Review by KC Carlson
I was a big fan of the late, lamented TV network Trio (I’m still mad at DirectTV for dropping it and causing its death), and more specifically its Brilliant But Cancelled concept. BBC was an umbrella for all those short-lived TV shows that had an untimely end but you still remember. Some were just great pilot episodes, series that were stillborn and never got the chance to actually grow and develop. But most BBC shows were TV series that were around just long enough to get under your skin before they were unceremoniously dumped (cancelled) by the network. Many of these shows didn’t get even a full season and were dumped without finishing off storylines or giving viewers any kind of closure.
The current incarnation of Brilliant But Cancelled — a lively blog hosted by Television Without Pity, one of the best TV sites around, especially if you love snark — did a round-up earlier this year of great shows that were axed too soon. And I was pleased to see October Road on its list of dramas. It definitely meets the criteria. There were only 19 episodes spread over two short seasons (March 2007 – March 2008), and it went off the air with many plotlines not resolved, including the central question of the entire series. Fortunately, October Road is available on DVD, and the recently released Season Two DVD set has a very special surprise for fans of the show.
In what I think is a DVD first, the show’s producers have written and produced a 10-minute finale, and most of the cast has returned to resolve most of the dangling plotlines of the series. Other DVDs of prematurely canceled series have had interviews with people who discussed “what might have been…”, but I think this is the first-ever time such an “epilogue” has been completed.
It wasn’t easy. The network wouldn’t finance it, so the producers ponied up their own money and the actors worked for free, but there was such a closeness among cast and crew that it was strongly felt that there needed to be closure on the project — both for the fans, but for themselves as well. Not too surprising, since “closure” was such a large part of the series itself.
But that’s the end of the story. Here’s the beginning:
Running Down October Road.
The first season cast. From left to right: Physical Phil, Janet, Sam, Eddie, Big Cat, Hannah, Nick, the Commander, Aubrey, Owen, Ikey. Not pictured: Pizza Girl, Ronnie.
Ten years ago, just-graduated Nick Garrett (Bryan Greenberg) leaves behind his family and friends in the fictional town of Knights Ridge, Massachusetts, to go backpacking in Europe before deciding what to do for the rest of his life. He tells them that he will only be gone for a few weeks. Instead, he ends up in NYC, where he writes a best-selling book, “Turtle on a Snare Drum” (largely and often unflatteringly based on people and situations from his life in Knights Ridge), makes a small fortune, lives the good life, and eventually realizes that he is crippled by writer’s block and hasn’t got a second novel in him.
Booked by his agent to do a one-day writer’s seminar in Knights Ridge, he returns home to discover that many things have changed in his ten-year absence. He’s also surprised at the townspeople’s almost universally poor reaction to his book — and he realizes that he has a lot to make up for.
Among the things Nick left behind is Hannah Daniels (Laura Prepon), his high school girlfriend. Hannah has moved on, eventually giving up on ever hearing from Nick, and leads a simple life as a veterinary technician and as single mother of a 10-year-old son, Sam (Slade Pearce). She is also dating Ray “Big Cat” Cataldo (Warren Christie), the self-appointed “Concrete King of Knights Ridge,” a contractor who controls most of the construction in town, and who bullied Nick and his friends throughout grade school and high school. Hannah and Ray have been together for a while, and as the series opens, they are making tentative plans toward marriage.
Nick’s circle of friends from high school includes Eddie Latekka (Geoff Stults), now an aging high school football star and ladies’ man. Eddie is miffed at Nick for reasons other than the book. When Nick left, he also walked out on the duo’s plans to open a building supply store called Best Friend Windows. Instead, Eddie started his own landscaping and snowplowing business (with another friend, David “Ikey” Eichman, as an employee), which struggles to survive against the competition of “Big Cat” Cataldo’s similar operations.
Another friend, Owen Rowan (Brad William Henke), is a big, affable bear of a man and a loving husband and father — until he discovers that his wife, Allison, is secretly unhappy in the marriage and is having an ongoing affair with one of this lifelong friends, “Ikey” Eichman (Evan Jones). Ikey’s betrayal sends ripples through the circle of friends (as well as throughout the small town), and he is quickly on the outs with most of his friends. Further, Eddie fires Ikey for the betrayal, and Ikey has no other choice but to seek out work from Big Cat (although he initially refuses Big Cat’s offers). Owen struggles to forgive his wife and to reconcile, but he misinterprets Ikey aiding Allison during a snowstorm and moves out, ending up on the Garrett couch for much of the series. Despite good-natured Ikey’s many attempts at apology and making things right, Owen cannot forgive him.
