Demonstrating both what’s best and most disappointing about George Lucas’ meticulously crafted series, this leisurely paced two-hour return squanders the promotional value of a brief cameo by Harrison Ford and shouldn’t help Indy in his most maddening crusade: The quest to find a sizable TV audience on Saturday night.
Opening with Ford as a 50-year-old Indiana Jones snowbound in Wyoming (and featuring the series’ first use of John Williams’ original “Raiders of the Lost Ark” theme), the action soon turns to a flashback of 20-something Indy (Sean Patrick Flanery) as a waiter in Chicago, enamored with jazz in general and a group of black jazz musicians led by Sidney Bechet (Jeffrey Wright) in particular.
Exploring the ambience of the jazz era as well as racism during that period — with obvious parallels to today — the action abruptly shifts gears midway through the two hours, when Indy and his college roommate, a rather geeky Eliot Ness (Frederick Weller), embark on an adventure, along with young newspaperman Ernest Hemingway (Jay Underwood), to solve the murder of a club owner,.
Unfortunately, the first hour includes too much music to hold the interest of those who aren’t jazz enthusiasts, and the second half — with its sleuthing and action sequences — probably arrives too late to entice the many who will have changed channels or nodded off.
Lucas, in fact, remains seemingly disdainful of television convention in the way he presents the show, what with its emphasis on history and historical figures and limited bursts of action. If adventure had a name, it certainly wouldn’t be this Indiana Jones.
That said, the series is extremely well crafted, and its failure to follow TV norms is welcome to those tired of standard series fare; unfortunately, they’re probably seeking diversion elsewhere, particularly on Saturday night.
Flanery’s consistently strong presence as Young Indy provides the show’s backbone, buoyed by uniformly solid supporting performances, especially Wright as the at-first aloof Sidney.
Lucas deftly weaves history into his scenarios (fleshed out admirably here by writer Jule Selbo and director Carl Schultz) without being overbearing about it.
In short, “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” is lavishly produced, ranks among the best hours on TV, and still seems doomed to virtually certain commercial failure.
The long-shot hope is that CBS’ “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” audience may migrate over to the series, but it’s more likely that in his third prime time scheduling adventure — and most treacherous time period yet — Young Indy’s time has probably run out.