Upon learning that Paradise (2004) was a TV film about a successful televangelist's struggle with faith, family and scandal, I was intrigued. While this was hardly a new concept---and perhaps one that arrived a bit too late---the topic of spirituality usually tends to add an interesting edge to any strong drama. Upon learning that Paradise was actually the pilot episode for a series that Showtime left out in the cold, I grew less intrigued. A pilot's main objective is to showcase an interesting premise, balance new characters and settings, and---most importantly---entertain and engage the viewer. Without the presence of all three elements, the pilot may not stand much of a chance.
Would you settle for one?
Paradise starts off decently enough: we're introduced to Reverend Bobby Paradise (David Strathairn, above), a former astronaut and current TV evangelist who'd found God while returning to Earth. He sits at a campfire, uninterrupted by the busy schedule that dominates his life. The vacation ends as he's whisked away to another sold out stadium, selling the Bible to any interested customers---after all, it's what he does for a living. Bobby's family certainly enjoys the benefits of his success: a posh mansion, private jets---you know, the basics---but he's been having trouble focusing on his work. The growth of Paradise Ministries has made Bobby doubt the true nature of his work, and this doubt leads to serious problems with his family, friends and colleagues. A recent scandal involving his daughter has just entered the public eye, adding another layer of conflict to the story. Unfortunately, this is Paradise's only successful element: an interesting premise.
Gradually, we're introduced to ever member of the Paradise family---whether we want to or not. Bobby's wife Elizabeth (Barbara Hershey) is given little to do but bicker with her husband's recent emotional changes. His scandalous daughter (Vivienne Benesch) has recently hooked up with a married professional boxer (Kirk Acevedo) who's about to get a championship title match. Both of his sons are in need of attention: one's a business manager, and the other's finishing up a prison sentence for justifiable homicide (below). There's also the alcoholic Grandma (Elaine Strich) who offers little more than a few sarcastic comments. Sure, Paradise had the unfortunate task of introducing so many characters in under 90 minutes---but "too much, too soon" made this pilot really fall flat. Since Showtime didn't buy this one, they're hoping you will. Here's a hint: don't bother.
Even so, there were a few things that kept Paradise from being a total loss; the first was a handful of decent performances. David Strathairn as the good Reverend was a great choice: his character's conflicted nature and serious tone could have only been matched by Lance Henriksen (Millennium). Barbara Hershey and Elaine Strich make the most out of their minimal roles, with Kirk Acevedo keeping the pace set by his fine performances on Oz and Band of Brothers. Mark Snow's subtle, atmospheric score is every bit as appropriate as his work for The X-Files. The film's terrific cinematography ensures that your eyes will have a good time, even if your brain doesn't.
Still, there's entirely too much wrong here: in addition to simply throwing out too much introductory material in under 90 minutes, the DVD release of Paradise pretends that this below-average pilot is capable of standing on its own two feet. Let's imagine that Showtime went ahead with the series and it gradually improved after this rough start: in hindsight, we could see how much the show had grown since its inception. However, the finished product is weak enough to understand the pilot's fate, making this stand-alone release nothing more than a curiosity for fans wondering about shows that don't make the cut. While the technical presentation is excellent and there's even a few bonus features on board, Paradise simply doesn't have enough saving graces to make it a worthwhile viewing experience. With that said, let's see how this disc stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Presentation:
Presented in its original aspect ratio, Paradise features a pleasing 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks great. The varying color palette of Paradise holds up well on DVD, from the warmer, natural outdoor scenes to the colder, more impersonal ones (as seen in the first two images). No major digital imperfections were spotted, save for a very mild bit of interlacing in certain scenes. The audio is available in English 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo mixes (with an optional Spanish mono track) and features clear dialogue and good ambience, especially during the film's opening scene. Overall, a fine technical presentation that enhances the overall experience.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
The overall presentation is fairly basic here, but at least the navigation is smooth and simple. The chapter divisions were sloppy and didn't even feature a marker for the opening titles; in fact, there's only 9 stops in all for this 93-minute film. This single-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase with no inserts. The cover art, despite sporting red foil-enhanced text, appears as if it was done over lunch break. All menus and the bonus material are presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen aspect ratio, and the film has been Closed Captioned for the hearing impaired.
First up to bat is an Audio Commentary with producer/writer combo Norman Steinberg and Richard C. Matheson, though it's largely a low-key track. A few interesting tidbits were shared---and the two seem comfortable with one another---but only ardent fans of the film will find this to be an interesting listen. A very short Behind-the-Scenes Segment (4 minutes) proves to be little more than a fluffy network promo. There's also a selection of Filmographies for selected members of the cast and crew, along with a series of Previews for other Showtime releases. Last and least is a Photo Gallery, but it's only got a whopping nine images to its name. This modest selection of bonus material is better than nothing, but it's mostly as bland as the film itself...and hardly worth the $26 price tag.
My hopes weren't terribly high to begin with, but watching Paradise really convinced me that Showtime made the right move in turning down this pilot. Things may have been improved with time---or even in different hands---but the final product is uneven, rushed and easily forgettable. The initial premise certainly wasn't a bad one, and there's a few notable performances here---but the idea of cramming so much half-baked material into a 90-minute time slot really killed the impact. Showtime's DVD is decent enough, all things considered; the technical presentation is a fine effort, and it's a miracle that any extras were included. Still, it can't hide the fact that Paradise is a below-average release that's not really worth hunting down. Interested parties might want to give Paradise a weekend look, but most drama lovers should seek enlightenment elsewhere. Skip It.
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.