The fifth member of Nick’s circle of friends is Philip Farmer, nicknamed “Physical Phil” since childhood. Phil (Jay Paulson) is a house-bound shut-in who suffered some sort of emotional trauma after witnessing the 9/11 attacks on TV, and he has not left his home (which he shares with Eddie) since that day. Despite the fact that most of the townspeople think he is some kind of freak (kids who accidentally hit baseballs into his yard are afraid to retrieve them due to the stories that he captures and eats little children), Phil is a remarkably intelligent, warm, and caring person, despite his problems. Salvation for him arrives — bearing pizza — as an extremely outgoing and quirky pizza delivery girl (Lindy Booth) arrives on Phil’s porch, and eventually ends up in his house, her bubbly personality eventually drawing him out of his self-imposed shell. In one of the series’ running-jokes, she is known only as “Pizza Girl.” These are my two favorite characters on the show.
When Nick hits town, he hopes to crash at his old family home during his stay, only to discover that time in the Garrett household has stopped dead during Nick’s absence — nicely symbolized by the half-painted house exterior in the recurring establishing shot. Nick’s dad Bob (Tom Berenger), known to everyone as “The Commander”, and younger brother Ronny (Jonathan Murphy) lead a simple life of homemade dinners in front of the TV, which is inevitably showing some sporting event. It’s fairly obvious there hasn’t been a woman in the house since Nick’s mother died, shortly before he left town (we later learn that this may have been one of the things keeping Nick away), and that The Commander has seemingly emotionally shut down after his wife’s death. Ronnie has no idea what to do with himself, other than to watch over his dad, smoke a lot of pot, and play video games.
Nick meets Aubrey Diaz (Odette Yustman) during Nick’s disastrous writer’s seminar. She’s a student in the college’s graduate writing program, transplanted from her home town of Berkeley, California. She and Nick “meet cute,” flirt, and date a little after Nick learns that Hannah is with Big Cat, only for him to dump Aubrey at the end of Season One, when Nick suddenly decides to declare his love for Hannah, after something happens which I’ll get to in a minute. Aubrey is gorgeous, and it is hinted that she may be a better writer than Nick. At least, she still regularly produces work. Her best trait may be that she won’t put up with any of Nick’s crap, which is plenty because he is an absolute idiot around her. Aubrey also has a habit of getting right to the heart of any conversation, seeming to be a very open person, but in fact she harbors secrets and tells half-truths.
The final major member of the cast is Janet Meadows (Rebecca Field), a bartender at Sully’s Tavern, a popular hangout in Knights Ridge. She is also Hannah’s best friend. We learn early on that her nickname from high school is Janet “The Planet” because she is slightly heavyset. Because of this, she is introverted and has some deep-seated self-worth and body image issues, but she manages to put up a good front and is generally a happy, fun-to-be-with person. Her co-worker, a minor character nicknamed Rooster (Sean Gunn) (mostly for his rooster-like fauxhawk), is a good friend, but Janet has no idea that he is harboring a long-standing crush on her. Janet’s high school crush was Eddie Latekka, but she has long given up any hope after seeing Eddie with an endless succession of cheerleader and model-types. Thus, she is totally thrown for a loop when Eddie asks her out on a date one night at the bar. She initially thinks it’s a joke, not realizing that Eddie has finally tired of the parade of bimbos and is genuinely interested in finding someone to share a deeper relationship. She gives him a chance, which he fumbles, but the two are determined to keep trying to make it work, and the series is stronger for this seemingly mismatched pair slowly developing and helping each other be better people.
Who’s Your Daddy?
When he arrives back in town, Nick first meets young Sam and the two immediately bond, only for Nick to discover that Sam is Hannah’s and 10 years old. Quickly doing the math, Nick begins to suspect that Sam might be his son. This thought rapidly explodes in Nick’s mind once he discovers that Sam has a potentially deadly peanut allergy “just like all the men in the Garrett family!” (I love the scene where Hannah takes the wind out of Nick’s ridiculous theory by standing up in the middle of Sully’s and asking the crowd “How many people here have a peanut allergy?” Half the crowd raises their hands.) But after a near-tragedy — an allergy attack that sends Sam to the hospital — Nick is now determined to stay in Knights Ridge until he finds out for sure who the father really is. Besides, he thinks, it may provide fodder for another book, showing that Nick really hasn’t learned anything yet.
