Sometimes you just need some soap-opera suds to kick off the holidays.
By Jason Hink
The fine folks at Mill Creek Entertainment have fast become one of my favorite content releasing companies, shooting out everything from cult horror films to forgotten network TV movies such as Seasons of the Heart, a 1994 Carol Burnett vehicle produced by Joseph Feury and Sonar Entertainment (formerly known as RHI Entertainment when this film was produced, and more famously as Hallmark Entertainment before morphing into Sonar). Directed by actress/director Lee Grant and co-starring George Segal, Eric Lloyd, Malcolm McDowell and Jill Teed, Seasons of the Heart aired on NBC during the May ’94 sweeps period and features some bizarre tone shifts, but solid performances abound from the capable cast of old pros.
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Mid-90s America. Middle-aged high-level book publisher Vivian Levinson (Carol Burnett, The Carol Burnett Show) is finally living the life that eluded her now that her husband, Charlie, has died. For the past 25 years she’s been a high-profile, corporate publisher, enjoying casual affairs with men along the way, including former boxer and (maybe) gangster Ezra Goldstein (George Segal, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). The difference? She’s always loved Ezra…and now she’s married to him, and everything’s finally perfect. Or is it?
Vivian is currently working with boozy author Alfred McGuinness (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange, TV’s Mozart in the Jungle), another old-timer who also had a fling or two with Vivian over the years, and she’s helping him write and publish his autobiography. But as Vivian got what she wanted in finally marrying Ezra, that meant that Alfred lost out—and now he spends hours on end with Vivian in a sterile, professional arrangement, with only his whiskey bottle to take away the sting.
But none of that much matters—everything is turned on its head when Vivian’s adult, drug-addicted daughter, Ellen (Jill Teed, X2, lots of genre TV including Street Justice and The X-Files), ditches her 7-year-old son, David (Eric Lloyd, The Santa Clause films, TV’s Jesse), with the neighbors (Margaret Sophie Stein and Nicu Branzea) so she she can wander about looking for her next fix. After days go by with no sign of Ellen, the neighbors contact Vivian, who takes in her young grandson, much to the annoyance of Ezra, who wants to live his later years with Vivian in the fast lane (and who may still be carousing with other women while away on various business outings).
Man, the melodrama comes on strong in Seasons on the Heart, led by the biggest bunch of adult losers this side of Melrose Place. Director Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle, A Matter of Sex) goes straight for the throat with a heartbreaking opening depicting young David’s struggle to wake up his passed-out mom so she can get to work. In-between his playing with action figures and attempts to rouse his mother, we learn she’s in deeper trouble—there are dealers leaving threatening messages on the answering machine, further giving the viewer a peek into David’s precarious, and sad, childhood.
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Once Vivian takes David in, an unlikely bond begins to form between 7-year-old David and charismatic adulterer Ezra, a contrast to Vivian’s cold, corporate demeanor. Despite the “inconvenience” of this kid being shoved into their lives, David might just be what these awful humans need to become better people.
I was too young to catch Carol Burnett during her heyday in the classic TV era (I was just two years old when her long-running comedy-variety show, The Carol Burnett Show, ended), but thanks to steady reruns and a TV culture reinforcing the notion of Burnett as an important small-screen fixture, it always felt like I was watching TV royalty when she was on screen. In fact, she was still such a staple that NBC rolled out Seasons of the Heart during sweeps on Sunday, May 22, 1994, at 9pm. But that’s not all—just two days earlier, on Friday, May 20, rival CBS aired the TV special, Carol Burnett: The Special Years. Everyone was banking on Burnett to bring in the ratings gold over the weekend, and for the most part, she didn’t disappoint. Seasons of the Heart finished a respectable 21st for the week in the Nielsen Ratings, nabbing 17.2 million viewers and shellacking its direct competitor, part one of NBC’s much-hyped miniseries, The Menendez Murders (46th for the week). But neither could hold a candle to Curly and the gang over on ABC, with an airing of the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers finishing 6th for the week and winning the night. That CBS special, Carol Burnett: The Special Years, was 42nd.
But it’s easy to see why so many people still wanted to tune in to see these old-school pros at work. George Segal is charismatic in the role of middle-aged playboy Ezra Levinson (both Segal and Burnett were in their early 60s at the time), though the script by Robbyn Burger presents an inconsistent characterization at times, with Ezra ping-ponging between loving father figure to little David and a straight-up assh*le upset that he has to put up with the little sh*t when all he wants to do is party (“What, are we tied to this kid for the rest if our lives? It’s been a month!” he exclaims at one point, disappointed that he can’t take Vivian on a trip to Vegas).
Malcolm McDowell gets the fun part, chewing scenery as the belligerent, drunk author Alfred, allowing for some interesting and unexpected scenarios, such as when he stays at Vivian’s and Ezra’s home over the Christmas holiday to work on his book with Vivian. Why is drunk Alfred eating dinner and staying overnight at Vivian’s and Ezra’s? I kept asking myself. it’s a crazy scenario that adds some fun drama to the picture.
And, where’s that loser druggie, Ellen? Luckily for her, it’s the pre-Internet, pre-Twitter era (no public shaming here). Canadian actress Jill Teed is fine playing Vivian’s confused daughter, wavering between responsible, sober adult and demon-addled addict, while forcing Vivian to recall her own failures as a mother. Eric Lloyd, as Ellen’s son David, also does a good job, never playing it too annoying or over-the-top and with the right amount of sparkle to tap into the viewer’s emotions.
And you will feel some emotion; Seasons of the Heart often makes you chuckle at how soap-opera-awful some of these characters are before tugging at your heartstrings by showing how good they can be when pulling together for the right reasons. And the ending is not all hearts and roses, either, making for unique viewing (for a 1994 made-for-TV movie).
Will Alfred ruin things for Vivian and Ezra with his constant intrusions and jealousy? Will David accept grandma Vivian as a mother figure, and Ezra as a father figure? Will Ellen get sober and take David back to raise him? I won’t spoil it for you.
Mill Creek Entertainment has released Seasons of the Heart in a nice, clean, 16×9 DVD presentation (it originally aired in 4×3 in ’94). It’s standard definition, so the bigger your TV the more the picture will be affected…but I had no qualms watching it on my 32-inch bedroom set. For what it is, it looks just fine.
With characters that are crazy, nutty, and at times comic, and with the proceedings soapy enough to hold your attention, Seasons of the Heart is an able throwback to those dying days of network made-for-TV movies and worth a watch.