Ah, the wonders of the Disney Channel! Tucked in amongst the Goofy cartoons, the "adult" music specials, and the endless product plugging, "Avonlea" is, as the Parents' Choice Awards and all the commercials will tell you, truly a family show. This means there are no bad words, no violence, and no gratuitous nudity (well, no nudity at all, actually), but there are plenty of warm fuzzy feelings and lessons to be learned. Okay, okay, so on occasion it can get a little too saccharine, but for the most part, "Avonlea" is just a nice way to pass forty-five minutes on the weekend, especially if you want something you can watch with your parents.
For those of you who aren't familiar with this show, let me give you a brief overview. "Avonlea" is an hour-long drama (well, it's an hour with commercials) that airs on the Disney Channel (without commercials) and on the Canadian stations like CNBC as "The Road to Avonlea." It's based on the works of L. M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables and about a thousand other things, and it's set on Prince Edward Island in Canada, which is above Maine, in the early 20th century. Avonlea itself is a small, picturesque village on the island whose citizens make their living mostly by farming, providing services, or working at the cannery.
When the series began, nearly seven years ago (it's now it its final season), its main focus was on a young girl by the name of Sara Stanley. An imaginative and continually meddlesome child, Sara was the daughter of one of Montreal's wealthier businessmen who got involved in a financial scandal. To spare her from the shame of seeing her beloved father's reputation ruined, Sara was sent away to the Island to live, temporarily, with her late mother's family, whom she had never met. Her mother, Ruth, was originally a King, one of five children. The matriarchal head of the remaining Kings (at least in her own mind) was the bossy spinster schoolteacher, Hetty King, who lived with her youngest sister, friendly, flighty Olivia, in the quaint Rose Cottage. At the other end of the King farm lived the older brother, Alec, with his wife Janet and their three children: Felicity, a couple years older than Sara and extraordinarily bossy and snotty; Felix, and year younger than Sara and basically a lazy troublemaker; and Cecily, two years younger and your average quiet, sweet, babyish little sister (in fact, in order to spice the character of Cecily up as the show progressed, they sent her off to an institution with TB for a season and then replaced her with a different actress who had three inches, forty pounds, and a couple years on the original. But hey, she had the same hair color, so it all worked out). The other brother's name was Roger, I think, but he was sort of this lost, wandering explorer who only came back to get into fights with Alec and whine about being dropped as a baby. Anyway, at first Sara was determined to return to more familiar territory, but, in one of those warm fuzzy moments I mentioned earlier, she changed her mind. Then a few episodes later, her father was squashed by a falling crate and she was kidnapped by gypsies while trying to contact his dead spirit, but Uncle Alec rescued her and she was permanently ensconced with Aunt Hetty.
At first the episodes were concerned with introducing all the characters of Avonlea, throwing the children into various "scrapes," and recycling stories from Montgomery's Chronicles of Avonlea. Later, as with all quality shows, the plots came from the different facets of and conflicts between the townsfolk, such Hetty's old-fashioned values vs. Alec's more progressive tendencies and Felix's search for responsibility. Eventually, "Avonlea" probably would have turned into a soap opera with the writers divising complex revenge schemes and turning Felicity into the resident psycho villain if they hadn't insisted on keeping the show fresh by continually adding new characters. Sure, Avonlea's near a port city, but come on, how many fascinating people are going to move there in seven years? My personal favorites were the myriads of King relatives who came out of the woodwork every time a cute kid grew up and the hordes of characters who stayed put for two episodes, then mysteriously disappeared. Oh well--sometimes, among all those one-line personalities ("Wait, I got it--a minister's wife who's really vibrant and drinks too much!" "No, a washed-up Wild West Show cowboy!" "How about a crotchety old guy who hates kids?"), they actually struck gold. There's Gus Pike, who began as a dirty, uneducated wanderer and ended up as Hetty's pride and joy, Felicity's fiance, and a sailor at the bottom of the ocean (supposedly--I got wind of some spoilers which I won't mention here): the Pettibone family, containing stern taskmaster and schoolteacher Clive (who marries none other than Muriel Stacy), veterinary-school rebel Arthur (okay, I admit it, I always had a crush on him. But I thought he was a lot more interesting when he blamed his father for his mother's death and they got into fights all the time.), good little son Morgan who was swiftly shipped off to military school and, as punishment for dropping out, was replaced by another actor, and tomboyish Izzy, who, in later years, pined for her dead mother and became Felix's girlfriend; Jasper Dale, the wacky yet brilliant, shy and stuttering local inventor who married Olivia; and probably several others who have become such a familiar part of "Avonlea" that I can't remember when they weren't there.