For her part, Hannah claims that the real father is the the absentee, and seldom seen, Gavin Goddard, who conveniently lives in NYC. Later we learn that there is no father listed at all on Sam’s birth certificate. More fuel is thrown on the fire when, after some bonding between Sam and The Commander, the old man thinks that Sam has his deceased wife’s eyes. The actual paternity of Sam is the central mystery of the entire series, and it is largely the reason that the epilogue exists at all, since this is the biggest unanswered question. In Season Two, the mystery is downplayed a little bit, but not before some mysterious conversations between Hannah and Eddie, which indicate that the two might have had a one-night stand or dated after Nick initially left town, making Eddie a candidate to be Sam’s father. It’s also revealed that Eddie has occasionally acted as a surrogate father to Sam, taking him on such father/son-type events as camping trips when Gavin was not available.
Season Two. What Goes On?
In the 13-episode Season Two DVD set, chronicling the final season, the ongoing storylines deepen and new characters and situations appear, such as Aubrey’s ne’er-do-well father and her up-to-now well-hidden daddy issues. Owen and Allison’s marriage reconciliation ebbs and flows and ultimately crashes after “The Infidelity Tour”, a bizarre episode where Nick is enlisted to re-create the sordid history of Ikey and Allison’s affair. He takes Owen around town to see the where, when, and why. It actually seems to help Owen get over his pain — until the final moments of the episode.
In “Once Around the Block”, it is revealed that Physical Phil has spent the last several years restoring a mint condition Studebaker in his garage, and he is nearly done. When asked, “Why a Studebaker?” Phil has a flurry of reasonable answers before finally confessing it’s “because Fozzie Bear drove one in The Muppet Movie!” Pizza Girl begs for a ride in the newly restored car, but Phil is terrified of leaving the house, even if he’s still inside a car. Pizza Girl finally convinces him that it’s okay, and Phil is like an excited kid seeing things in the outside world for the first time — until the car stalls and Phil’s terror returns.
In “Spelling It Out”, we learn that not only does Janet have some self-worth problems, she has some pretty questionably musical taste as well when her planned first seduction of Eddie is orchestrated with recordings by the Bay City Rollers. Luckily, Eddie shows a rare side of maturity during this, and what could have been a nervous disaster ends up being a sweet romp filled with warm laughter.
“Deck the Howls”, an excellent Christmas episode, shows Nick and Ronnie discovering the real details of their mother’s death, which The Commander has been keeping from them for years. And, in the related episode “Dancing Days Are Here Again,” The Commander gets some bad news of his own — he is diagnosed with bone marrow cancer.
In probably the best episode of the season, “Stand Alone By Me”, Nick, Eddie, Owen, Phil, and Ikey learn of the death of their childhood crush, Angela, in a car accident. In extensive flashbacks, featuring younger actors, the 10-year-old boys are rescued from a potential beating from 12-year-old Big Cat and his goons by Angela — a crack shot with a slingshot. All five are instantly smitten with her only to discover that her family is soon moving away to the next town over. They all board a bus, bearing a shared birthday gift — an expensive necklace — but are crushed to discover that she now has a boyfriend from her new neighborhood. Crestfallen, they return silently on the bus, the present undelivered. After the adult guys attend Angela’s funeral, they discover that she grew up to marry that boyfriend and have a daughter, whom they meet at the funeral. The give the necklace to the little girl as a remembrance of her mother, completing the circle. This closure is a perfect example of what the show does so well.
Originally, the final two episodes were shown together on ABC as the two-hour season finale, where many things happen during the planning of and actual engagement party for Hannah and Big Cat. The worst of which was Janet’s overreacting to the return of Eddie’s former gorgeous high school girlfriend and catching them in a kiss. Thinking that their relationship is over, Janet gets drunk, discovers Rooster’s long held crush on her, and ends up in bed with Rooster.
Meanwhile, Eddie realizes that the old girlfriend means nothing to him anymore — the instant they kissed he finally realized his true, deep feelings for Janet. Unfortunately, Eddie is then almost beaten to death by one of Big Cat’s goons and ends up in the hospital. Janet nervously goes to visit Eddie in the hospital to confess her weakness but Eddie goes first, confessing that the kiss meant nothing to him. Janet then confesses her sin but Eddie, having just confessed his love for Janet, feels betrayed and angrily rejects her. The series ends with them not speaking to each other.
Oh, yeah, and Hannah gets thrown in jail for punching out Big Cat’s manipulative ex-wife, who presses charges. Big Cat is out on a job site when this happens and Nick ends up providing bail for Hannah. Hilarity ensues.
The Warm Glow of October Road.
