Wholesome Fare Springs Up

Posted: Apr 18, 2002 12:00 AM
Given that foul cultural floodwaters are on the rise most everywhere, a small celebration is in order when they recede, even a little. On March 29, the Disney picture "The Rookie" opened. Now, this is a sports movie, meaning one could have expected it to contain typically sophomoric and raunchy locker-room language and humor -- but it doesn't. In fact, "The Rookie" boldly proclaims a G rating, something almost unheard of these days in feature films. It's the story of Jim Morris, a Texas high-school teacher and baseball coach who, in his mid-thirties, finally fulfills his dream of becoming a major-league pitcher, and it's superbly entertaining for children and adults. Most movie critics lavished praise on "The Rookie." Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post writes that it is "a rarity to be cheered: a smart, engaging family film that stands firmly in the best of the Disney tradition," and the Boston Herald's James Verniere declares that it "can take its place beside our greatest baseball films." USA Today's Mike Clark notes in his approving review that "The Rookie" is "a box-office test case for (a) 'clean' live-action" release. If that's true, then the studios should be gearing up to produce other non-computer-generated, family-oriented movies because "The Rookie" is a hit. It remains in the top five at the box office, and its earnings -- more than $45 million grossed in its first two weeks -- suggest it will be blockbuster stuff. When John Lee Hancock, the Texan who directed "The Rookie," was the guest for a Washington Post Web chat, one grateful fan of the movie no doubt spoke for many when (s)he told him, "Thank you for not putting in any ... foul language. It amazes me how much bad language the industry thinks is acceptable for children (and even adults) ... It truly was refreshing to go to a wholesome movie." Hancock answered, in part, "If someone said, 'Well, high-school (ballplayers) cuss all the time,' I'd agree ... But in every scene in the movie, they're with Jimmy Morris, and (he) would make them run five miles if they cussed ... That's what Texas coaches were like." Hancock is a Hollywood rarity: someone who understands and truly appreciates the importance of positive role models. Something's going on here. Not long before "The Rookie" opened, CBS unveiled a sitcom, "Baby Bob," which airs in the family hour, and deservedly so. "Baby Bob," whose gimmick is that its title character talks like an adult, includes no sex jokes, no foul language and no violence. Bob's father and stay-at-home mother are happily married, and his grandparents dote on him. It's honest-to-goodness funny. And "Baby Bob" is, yes, a hit. Paul Brownfield of the Los Angeles Times reports that the show, which the president of its production company calls "a bit of a throwback to some of the comedies that a lot of the baby boomers grew up with," drew more viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic than NBC's megaraunchy Julia Louis-Dreyfus vehicle "Watching Ellie," which, as Brownfield points out, is "aimed squarely at the hearts and minds of urbanites." Our final piece of good news has to do with another television program, one that isn't new but which might fairly be described as born-again. In the fall of 2000, Fox's high-school drama "Boston Public" debuted and almost immediately caused jaws across the country to drop with its over-the-top, sex-driven scenes and plotlines. A male candidate for senior-class president agrees to withdraw from the race and endorse his female opponent if she will fellate him, which she does. A teacher tells his class that he's masturbated while fantasizing about students at the school. The school newspaper runs a column discussing how girls can achieve orgasm simply by having their breasts squeezed. And so on -- all of it marketed to youngsters and aired in the family hour. Over the past few weeks, however, "Boston Public" has cleaned itself up significantly. Exploitative sexual themes are not out, but have been greatly reduced, and thought-provoking content, touching on such issues as anorexia and drunk driving, is in. An especially strong episode, which sparked debate in many high schools, in an honest and responsible manner explored the n-word and its repercussions. Maybe series mastermind David Kelley cut back on the lurid material in response to sponsor pressure, or maybe he grew weary of the relentless sensationalism. In any event, the revamped "Boston Public" is infinitely preferable to the sleazy original version. Even now, the show isn't family-friendly a la "The Rookie" or "Baby Bob," but it's far closer to that status than anyone would have figured just a few months ago.