But even the best TV program falls into pits. The one-episode characters mentioned above made the show interesting in spots, but unrealistic (not that any TV show is completely realistic)--after a while you wondered if this island were floating around, shepherding big-name guest stars along a Canadian cruise line. Diane Wiest, Madeline Kahn, and other familiar faces whisked through town as a variety of eccentric aunts and cousins. A new generation of preteens such as Davy and Dora Keith were ushered in to replace the Kings as they grew up. Another problem was the fine line between the warm fuzzies and the sap: the writers wanted the episodes to leave the audience with a good feeling, a nice afterglow, as though good old-fashioned family fun could really be fun, but occasionally it slipped over into that cringing sentimentality you never watched "family" shows in fear of. For example, there was that surreal, "Mom, check the channel again," episode set entirely at New Cecily's TB institution (very cheery)--a "charity case" off the streets of New York (who looked like a shrunken version of Christian Bale, which isn't all bad) was taken in, caused trouble, brought some light into depressed Cecily's life, got her parents to throw an early Christmas party for him, and then died, of all things. ::shudder:: Finally, I thought that some of their characters sort of whithered up and died when taken in certain directions, or they were never allowed to explore certain directions in the first place. There was Felicity's aborted medical school career (she became one of the first women to get in, then discovered that although she loved research, she couldn't stand dealing with patients and she washed out)--it's as if someone thought it would be a really great idea, and then halfway through they saw that it wasn't working and pulled the plug on it as fast as possible; and Arthur's oh-so-promising Emotional Baggage with his father--after about two episodes (and Arthur was only a guest star, not a regular) it fizzled out, they made their peace, and then they got along peachy keen (Boo! Hiss! What's wrong with a little internal conflict, anyway? This happened with "Snowy River," too--must be a family-show thing). Perhaps the cut that hurt the most was that of Sara Stanley. Now as I understand it, the actress (Sarah Polley) wanted to continue her education and also act in movies (as the babysitter in Exotica, for example--definitely not a family film) so about halfway through the show, Sara was shunted off to a French academy and the girl who was once the first name listed in the credits ended up as a "Special Guest Star." Of course, she didn't have a whole lot to do before then. The writers seemed to be very concerned with keeping Sara as the "good guy" of the show, opposing her snotty and mischievous cousins and defending every hard-luck case that wandered into the city limits. She had sympathy for everyone, was always willing to help out (be it with one of Jasper's inventions or with another adult's lovelife), and generally remained sweet, talented, and good-hearted. The cousin you always felt like slapping. Her best episodes were also some of the most farfetched--the two-parter involving Sara's mysterious, uncouth urchin twin who replaces her when she runs off to the city to find Gus; the one where her father dies and she's kidnapped by the gypsies; and the slightly bizarre episode when Sara develops a weird, father-figure, older-man relationship with the washed-up Wild West Show cowboy and attempts to run off with him. In these stories, she had a chance to be sad, serious, rebellious, and altogether unperky. Unfortunately, they were few and far between--Sara was never even allowed to have a crush or a boyfriend (okay, there was a minister's son that she instantly hooked up with, but that was for two episodes, they pecked once, and he had about as much chemistry as your brother)! Personally, my dream was that she and Arthur would fall in love (just so he'd stick around longer), but he had this twisted thing for Felicity for one show which I never completely understood.
In the end, though, "Avonlea" fulfilled its goal: it made a good-hearted family show that faithfully replicated the early part of the century and showed the true worth of good, clean fun. It made Avonlea seem like a nice place to live.