Despite the fact that the show occasionally lapses into melodrama and often has the characters really jumping through hoops to sustain some storylines beyond their logical endpoint (but what ongoing series doesn’t?), the show won me over immediately simply by being so darn relatable. I grew up in a small town like Knights Ridge, where high school and a small circle of friends was everything. I was Nick. I left town after high school (and a personal tragedy) and never looked back. And never went back, except many years later to take care of my ailing mother. And like Nick, I eventually ended up in New York City, in a job that left me feeling more empty than ever before. So, for me, October Road was a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy before my very eyes. What would have happened had I returned? Granted, I wasn’t famous or a best-selling novelist, but I did blow out of town without a lot of explanations. Would I have handled it like Nick? Better than Nick? I’d like to think so, but I’m sorta glad I didn’t have to find out for myself.
I liked the fact that this show wasn’t about NYC or LA or any of the other big cities that most TV shows always write about. I liked the fact it wasn’t about secret agents, or death-wielding robots, or even cops or lawyers. It was mostly about real people, struggling to figure out relationships and life in general. (Much more scary than death-wielding robots.) I also liked the fact that, in the case of characters like Ronnie or Ikey, they were uncomplicated characters as well — a rarity in most TV shows these days.
I liked the fact that all the characters (well, except for Big Cat) seemed like they would have been great friends to have in real life, even as screwed up as some of them were.
I liked the fact that most of the characters tried to work out their conflicts with each other through reasoned conversation, although for some like Owen and Ikey, it took a long time to get there. Violence was only used by the wicked, or as a last resort, and instantly regretted, by characters pushed too far, like Hannah and her dealings with Big Cat’s ex. (And what a couple they must have been, huh?)
I liked the fact that the show featured a multi-generational cast that interacted with each other and that the older characters weren’t treated as buffoons or comedy relief. I liked the fact that Sam could hold his own in conversation with the older characters (although his character could be a little too precocious at times). But I liked the fact that the adults interacted freely with Sam, as that odd feeling of trying to connect with kids that aren’t a part of your own family can be occasionally magical.
I liked the fact that the series was so beautifully photographed, with the primary color for most of the exterior shots being a rich orange — the official color of October. The show was so beautiful that I could smell the leaves and the fresh air in every episode.
I liked the fact that the official title logo for the show ends with a period. Even if I don’t know why.
And I loved the fact that the produces, writers, actors, and crew cared enough about the series to give it the closure that it deserved.
Facts, Trivia, and Secret Connections.
Some people have noticed that the 1996 film Beautiful Girls is also set in the fictional town of Knights Ridge. This is no coincidence, as both projects were written by Scott Rosenberg (for the record, the official creator credits for October Road include Josh Appelbaum and AndrÃƒÂ© Nemec, as well as Rosenberg). The films share several other situations (the theme of returning home after a long absence is the big one) and if you squint real hard, you can see many similarities between the main characters of both projects. The film seems to have become quite a cult movie and much admired for the direction of Ted Demme, who died accidentally at a very young age, leaving behind a limited number of films and TV episodes that he had directed. This film should be required viewing for all October Road fans.
Incidentally, October Road is said to be loosely based on the reaction of Rosenberg’s friends after seeing their lives being depicted in Beautiful Girls. The maguffin here being Nick’s book, “Turtle on a Snare Drum.”
Despite the fact that the show absolutely looks like it is set in a small town or suburb in the shadow of an older university in Massachusetts, the first season was actually shot in Georgia, largely in and around the Atlanta area. For the second season, the house sets were deconstructed and moved to Hollywood and rebuilt in studio lots, to save money on the expensive location shoots. This is documented in another Season Two DVD featurette. The other Special Feature (besides the epilogue) on the DVD set is probably the most unfunny gag reel since the previous gag reel on the Season One set. Sorry, it’s a great cast — they’re just not that funny blowing their lines. Maybe you had to be there.
October Road producers and writers have been making references to the October Road characters in some of their subsequent TV projects, including the recently canceled Life On Mars featuring on-screen references to “Cataldo Houses”. Also, a character named Otto was spotted wearing a t-shirt that read “I’m Sam’s Father” in last summer’s Samurai Girl mini-series on ABC Family, also by the trio of producer/writers. Appelbaum, Nemec, and Rosenberg’s next project will be Happy Town, a crime/drama/mystery series just picked up for Fall of 2009 by ABC that will feature October Road alumni Geoff Stults (Eddie) and Jay Paulson (Physical Phil) in the cast.
Why October Road Rocks.
