We've been trained to head for the hills whenever TV decides to take a break from sitcoms about broke waitresses and crime dramas about fairy tales to tackle real-life issues. Sometimes, though, the issues and television's approach to them can be compelling.
On Monday, Lifetime offers an anthology of films, co-produced by Jennifer Aniston, about breast cancer to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month. At the same time, MTV airs a made-for-TV film about the dangers kids can face online. Both projects deliver important messages through cinematic fiction.
The films that comprise Lifetime's Five don't always paint a rosy picture of dealing with breast cancer, but they are, collectively, hopeful and more Hollywoodized than what it's really like to face major illness. The films, directed by Alicia Keys (the segment called "Lili"), Demi Moore ("Charlotte"), Penelope Spheeris ("Cheyanne"), Patty Jenkins ("Pearl") and Aniston ("Mia") look at issues that one eighth of all women have faced or will face in their lives.
Mia (Patricia Clarkson) gets a stage 4 diagnosis and, thinking her life is over, settles some old scores and spends all her money, only to find she still has living to do. Lili (Rosario Dawson) is a high-powered attorney who thinks she can face her lumpectomy alone, only to find that the support of family and friends is indispensable. Cheyanne (Lyndsy Fonseca) is a stripper whose husband is an enforcer for loan sharks, but their love is both deep and physical. She is terrified that a double mastectomy will mean the end to their relationship.
It's the summer of 1969, and Charlotte (Ginnifer Goodwin) is dying of breast cancer, but her husband and the rest of her family do not want her young daughter Pearl (Ava Acres) to know. She's too young for reality, they think. Years later, Pearl (now played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) has become an oncologist, and she is the thread linking all of the individual films.
The films work individually, of course, but they gain even greater meaning and emotional strength in context with each other. Five is the number of films in the anthology, and it's the stage number beyond the most serious phase of breast cancer. As Mia says in the Aniston film, stage 5 is death. But the collective message of Five is that stage 5 also can mean hope and, at times, survival.
Five also is the number of tissue boxes you'll probably need to watch these emotional short films.
MTV's (Dis)connected is part of the network's "A Thin Line" campaign to help younger Americans learn to make smart decisions about what they say, show and do online, and to use education to combat digital abuse. The film also is valuable as it reminds parents how vulnerable their kids can be through frequent use of the Internet as a primary means of communication.
Directed by Leslie Libman, the film looks at the lives of four young people whose lives intersect online, and it offers a cautionary suggestion that overuse of cellphones and the Internet can supplant kids' abilities to communicate with their peers and parents, especially when dealing with real-life problems. The film's four primary characters are Isaiah (Jordan Calloway), a seemingly fun-loving guy who suffers secretly from depression; Lisa (Ana Coto), who has fallen in love, she thinks, with an older boy named Jack whom she met online; Tom (Justin Preston), a sensitive misfit who writes and sings beautiful songs but refuses to show his face online; and Maria (Lindsey Morgan), who all but stalks her boyfriend through constant texts and email.
The film's staccato pace and abbreviation-heavy dialogue follows live webcam chats from screen to screen, cutting back and forth from one character to another and only minimally showing us their lives when the webcam is shut off.
All four realize, to one extent or another, that the supposed detached "safety" of the Internet exposes you to all kinds of things, including an unending Greek chorus of commentary from those who are watching you online. None of these people are your friends, some want to take advantage of your vulnerability and false sense of empowerment that the Internet seems to provide, and others will just egg you on, no matter what bad decisions you make, purely out of malice.
The film ends with a tragedy, viewed at a safe distance by others online. Later, the other characters seem, momentarily at least, to have learned a lesson. That's probably a bit too hopeful, but the film will be followed by a half-hour news special on MTV at 11 p.m. talking about some of the themes of the film. The special will be hosted by SuChin Pak and Vinny Guadagnino of Jersey Shore, with the participation of panelists including "It Gets Better" project creator Dan Savage.