It's a prevailing myth of American life that lack of opportunity -- more than lack of innate talent or intelligence -- is what keeps most people from achieving their dreamiest dreams. But ever since TV got into the business of handing out big breaks like supermarket flyers, that notion has been seriously challenged. Hopefuls keep lining up for their televised shot at ready-made celebrity, but, for the most part, shows like ''American Idol'' reveal more about the prefab-star-making process than about the deep wellspring of talent in which so many Americans believe themselves to be soaking. As a result, the shows tend to be enjoyable only in the cheapest, most schadenfreude-y way. A shining exception in this pantheon of regrettable programming is HBO's Project Greenlight.
For those who missed season 1, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and producer Chris Moore (''Good Will Hunting'') conceived ''Greenlight'' in 2000. Thrilled with their own Algeresque success and eager to give back, they set out to grant an aspiring screenwriter the chance to direct his script as a million-dollar studio film, which Miramax (who coproduces the series with HBO) agreed to fund. The winner was Pete Jones, a peach-faced former insurance salesman from Chicago with a schmaltzy script called ''Stolen Summer.'' Watching Jones, drunk on a cocktail of hubris and ignorance, butt heads with industry veterans made for some of the most compelling, hilarious, and heartbreaking televised drama in years.
Needless to say, ''Stolen Summer'' was a box office disaster. As a result, this season, measures have been taken to distribute the onus of responsibility more evenly: Winners were selected from separate writing and directing categories and paired up based on compatibility. Moreover, this year's submissions were, for the most part, superior to last year's. At least three of the four finalists in the director category displayed a respectable grasp of the craft; Moore even described one shot -- from finalist Jessica Landaw -- as one of the best he'd ever seen on film.
So Landaw was chosen, right? Of course not. ''Project Greenlight'' is many things -- a contest, an aid organization, a cause -- but, most of all, it's top-notch entertainment. And despite the scary brush with quality filmmaking, the show has once again landed squarely in Jones territory -- only this time, instead of one earnestly hapless wannabe, there are three of them.
Winning screenwriter Erica Beeney, who penned a coming-of-age tale called ''The Battle of Shaker Heights,'' seems smart, hardworking, and just one script note away from a total meltdown. For comedic value, however, she can't touch the Mutt-and-Jeff antics of winning directing team Efram Potelle, a freelance ''media artist,'' and Kyle Rankin, a landscaper. Having directed their own movies in Portland, Maine, Efram and Kyle are currently swaying perilously on the rickety scaffold of insane overconfidence.
First they tried to convince Miramax that they didn't need to hire an editor or a production designer because they could do both jobs themselves, and then they spent an entire meeting staring at actress Sharon Lawrence in stony silence when they were told she wouldn't read for the part. In perhaps the most egregious example of the duo's priority impairment, Potelle held up a preproduction meeting to ask for a free car after he learned BMW's product-placement department loaned the vehicle-less Beeney a Beamer for her short stay in L.A. ''So,'' he sniffed, ''I heard that they were giving away cars here at 'Project Greenlight.'''
While most win-your-dream-job reality series tend to be long on the slow-and-steady climb part and short on the fast-and-nasty fall, ''Greenlight'' dares to show what happens when the talent (or lack of it) hits the fan. As of this writing, it appears that we will again find ourselves rooting against the winners and for the recovering rage-aholic Moore, the beleaguered producer Jeff Balis, and maybe even for Miramax's Harvey Weinstein. (Affleck and Damon, always smart, funny, and gallant at the start of the series, wisely leave the trenches early on and later check in with occasional phone calls.)
Whether the ''Greenlight'' gang intentionally gambled on the dark horses in the hopes of winding up with a more compelling TV show, we'll never know. But as interesting and informative as it would have been to watch a levelheaded and talented filmmaker tackle his or her first studio project, it would pale in comparison to ''Efram and Kyle's Big Adventure.'' For all its benign do-goodism, ''Greenlight'' ultimately plays like a cautionary tale for aspiring players: Be careful what you wish for -- Miramax just might fund it.