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Television Review

'Terminal City' takes risks with cancer, family, and fame

Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

From midair, a golf ball soars down onto the fat belly of a man dozing on an air mattress in a swimming pool. Another wayward golf ball smashes into a picnic table. In the 10-episode series "Terminal City," these tiny suburban disruptions are fallout from Katie Sampson's diagnosis. Upon learning she has breast cancer, the mother of three has taken to her backyard to thwack a few angry shots into the ether. Clutching her club, her pigtails perversely tight, she looks like a demented golf pro.

"Terminal City," premiering tonight at 9 on the Sundance Channel, is a humorous drama about cancer, which is always a risky proposition. Only a confident, elastic piece of work can comfortably encompass both whimsical golf balls and malignant tumors, family hijinks and traumatic hospital procedures. And based on the first two episodes, "Terminal City" has a solid 80 percent success rate. For every precious joke that turns Katie’s life into a clichéd David E. Kelley dramedy, the show has a few clever and unexpectedly touching moments that move it more to the "Six Feet Under" end of the comedy spectrum. At its best, it’s droll, absurdist, psychologically astute, and moving.

"Terminal City" first ran in Canada in 2005, and Sundance has wisely picked it up for a reairing. This is the kind of bold little TV show that the networks should have been looking for during their more desperate writers'-strike moments, rather than, say, "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad." Indeed, "Terminal City" takes ongoing swipes at reality TV, since Katie becomes involved with a hospital docu-show called "Post-Op!" The focus of "Terminal City" is consistently on the psychological chaos of the Sampson family, but the scope widens enough to be a sort of Chayefskian satire about contemporary medicine and reality TV fame, too.

Katie stumbles into the reality show when she’s at the hospital for a biopsy. She is, as the aggressive producer of "Post-Op!" later tells her, "luminescent" on the air. The ridiculous series comes to life when Katie openly rants about dying and bares her breast to the camera, and the ratings pop accordingly. This plot development on "Terminal City" may sound forced, but creator Angus Fraser pulls it off by taking it gradually - Katie hasn't even begun her official involvement with "Post-Op!" by the end of the second episode. She wades slowly into the reality pool, her motivations clear with each step.

One of the strengths of "Terminal City" is its portrayal of the Sampson family, already a little twisted before this latest crisis. They are a unique bunch who reminded me in some ways of the family in "Little Miss Sunshine" - depressed but dear. The teenage son, Nicky (Adam Butcher), is a drug user with some sexual boundary issues. Daughter Sarah (Katie Boland) is unusually drawn to her high school teacher. Seven-year-old Eli (Nico McEown) wants to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. And their grandfather, Saul (Paul Soles), is an eccentric elderly man obsessed with the Holocaust and paranoid about current events. In one telling throwaway scene, we see him back his big old Cadillac into a handicapped spot at a video store - quick exit may be essential.

Katie and husband Ari hold the family, and "Terminal City," together. Played buoyantly by Maria del Mar and Gil Bellows (Billy from "Ally McBeal"), they are a refreshingly happy pair who are clearly best friends. She's kooky, and he’s completely respectful of her kookiness. Indeed, he rather prides himself on being an expert on her kookiness. It should be interesting to see how their relationship adapts to Katie's growing TV celebrity, as well as to her illness. Alas, both diseases have the potential to rob this couple of their soulful bond, to make their private kinship into a free-for-all.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

Terminal City
Starring: Marla del Mar, Gill Bellows, Paul Soles, Katie Boland, Adam Butcher, Jane McLean
On: Sundance Channel
Thursday, March 6, 9-10

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