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Planet Waters: FUBAR

First things first: I did it once, and I'm never doing it again. A few of us participate in this masochistic exercise in which we knowingly subject ourselves to outlandishly stupid entertainment, ostensibly for the good of the cause. In the past, this has led Boychuk) to see "Natural Born Killers," and Michaels) to see "It's Pat)" and see "Showgirls)". Each died a little inside with the experience, but they gained comfort in the knowledge that others were spared. And now it's my turn.

First, we had to choose the right assignment. A while back, it seemed like "Nixon" would be the one. But we all know Boychuk's affinity for the sweaty one, and I wouldn't dream of depriving him. Michaels then suggested "Cutthroat Island." I agreed, but when the film opened, I had second thoughts. Bad as it surely is, I just didn't think it reached the level of a Saturday Night Live sketch that never made it to theaters outside Texas, or the unveiling of an actress who went directly from children's television star to soft core porno actress. I weaseled my way out of the assignment and resumed my vigil for the moment that would call to me. Yesterday, I found it.

I watched Matt Waters.

Matt Waters, for those of you with your head in the sand, is the CBS drama starring talk show host Montel Williams. Originally it was on the fall schedule, but for unknown reasons, it was pulled and put on the shelf as a replacement series. Of course this is CBS, so being a replacement series is no big deal. It's not if the show will air, but when. For Matt Waters, when arrived after CBS cancelled... well, after CBS canceled whatever used to air Wednesdays at 9. And for those of you wondering before last night if CBS--purveyor of Dweebs; more ice skating than you can shake a stick at; the Tiffany network -- had hit rock bottom yet, the answer is a resounding: No. To paraphrase Roger Ebert's review of "North," I hated this show; hated it, hated it, hated it.

Matt Waters is bad in so many ways that I don't know where to begin. The premise is as good a place as any. Waters is a former Navy Seal-slash-Gulf War veteran who has returned to teach at the high school where he grew up. (Calm down. I know Montel Williams has as much chance of being a Seal as I do of getting a date with Sandra Bullock; I'll get to that later.)

Propelled by the drive-by shooting of his 35-year old gangster brother, Waters is determined to make a difference in the lives of young people. Officially he teaches general science; unofficially he's teaching life lessons, the military way. His first day on the job, he gets a rowdy class' attention by bellowing, "Ten-Hut!" Naturally everyone shuts up. Then he scrawls Education Pays on the board, and rewards students who correctly answer questions with a five-dollar bill. Sort of a "Corporate America" (his term) meets the classroom. Waters also prowls the hallways, accosting students and offering such homespun homilies as "Don't sell yourself short" or "Don't go through the rest of your life wondering what you could've been."

Jerry Seinfeld once defended his show's nothingness by saying that he's not naive enough to think that life lessons can be taught in 30 minutes; that everything wraps up neatly in the end; that everyone goes home happy. Better just to entertain than to preach unsolicited, hollow advice. Matt Waters and its executive producer, Montel B. Williams, are the anti-Seinfelds. This is the worst kind of television. Not only is it bad--the actors can barely act; the dialogue is cliched; the plots plain idiotic--it's patronizing and insults the viewer's intelligence. Just repeat these magic words, it seems to say, and you too can raise a productive member of society. When in doubt, quote some really awful, amateur poetry like, "Man without a friend walks heavy, for the burden is all his own." And if all else fails, offer the kid money. That'll learn 'em.

That's right: Paying students for correct answers isn't the only time when Montel--er, excuse me, Matt Waters--offers a student money. When an illiterate student drops out of school to work so that she can help feed her welfare family (I told you the plots were moronic), Waters offers to pay her what she makes at her job, if she will (a) spend 10 hours a week learning to read; (b) clean his lab; and (c) help him rebuild the house he bought. Where does this money come from? Why, his Navy pension of course. Never mind teaching the value of education itself. Never mind that most teachers struggle to feed their own family, let alone someone else's. Never mind that this solution is as realistic as Montel Williams being a Navy Seal.

And that brings me to another gripe. Williams, as I noted earlier, is the executive producer, which should set alarm bells ringing for anyone with an iota of cynicism. When Hollywood stars produce their own projects, they inevitably violate what I call The Law of Steven Seagal (Named for the moment in "Under Seige 2" when a kidnapped young woman reassures her fellow hostages by showing off her uncle's--Seagal's--medals and saying something to the effect of, "My Uncle Casey will save us. He's a genuine hero." Also, the scene where a bad guy learns Seagal's character is near and groans, "Oh no, they say he's the best."). That is, to compensate for their inadequacies on our planet, they turn their characters into otherworldly studs, supermen of mind, in battle and in bed. Though it might seem physically impossible, that's what Williams does here. Not only is his character a combat veteran, he's a Navy Seal--one of the ultimate warriors, an Olympic-caliber athlete. Never mind that he runs like he just had leg braces removed. He's also a former star of the high school football team, popular with the ladies (Two female students walking through the parking lot spy Waters and one says, "I think bald men are sexy."), and so revered that--I'm not making this up--students and teachers gossip about him in the hallways before his arrival like he's a movie star. Yeah, this happens.

Of course a lot of shows are absurdly fantastic; that doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of the show. So how's this one? Funny you should ask. It sucks. To begin with, there's always a problem when your leading man can't act. Montel doesn't have to act much here--Matt Waters is basically Montel Williams, but with a few added accouterments: a cool car; war hero status; looks that, in this alternative universe, women find attractive. But in a couple instances, he is called upon to actually emote and, frankly, it isn't pretty. In one case, he barks at a teacher with whom he disagrees, "I don't buy it! I don't buy it!" Neither did I. Reminded me of that moment in Total Recall when Sharon Stone yells at Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Now you've done it! Now you've done it!" In another case, he makes what's supposed to be a solemn, heartfelt speech to a misguided gang member. Gospel music plays in the background as Montel describes his life story. Just as he reaches, "I wanted to make something of myself," the choir bursts into a crescendo. And one thought runs through my mind, over and over again: My God, this is bad TV.

Suffice it to say, the plots and dialogue are in the same vein. I could detail them with mind-numbing precision (I have comprehensive notes), but to do so would make you suffer through this shlock as I did. That would be counter-productive; sparing you the anguish, after all, is what this whole ridiculous exercise supposedly prevents. Just take my word for it: Matt Waters is some of the worst television CBS has ever broadcast, which is (Earth!) saying something (Force!). In one of the Dirty Harry movies, Clint Eastwood repeatedly grumbles, "Man's got to know his limitations." Until yesterday I had only a vague notion of what this meant. But after watching Montel Williams in his one-man quest to change society through really bad television, the true meaning came clear: CBS had better stop broadcasting soon, or someone's going to get hurt.


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