Why Johnnny can't play

Cat Stevens would be proud. Then again, this might be the kind of depressing realization that prompted him to become Yusuf Islam. Though his song of nearly 40 years ago is nowhere to be heard, a new locally crafted documentary suggests the same haunting musical question Stevens asked then still demands answers today: Where Do the Children Play?

The hourlong Michigan Television production, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 15 (repeated at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 16), on WTVS/Channel 56 is a must-see for parents or anyone who cares about kids, a compelling, serious look at a normally carefree subject. Interspersing lovingly photographed footage of youngsters exploring their natural surroundings of woods and waters with opinions of experts from as far away as Great Britain (all seemingly shot outside; nice touch), Where Do the Children Play? makes a convincing case that free play in the outdoors, a function essential for normal childhood development and taken for granted by the postwar generation, has given way to video games, Facebook pages and fear of the world beyond the front gate.

Only 10 percent of kids even walk to school anymore. Indeed, among the doc's more provocative notions is that kids from poor (not poverty-ridden) city neighborhoods are growing up in a better environment for play and socialization today than youngsters in the sterilized suburbia of soccer leagues and regimented play dates.

"I like that this film blows stereotypes apart and forces people to take a different look at things," says its writer-director-producer Christopher Cook, multiple regional Emmy winner who's possibly better known as food critic for Hour Detroit magazine. "We've been going through a lot of societal shifts in the country, and I wanted to create an awareness, especially on the part of suburbanites, that the continuing outward movement to bigger and better places is not always ideal, especially for kids."

Shot entirely in Michigan, the work travels to unspoiled, isolated Beaver Island, where young people don't have — gasp! — cell phones or e-mail addresses, yet seem to be getting on fine. Contrast that to the Rainforest Café in Auburn Hills, where kids can see and touch animals up close — and mechanized. The most consistent voice among the grown-ups is Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods, who has a knack for the summarizing remark. "Kids who've been growing up in the last 20 years see nature as an abstraction," he notes. "It's a generation looking at screens instead of streams."

The independent production, seven years in the making and fueled by seed funding from the University of Michigan, has been picked up by public TV stations throughout the state and on Washington, D.C.'s giant WETA-TV, among others, a rarity for any program not funneled down the PBS pipeline. The programmers may realize that determining Where Do the Children Play? is too important to ignore.

Mirac-Al drugs:
This time, in a refreshing change for national television, the initials DEA do not stand for "Detroit's Embarrassed Again." At first it appeared even America's favorite weatherman, Al Roker, executive producer of the six-week reality series DEA (11 p.m. Wednesdays, Spike TV) planned to use Motown for a putdown. However, despite its subject matter and the fact it tries to drain too much drama from routine situations, last week's premiere of this unprecedented up-close look at a squad of Drug Enforcement Administration agents featured panoramic views of the Motor City skyline, dramatic ground-level angles and beauty shots throughout. Detroit rarely has been shown to greater advantage on the network stage. You're a pal, Al.

The weather outside is frightf-Al:
Filled in recently as host of The Art Blackwell Show on WGPR-FM (106.7) and fielded a listener's lament about local TV that sparked a chorus of audience amens. "Why is it," the caller wailed, "every time there's a huge snowfall, Channel 2 (WJBK) sticks poor Al Allen outside in the middle of it?"

Now, Allen is a street reporter, one of this city's best. When the streets are miserable, so also must he be. I suggested this proud TV tradition goes back at least to the old NFL Today show on CBS, where Brent Musberger, Phyllis George and Jimmy the Greek would sit cuddly in a New York studio while Irv Cross chattered out exactly how cold it was on Lambeau Field.

WXYZ/Channel 7's Bill Proctor has it little better, though he does sport cooler hats. It always struck me that persons of color are not genetically best equipped to give accurate reports on frigid temperatures. Just once I'd like to hear, "And now, with the latest on the blizzard, here's Sven Nyquist!"

Now that spring seems truly here, the topic is moot for now. But, hey, FOX2, Al Allen is a local legend. He's been reporting news here since Coleman was young, and he's not getting any younger. Next winter, pull him inside every so often and let those bones warm up, will ya?

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Jim McFarlin

Jim McFarlin, former media and entertainment critic for the Metro Times and The Detroit News, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People, USA Today, Black Enterprise, HOUR Detroit, and many other publications. His latest book, The Booster, about the decline and fall of U-M’s Fab Five, is...
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