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November 28, 2014

Review: Behind the scenes look at Diff'rent Strokes heaps on the melodrama

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 3rd 2006 12:32PM
Cast of Behind the Scenes: The Unauthorized Story of Diff'rent StrokesUp to this point, the Behind The Camera series of TV movies has doled out an equal measure of campiness and seriousness for each show it's covered. But most of the shows they've covered don't have the dark history of Diff'rent Strokes. So, for Behind The Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Diff'rent Strokes (NBC, Monday at 8:00 ET), producers Stanley Brooks and Scott Anderson decided to concentrate more on the downfall of each of the show's child stars. But, unfortunately, the movie drifts too often into melodrama and gives a very unbalanced view of what contributed to the fates of Dana Plato, Todd Bridges, and Gary Coleman.

An added dimension to this movie, and its most interesting part, is the interview segments with Bridges and Coleman that bracket each commercial break. (By the way, according to Brooks, the movie is "unauthorized" because the show's owners didn't give permission to use any footage or music from the show, which is evident in the "not quite right" sets and music). Both stars give interesting insights into what happened to them during the series' run, from the fun first years to when everyone from their parents to the "Hollywood system" conspired to make their lives miserable. However, both actors acknowledge at the end of the movie that at some point, they were in control of their own lives, which seems to contradict the message of the movie.

In scene after scene, the movie seemed to blame the bad behavior in each star's life on bad parents (Todd Bridges' drug-addled, abusive dad; Plato's philandering and disinterested mom; and Coleman's greedy and controlling father), exploitative producers and agents, and uncaring network executives. While that was true to a large extent, especially in the case of Coleman, the actors never seemed to be held accountable for their failures as young adults. Could Plato have not robbed that video store when she was desperate for money, or Bridges not hang out with a bad element that got him into drugs? Sure. They're not the first child actors to see jobs dry up because of typecasting, and they won't be the last. To not examine the choices they made to get them to their low points -- and in Plato's case, her 1999 fatal overdose -- was a disservice to the viewer, because it gave an incomplete picture.

But the lack of balance did give the filmmakers a chance to pile on the pathos. God, some of the dialogue was bad, especially in the scenes where a teenaged Coleman was on IV fluids because his kidney disease had progressed to the point where he needed to go on dialysis. "I thought you told me that when it stopped being fun I could quit!" Gary moans to Willie Coleman, in a callback from a scene that took place right after he signed the deal. Yikes. Later on, there are a lot of scenes of Plato and Bridges staring into space and saying, "What happened to us?" I don't know... I would have inserted a little bit more substance into the script, maybe a little more exploration if the choices the actors made as adults. At least something that doesn't insult the audience's intelligence.

As usual, the Behind the Camera producers display the uncanny ability to find actors that can do very accurate portrayals of the actors and executives involved on each show. John Innes, Saul Rubinek, and Adam Reid all do a fine job as Conrad Bain, Fred Silverman, and Brandon Tartikoff, respectively. And, of the seven actors who played the child stars at various ages, the only one who didn't seem believable was Alon Williams, who played Coleman at 30. Especially good were Bobb'e J. Thompson, who played the young Coleman, and Jessica King, who played the young Plato.

Also deserving praise is Verda Bridges, Todd's sister, whose presence as Bridges' strong mother was a revelation. Maybe it's because she had intimate knowledge of the character, but her performance seemed the most realistic of all those who played the parents in the show.

But what should attract you to the show is the participation of Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman. If they did just an hour of those two talking, it would have made a much more interesting show than this negative schmaltzfest.

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Not Bitter

Wat-chu-talkin bout TV Squad?

September 05 2006 at 12:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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