Everything has to start somewhere, and in the case of October Road - The Complete First Season, it starts with one of the worst pilots I've seen in a long time. Luckily for this television show and its cast and crew, sometimes how you start isn't how you need to go on.
In 1997, small-town dreamer Nick Garrett (Bryan Greenberg, Unscripted) leaves Knights Ridge, Massachusetts, for six weeks traveling Europe. He leaves behind his four high-school buddies, including Eddie (Geoff Stults, 7th Heaven), with whom Nick plans to start his own window hanging business, called quaintly enough, Best Friend Windows. He also leaves behind his dreamy girlfriend and her pillow lips, which are played by the same pillow lips that launched a million crushes on That '70s Show. Laura Prepon, a.k.a. Hannah, makes Nick promise that he will come back, but somehow she knows he will not.
As a shortcut to telling us what kind of teenager Nick is, we are shown that he has a Kurt Cobain picture on his wall. Yet, as he says his farewell, his best buds serenade him with an air band version of what I think is Boston but thankfully can't identify off the top of my head. Whatever it is, it sounds like Boston, and I'd like to give the show creators credit for a bit of ironic character business here, but I may be extending too much. Nirvana and Boston evoke two very different states of mind, and while it could be intended to suggest the coming chasm between the lead air guitarist and the rest of his air band, Nick and the boys are supposed to be one and the same. Loving Nirvana and loving Boston at the same time? Well, that kind of writer's choice says to me that you want your audience to think that these boys don't get it, and they probably never will.
Jump cut to ten years later, and Nick still has the same picture of Kurt Cobain on his wall, but now it's the wall of a New York apartment. He has become a successful novelist, tying his thinly veiled adolescent memoirs into the despair of 9/11 for something called Turtle on a Snare Drum. Naturally, because writers seems hellbent on being the worst chroniclers of their own craft, the creators of October Road have chosen to give Nick writer's block. He has no idea how to follow-up his massively successful debut. How successful? So successful that not only do people recognize him in nightclubs, but they actually have the book on them, as well. So successful that he can walk up a New York street and see a wall of posters advertising it. (Two episodes later, it will be revealed out of nowhere that it's also a movie, apparently made instantly upon arrival of the fantastic tome.)
You with me? Because we aren't even to the opening credits.
Nick hasn't gone back to Knights Bridge since he first left, and when an offer comes through to teach a one-day seminar at the local university, it's a scary proposition. You see, the college is on October Road, and if you're on that side of the street, you're different than the townsfolk who live on the other side. If Nick goes back, it's going to be obvious how much he has changed. Plus, everyone is going to hate him for what he wrote about them. ("It's fiction! It's fiction!" he proclaims over and over.) Still, perhaps confronting his past will unloose this clog.
Baboom! We're back in town! We now have a show! Nick returns, sees Hannah, sees her ten year old son Sam (Slade Peace), realizes that Sam's massive vocabulary and peanut allergy could mean that he is his own son, realizes he's in love with Hannah still despite the hot co-ed (Odette Yustman, South Beach) that's hitting on him, realizes realizes realizes...ah, screw it. The more things are different, the more they are the same. Nick is home.
It's a pretty ridiculous set-up for what is essentially a twenty-something soap opera. The first episode is excessively bad, full of contrived quirks that will haunt the first season for the rest of its six-episode run. The air band gets back together and keeps playing, for instance, giving us one of the worst soundtracks in TV history. (Dust off your '90s nostalgia for a little Collective Soul, Gin Blossoms, and Goo Goo Dolls, not to mention some Poison and yes, more Boston.) The guys are all still living like its high school, for the most part, and the writers push hard to give them their own special BFF vocabulary that is just lame. (Who started this trend? Those damned Gilmore Girls?) Worst of all, we need at least one odd small town freak. The lead singer of the band, Physical Phil (Jay Paulson) hasn't left his house since the attack on the World Trade Center, finding it more comforting to stay at home. Yet, get this: no one ever makes a connection between that psychosis and the overriding metaphor that we are told drives Nick's novel, wherein his hero stands at Ground Zero and realizes he is a man stuck in a netherzone, connected neither to his past or present. I mean, really?
I admit, I have gone on at length with this grousing. I'd say it's indicative of how much that first episode got under my skin. The sheer magnitude of how much I hated it becomes all the more baffling when I confess that I actually found October Road - The Complete First Season to get progressively better with each episode. By the end, despite myself, I caught myself caring about what happened next.
