different and ambitious from ABC’s Afterschool Specials series: its first miniseries. For the next three weeks, Summer Stories: The Mall will dole out tales of teens laboring in a suburban mall. (The Mall was filmed at the Nanuet Mall in Rockland County, N.Y.)
A sort of Knots Landing Falls Into the Gap, Summer Stories is three hours of emotional subplots. Sarah (Mara Hobel) works in a mall clothing store; she lives happily with her adoptive parents (William Wise and Breaking Away’s Barbara Barrie) until the day she’s contacted by the biological mother (New York stage actress Kelly Bishop) she hasn’t seen since she was a baby. Whom will Sarah choose to live with now?
Another plot line involves Spinner (Sandy Gaberman), a nice young man who works in the mall’s record store and fronts a local rock band called Ozone Revival (”It reminds people about the environment,” he says). Spinner has a crush on Theresa (Marisol Massey), who’s engaged to Gary but who kinda likes Spinner — need we say more?
There are also Marla (Samaria Graham) and Diane (Jorjan Fox), waitresses in one of the mall’s fast-food restaurants. Marla is perpetually cranky because her mom is remarrying without having consulted her, and because she has recently been passed over for a promotion to assistant manager. Diane is a recovering alcoholic and former drug addict whose will is being tested by the sudden reappearance of her old boyfriend (Todd Graff), who used to provide her with drugs.
The subtitle of this project is a tad misleading — there’s not a great deal of malling in The Mall. I figured we were going to see how teenagers cope with customers and bosses, and learn something about the behind-the-scenes workings of your local mall. Instead, all of the various stories in this miniseries quickly move outside the mall and into the homes of the kids involved. That’s a mistake, I think, since it robs Summer Stories of a strong, novel theme.
The miniseries is directed by actor John Rubinstein (Crazy Like a Fox). He elicits good, natural performances from his young cast, and does a nice job of folding one story into another. Sarah, for example, begins to think she’s attracted to Spinner, and spends some time trying to lure him away from Theresa. Rubinstein seems to have a good idea of what young audiences want to see. While I was bored, for example, by a long party sequence in which Spinner and Sarah seem to dance forever, it finally occurred to me that that was the point: Rubinstein was drawing out the scene to show kids watching at home how their contemporaries flirt, chat, and slow-dance.
On the other hand, the performance of two complete numbers by Spinner’s dinky little rock band is too much even for a three-hour miniseries, while the dialogue tended to favor glib jargon like ”Your people skills are lousy” and ”We’re a lot alike…we’re both afraid to ask for help.” There’s a separate writer for each week’s episode — Lisa Melamed (Brooklyn Bridge), Chuck Menville, and the team of D.J. MacHale and Kat Smith — but Summer Stories maintains a uniform tone: adolescent anxiety regularly relieved by romance and goofing around. Next time out, though, I want to know more about that mall. C+