Give 'Matt Waters' an F TV preview: New classroom drama plays more like a TV talk show with characters behaving like dysfunctional guests.

January 03, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Matt Waters" don't run deep.

The best that could be said of the new CBS drama starring Montel Williams as Matt Waters, a dedicated high school teacher, is that it's a '90s version of "Room 222," the early '70s drama that starred Lloyd Haynes as Pete Dixon, a dedicated high school teacher.

But "Matt Waters," which premieres at 9 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13), has no new answers for the terribly complicated problems that have overtaken so many public high schools in the 22 years since "Room 222" went off the air. The producers mainly just rip off the formula of a concerned teacher returning to his old school and try to see how far they can run on the appeal of Williams' persona.

The "persona" business is important in assessing Williams' performance. As an actor, he's not much. When he's asked to use a facial expression or body language to suggest a thought process, for example, he is almost painful to watch.

But CBS didn't buy the series because it thought Williams was going to be the next Andre Braugher. His Matt Waters character inhabits essentially the same persona as that of Montel Williams, the daytime talk-show host.

The network thinking is: Lots of people watch "The Montel Williams Show," so, maybe, lots of people will watch "Matt Waters" -- if Montel and Matt are pretty much one and the same. It could happen.

On the other hand, ABC tried this approach with Oprah Winfrey in "Brewster Place" in 1990 and bombed in a major way. Maybe that's why CBS has only committed to a tryout order of six episodes of "Matt Waters," as opposed to a more normal initial order of 11 or 12 episodes for such a series.

Like Williams, Waters is a Navy veteran and graduate of the Naval Academy. Most of Waters' history is heavy-handedly hammered into the first few minutes of tonight's pilot.

After his brother is killed in a drive-by shooting, Waters retires from the Navy Seals with a $50,000-a-year pension to return to his old high school to teach science. The terms "make a difference" and "give something back" are used a lot, in case anyone doesn't get the point. Waters buys the old house he grew up in and sets about restoring it in his spare time.

But Waters doesn't have much spare time because, by his second day at school, he has already formed a cadre of devoted faculty friends and students. The faculty friends include Nicole Moore (Kristen Williams), a character described in the CBS press release as the "beautiful African studies teacher."

Moore is essentially the same character that Denise Nicholas played in "Room 222." And that's OK, because Williams is a fine actress who makes the character interesting in her own right. But, in addition to teaching African studies, Moore coaches the cheerleaders.

By the second episode, the producers have her in Spandex shaking her booty and leading cheers. One of the producers is none other than Mr. High Road himself, Williams.

Waters' student followers include: Flea Decker (Richard Chevolleau), a kid with lots of potential who is running with gang members; Russ Achoa (Felix A. Pire), the class comedian, who's gay; Chloe Drescher (Amy Hargreaves), a rich girl with a drinking problem; Angela Perez (Cyndi Cartagena), a poor girl who can barely read; and Jack Tisdale (Nathaniel Marston), a football star who is the victim of physical abuse at home.

On the whole, it is a strong group of young actors, but, like guests on a daytime talk show, their characters are defined more their dysfunctions or sexual orientation than by personality. Again, you are not surprised, since a daytime talk-show host is producing the drama.

In tonight's pilot, Decker and Tisdale get in a fight, with Decker promising to shoot Tisdale until Waters steps in and shows Decker the light. Next week's script is better. It features a teen mother leaving her baby on Decker's doorstep and disappearing. Waters helps his students care for the baby, while coming under fire himself for handing out condoms and hanging one of his students out the second-story window of his classroom.

Yes, like the talk-show host, Waters believes in tough love when necessary.

As producer, Williams doesn't seem to believe in tough editing. While the script improves from week one to week two, the production values suffer to the point where different camera shots aren't even matched.

In one scene, Waters is shown with his arms folded when filmed from the front. When he's filmed from the side, his arms are hanging down. Matching such shots when filming or, at least, catching the mismatch in editing are the stuff of Television Production 101.

The best hope for this series is its potential to provide a kind of feel-good palliative to viewers -- telling them that the problems of urban high schools are not so bad that they couldn't be solved if there were just more teachers like Matt Waters.

It's a false message that many baby boomers who are now parents of high schoolers have been buying into -- from "To Sir With Love" to "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Welcome back, Waters? I don't think so.

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