Earnestly hell-bent 

Maybe the only thing the Detroit public school system needs to reverse its sad fortunes is for Chandler Bing to get a teaching certificate.

Plummeting enrollment, a looming teacher strike, tumbledown facilities, parental apathy — no problem! Just bring a "Friend" to school! Clearly, the classroom crisis in Detroit and across America is systemic, deeply entrenched and offers no simple solutions. But you might be persuaded otherwise after watching Matthew Perry work teaching miracles in The Ron Clark Story, a made-for-cable movie premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, on TNT.

The latest in TNT's typically praiseworthy "Johnson & Johnson Spotlight Presentation" efforts, Ron Clark — inspired by the true story of the grade-school Gandhi whose wildly unorthodox, successful educational methods led to Oprah appearances, hefty speaking fees and a national Disney Teacher of the Year Award — represents the first starring television vehicle for Perry since his salad days as Chandler on Friends ended in 2004. (I don't count his hosting the ESPYs last year, nor would any rational person.) It's also a prelude to his full-time return to TV this fall in the highly anticipated NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip from Aaron Sorkin, the man who made The West Wing come alive.

Has international celebrity and untold riches changed the charming rogue's approach to acting? Could be he's been hanging out with Bruce Willis too much. Perry could have used some of Chandler's style and wit in portraying Clark; in attempting to take on a real-life character, he sublimates himself to the point of delivering a one-note performance, bereft of the emotional highs and lows that would seem natural to the story. Perry's Clark is not too strict, not too soft, and not helped at all by a screenplay that leaves you wondering if the stress of teaching hasn't simply driven him insane. However, like the troubled kids he inspires eventually learn to do, hang with Clark for a while if you're able. The rewards come near the end.

The script initially cuts too many corners, giving no glimpse of the skills Clark used to become a beloved, award-winning educator in North Carolina and no explanation why he suddenly decides — after five years — to chuck it all, pack his Mustang and move to New York without even the promise of a job. Perry makes Clark an idealistic doofus, Gomer Does Gotham without the twang. After finally landing a position at Inner Harlem Elementary School (not just Harlem, Inner Harlem, like Lower Hell) and insisting that he be given the most incorrigible pack of brats in the building, he has to work nights at a theme restaurant to make ends meet.

At school, he suffers a series of affronts that would piss off Mother Teresa — his Mustang tagged, his homeroom destroyed, his manhood challenged — yet manages to rise above the setbacks. Who is this guy? The class, and the movie, doesn't begin to come around until Clark agrees to chug a pint of chocolate milk every 15 seconds if they promise to listen to a grammar lesson. Hey, he might puke.

Wayne State's own Ernie Hudson, as the principal, gives his patented gruff leader routine without much else to do (what else is new), and Melissa De Sousa, Clark's romantic interest, is an exquisite diversion. But the real stars of The Ron Clark Story, as perhaps it should be, are the kids, particularly Hannah Hodson as tiny hellion Shameika and Bren Eastcott as wide-eyed, cerebral Badriyah. You know where this ride is going to end before it ever gets moving; the question you have to answer is whether Perry makes the trip worthwhile.

To Everything, Turner, Turner, Turner ...

There appears to be an omega to WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) anchor Frank Turner's holy crusade to serve two masters — splitting time between his TV news job and hosting a midday show on Christian radio station WEXL-AM (1340) — as reported in this space on June 21 to considerable reader reaction.

Last month, a federal court denied Turner's request for a temporary injunction to override the clause in his WXYZ contract that binds his services to the station. Thus, legally he's still not free to begin spreading the good news through a weekday evangelical radio program. No reason was given for the refusal, not that it mattered by then: WEXL general manager Frank Franciosi had given Turner a hard deadline to either launch his show or lose it, and the ruling came down after WEXL's window of opportunity had shut.

Fear not, Frank faithful: Depending upon the circumstances, radio gigs can be like city buses. If you miss one, another will come along — eventually. Turner reportedly vows to continue his fight to access religious airwaves; meanwhile, Randi Myles, a wonderful lady and a fine broadcaster, has filled the opening in WEXL's weekday schedule with "Mornings With Miranda," 9:30 a.m.-noon.

One question lingers: This whole Frank folly provided little WEXL with more free, and generally positive, publicity than the station may ever have received. If Turner is hell-bent to get on the radio, why not just hold a spot for him indefinitely? Numerous calls to WEXL went unanswered. Must have been the prayer line.

Jim McFarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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