Pax TV revs up its schmaltz-o-meter with “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” a dramatic anthology series based on the bestselling books by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Lukewarm and full of corn, “Soup” is so sappy and safe, it makes “Touched by an Angel” look like soft-core pornography. Only viewers with a self-imposed mandate to praise anything with a family-values twist will find something to admire here, but for anyone else who has genuine problems and makes hard choices, this “Soup” is definitely a bad menu selection.
Talk about a pre-sold property. The visual version, hosted by Michael Tucker, puts images to the words that have created a publishing phenomenon; 30 million copies have gone home with consumers looking for a quick, psychoanalytical fix. And to its credit, “Soup,” which stems from the cable net’s special last December, has lined up some big names — Rod Steiger, Ray Walston and Marlee Matlin have leant their efforts to later editions. But it all plays out like a Maalox commercial: out-of-touch emotions and greeting-card optimism weigh down the finished product. Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts” segments on “Saturday Night Live” were more profound.
First episode has it all: birds, first kisses and precocious children who spout enduring wisdom. In “A Sandpiper to Bring You Joy,” Mary Louise (Roxeanne Hart) is a divorced woman who befriends young Wendy (Mae Whitman) on the beach. After weeks of sand castles and smiles, Wendy doesn’t show up, and Mary Louise learns her new buddy has died of leukemia. See — life is precious.
Next condensed bit, titled “The Cape,” stars Tisha Campbell (“Martin”) as a mother whose son (Jascha Washington) is interviewing for a private school. The only problem: The tyke insists that he is Superman. When the headmistress asks what his real name is, he approaches her and whispers, “Clark Kent.” Oh, the day is full of funny moments. Puh-leeze.
Other brief baubles follow. Teri Garr and Shirley Knight find hidden hope in “The Seed Jar”; Harold Gould uses flowers to brighten up someone’s day in “The Gift”; and Heidi Swedberg is a groovy supermom in “Taking a Break.”
It’s one thing to promote feel-good TV, but there really needs to be substance behind it. Pax may well have started a new genre by creating a program based on warm-hearted gushiness, but there is nothing of depth to bolster the bid. The manufactured narratives come with either a stale lesson or a flat plot, and the execution — each segment has a different director and writer — just doesn’t click.
As for the target demographic? There are only so many octogenarians who send money to TV evangelists, but that seems to be the intended audience: Kids will be bored, parents will scratch their heads, and sophisticates will cringe.
Tech merits are a nonissue, especially since every piece lasts about six minutes and relies more on rushed sentiment than production technique.