There are a lot of reasons why I fell in love with this series, and music is a major part of it. Music is hugely built into the story — the jukebox at Sully’s Tavern has got to be one of the best “jukes” in the country, playing everything from Ryan Adams and Chris Isaak to Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen and everything in between. The musical montage was effectively used in the series, and mostly managed to avoid the TV cliche’ that the device has now become, by using such varied artists as John Mellencamp, Pretenders, Soul Asylum, The Rolling Stones, Skid Row, and Bruce Hornsby. And the circle of friends, fronted by Physical Phil as fake vocalist, meet every Saturday afternoon — at 3 PM — at Phil’s house for “air band” practice, playing mostly oldies and heavy rock from their youth, with the occasional alt. rock obscurity thrown in for good measure. “Too-cool-for-school” Eddie sits out, bemused by the whole thing. Phil takes the band so seriously that when fake drummer Ikey was on the outs with the rest of the gang, Phil actually held try-outs for his replacement. (“Uh… where’s the drum kit?” asks one not-with-the-program tyro.)
The air band figures prominently in the powerful finale of the last regular episode, as the gang sneaks away from Hannah and Big Cat’s engagement party with something bigger in mind. After being on the outs with most of the other band members for most of the entire series, Ikey has stepped up and saved Eddie after a brutal beating from one of Big Cat’s goons, gotten him to the hospital, and watches over him while he recovers. Acknowledging that Ikey “stepped up,” the band members decide that Ikey’s been on the outs long enough and is heartily welcomed back into the band. And the regular series ends with the guys cheerfully rocking out to REO Speedwagon’s “Roll With the Changes” and with everybody beaming because the band is finally back together, and the hard times seem to be over. Eddie, amusedly watching the band crazily mimicking the lost radio classic on a closed-circuit internet hook-up from his hospital bed, utters what should have been the regular series last line (and echoes his comments about the band from the pilot):
An excellent wrap-up to a great series. And the perfect song to wrap it all up.
Watch for Big Cat’s final betrayal. And for quiet Ronnie to finally explode in a flurry of emotions (“…And there’s no more Harry Potter books! There’s a lot going on!”) and for Aubrey’s surprising reaction. (Just minutes before Ronnie has clumsily admitted his true feelings for Aubrey, after being infatuated with her from afar for most of the season, and not being able to act on it because she was dating his brother, Nick.)
And the next day I went out and bought an REO Speedwagon Greatest Hits CD. And I don’t even really like the band. That doesn’t happen very often.
But Wait… There’s More!
Every major plot line is resolved in “Road’s End: The Final Chapter,” the very special Special Feature on this DVD set. The epilogue opens seven months after the events of the last regular episode, as Janet is helping Hannah get ready for her wedding to Ray. Janet mentions that Eddie has agreed to “one drink” together, and she excited for the opportunity to resolve their differences. Suddenly Hannah has a panic attack over the wedding, says she can’t get married until Sam knows who his real father is, and flees the house. Big Cat pops in to ask “Was that Hannah leaving? and the screen fades to black — then fades up to a title card that says “Seven Years Later”.
And this is where all the questions are answered. In a neat “full circle” moment to the prologue of the first episode, a teenaged and freshly graduated Sam is set to leave Knights Ridge (as Nick did to start the series) to bum around Europe for a few weeks, before going off to college in the fall. And his friends (well, actually most of them are his parent‘s friends) gather to see him off. In the course of the farewells, we discover who Sam’s real father is, in a very cheesy scene designed to milk every last second out of the “Is it Nick or is it Eddie?” (the only viable candidates left) question. It is resolved — to no one’s surprise.
Then we are treated to a barrage of unanswered questions, all answered here. Does Physical Phil ever leave his house again? What is Pizza Girl’s real name? Do Janet and Eddie ever work out their problems? Does The Commander beat his cancer? Which Garrett son — Nick or Ronnie or neither one — ends up with Aubrey? And did Hannah marry Big Cat after all? Plus, it’s all wrapped up with a classic October Road-esque song playing over the fadeout — “Someday” by cast member Bryan Greenberg (Nick). (The song is available at iTunes, for those of you, like me, who are building their own October Road soundtrack playlist.)
All of the regular cast appears, except for Brad William Henke (Owen Rowan) who was filming Lost when the finale was filmed. So we never do discover if Owen and Allison manage to completely reconcile their marriage. Sam’s part in the “Seven Years Later” section had to obviously be recast with an older actor as his character is now 17 or 18 years old. Luckily, young “classic” Sam (Slade Pearce) gets to make a brief appearance in the early part of the epilogue. One other major cast member also does not appear, but that gives a plot point away.
October Road. Gone too soon. Brilliant but cancelled. But at least we fans have our DVDs. And final closure. Thank you very much for that.
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)