Granted, there are a lot of growing pains along the way. In addition to the forced outrageousness of Physical Phil and his love affair with the pizza delivery girl (an adorable Lindy Booth), we have several strained primetime soap conventions, such as the perpetual grunt Ikey (Evan Jones) having an affair with the wife of loveable bear Owen (Brad William Henke), who is otherwise the glue of the gang and the least deserving of such treatment. There is also the dastardly villain Big Cat (Warren Christie), the jerkiest douchebag in high school who is now the jerkiest douchebag of the adult world. October Road also tends to be the kind of show where a guy like Nick can convince the college dean (Penny Johnson, 24) to give him a job by serenading her beneath her window. Because, you know, that works most of the time. It's how I got my first job at McDonald's.
When it comes down to it, though, October Road - The Complete First Season didn't need the speed bumps set up by its bid to be quirky. Sometimes a little faith in your own material can do wonders. It's the relationships that work on October Road, not the catchphrases or the goofiness. One of the most surprising story arcs of this short season is that of Eddie and Janet (Rebecca Field). Eddie is the guy who didn't move on, the one who chases college girls at the local bar, and Janet is his local bar's barmaid. She's also a little overweight, not very glamorous, but undeniably sweet. Eddie falling for her, and the struggles he has with changing his perception of himself and what kind of women he can date, is refreshingly handled with delicate affection.
The central love triangle of Nick, Hannah, and the co-ed, Aubrey, also ends up being more complex and interesting than I would have thought. The relationship with Nick and his possible son is marred by the ten-year-old being the cliché wise-beyond-his-years child, but the adult interaction is actually pretty strong. Both Hannah and Aubrey are believably written as having all the emotional smarts, which is also aided by the fact that both Laura Prepon and Odette Yustman are the best performers in a cast that otherwise rounds up a slick grouping of TV's usual suspects. I've always liked Prepon. Though she's most remembered for being the fun one on That '70s Show, she deserves more credit for the heavier turns she had to take in the up-and-down relationships her character went through on the long-running sitcom. She's just as good when she plays it for real, including the emotional crest of this cycle. Episode 5 is where it all comes together. A worrying night at the hospital after Sam has an allergic reaction dredges up old feelings, and it's likely what season 2 of October Road will use to keep the "will they or won't they?" of Nick and Hannah going.
So, yeah, I'm surprised that I ended up kind of enjoying October Road - The Complete First Season by the time it was through. Sure, it started off in such a dismal place, any positive change was probably amplified into seeming more monumental just by comparison. It was also mercifully short at six episodes, so it might just be that the show didn't have enough time to wear out its welcome. I certainly could have snipped half of the story lines and wouldn't have missed them a whit. Taking all those caveats into account probably suggest that I didn't like October Road so much as I just didn't hate it, but when it comes to these kinds of silly serials, sometimes the simple fact that when one episode ends you care enough to want to see the next one is qualifier enough. I'll probably tune in and see what happens when season two premieres, but even if I don't, October Road - The Complete First Season stands fine enough on its own as a good Kleenex and popcorn diversion.
October Road - The Complete First Season puts six episodes on two DVDs, each episode around forty minutes each. Buena Vista sent us advance discs for review rather than final copies, which makes it a bit hard to judge the set on its technical merits. There's no way to know how accurately these early copies reflect the final product. In this case, one hopes not at all.
Judging by these discs, October Road - The Complete First Season will be widescreen, it will have only one very basic audio mix, and it will be subtitled in English. It may also have a bad transfer, with very hot colors and an often fuzzy resolution quality. These review discs also choked in my DVD player quite often, taking a long time to transition between episodes and stuttering almost every time there was a chapter break, which is several times a show. Fingers crossed that they worked this mess out in the final mastering. If not, I'm sure you will hear plenty of complaining in our forums.
There is a "play all" function, as well as the ability to choose each episode one at a time. The first four shows are on DVD 1, and the last two are on DVD 2.
DVD 1 has four trailers for other home video releases, as well as the National Treasure sequel.
DVD 2 has a short blooper reel and six deleted scenes. Five of those scenes are from the pilot, and most of them just longer versions of already existing sections. The final deleted piece is with Tom Berenger as Nick's dad telling a funny, rambling story that is intended to be the old man's version of advice.
There is also a ten-minute "making of" with cast and crew, largely promotional, with some on-set footage and background for the show. Additionally, when this was shot, they also shot interviews for a two-minute segment previewing the second season of October Road.
October Road - The Complete First Season isn't likely to sweep the Emmys this year. Its biggest accomplishment is probably that it made it to a second season, when it really comes down to it. This short starter set steps out on all the wrong feet, stumbling all the way. Thankfully, though, this soap opera of a small-town boy returning to his roots and the drama he thought he'd left behind finds its bearings over the course of its initial outing, managing to establish characters that are worth caring about and a couple of stories that aren't entirely cliché. If you like a little TV schmaltz, Rent It. It's only going to steal one evening from you, and as it turns out, you won't hate yourself in the morning. I mean, I didn't. At least not completely.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.