Flying Under the Radar
by Sarah Stegall
copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall
“A guy like me, it’s better I fly under the radar.” Chance Harper sums up his own wary appreciation that his life is not like other men’s in Friday night’s episode, the third in the series “Strange Luck”. He knows that there is something special about him, and now and then he lets us see the pain it causes him. Like the one-legged man he chases throughout the episode, he is hobbled by a major lack in his life–his elusive missing brother. But the brother himself, if he even exists, may be only a symbol for the emptiness Harper seems to feel. He drifts through his world more or less unconnected, and well should he. When your life is this unpredictable, it is best not to form too many attachments.
And attachments–both physical and emotional–are at the heart of Friday’s episode. When Harper literally stumbles over a prosthetic leg lying in a street, he attempts to find the owner. His boss sends him out to photograph a famous movie star shooting a picture in town, and Harper finds himself caught between an egocentric movie idol and an obsessed fan. Matters are complicated by the fact that the
fan seems to have proof of her assertions that she is in fact the movie idol’s wife and mother of his sons, and Harper is inclined somewhat to believe her. Too bad her own hysterical behavior fails to convince anyone else, however, and she is taken away screaming in an ambulance. Released two days later, she comes back to the shooting set, and Harper forestalls her in what may be an attempt on the actor’s life.
For which he is rewarded with the grudging permission to take the star’s picture–in a move which almost ends the star’s career and life.
Naturally, there is a plot twist at the end, which partially redeems the stereotyped portrayal of yet another (sigh) “obsessed” fan, as if “fan” equates with “stalker”. Katya Gardener gave a one-dimensional portrait of a serial stalker too paranoid and defensive to act in her own interests. Locklyn Munro was not called on to do much except stand around and look like a bored Tom Cruise. But the couple who played Chance Harper’s parents (I wish I had a proper cast list) were completely believable as strong, loving parents.
And that sucks the juice out of the sequence where Harper goes home to see his adoptive parents, in search of more information about this mythical missing brother he has only now remembered. Harper’s family is not missing, broken, or dysfunctional. His adoptive parents are practically Ozzie and Harriet, deeply concerned and obviously highly supportive of their moody, quirky son. Yet not once does he call them Mom or Dad. It is made plain that he rarely writes or visits, although he does send money home. He rejects any hugs or handshakes, and accepts only a plate of food from his adoptive mother. He insists on reminding his adoptive parents with his visit to the crash site that they are not his “real” parents
and keeps calling these dead people “my family”. He demands that his adoptive parents tell him where his “real” family is buried and then castigates them for not telling him earlier, as if they had conspired against him. This is so self-centered, so ungrateful, and so cruel I started to despise Chance Harper.
As producer Karl Shaeffer never tires of reminding us, Chance was only two years old when the crash occurred, and while the trauma of the plane crash might explain why he remembers his adoptive father rescuing him, I seriously doubt that any two year old would remember very much either of his dead parents or the relationship he had with them. I am not out of sympathy with adoptees who search for their biological parents, but this premise needs to be handled very carefully lest it become offensive. The audience will find it hard to sympathize with their shy hero if he is shown to have a heart of flint.
This third episode of the series continues to bear out the promise of earlier sequences as far as art direction, design, and cinematography are concerned. The writing (by executive producer Karl Shaeffer) and directing (by Elodie Keene) are outstanding: in one scene, Harper kneels before the box where his few precious memoirs are enshrined, and turns them over in his hands to re-infuse his life with
meaning and purpose. Once again we see “minor” characters– the one-legged man, the motorcycle riders, the star’s agent–treated with respect not usually shown to throwaway roles. They are all given more than one dimension, more than a flat and bare-bones treatment. This gives a great deal of intensity and a naturalistic tone to the program, which helps balance its outrageous premise and help us believe in it.
D. B. Sweeney is wonderful in the role. I am especially taken with the way he manages to convey to us the shy and bewildered man inside Chance Harper, under the hard veneer of the city-slicker photographer. Particularly good is the scene when he discovers that actor “Dirk Moody” has abandoned his wife and kids. His quick temper, his no-nonsense punch in the face, and the moral outrage evident in his taking of the picture that brings justice to Dirk Moody all flash across Sweeney’s face without giving us more than we need. His restraint also helps us believe in this man with the extraordinary fate. Or is that destiny? Although he could play Harper as the hero touched by the gods, he gives us a real human man in a real weird situation. I liked the scene after the cemetery, where Harper shows that he is not all angst and tragic sorrow by copping a feel on Audrey.
The major premise of the show–why did he survive? is there some special purpose to Harper’s life?–is a mature and thought-provoking theme worth our time and attention. Eventually, Shaeffer will have to flesh out the character more (one-dimensional, obsessed characters are boring), but I am
growing very confident in the writing for this show so far. The music for this show is of Emmy quality: Mark Mothersbaugh has created another whole character in the moody, melancholy, emotional score.
I still think the missing-brother plotline is a mistake, leaning too heavily on “The X-Files”, which follows “Strange Luck” in its time slot. There is enough mystery in Harper’s survival guilt and bizarre luck to sustain the show without it. I desperately want to see at least one episode which does NOT contain the flashback scene to the plane crash; I know the common wisdom in Hollywood is to “give ’em the pilot again and again until they understand it”, but I get the point already! Audrey is simply annoying.
This one gets three out of five fortune cookies.