"Dear Dad: I joined the Mexican Revolution. Sorry about high school. (signed) Indy."
Funny, smart, daring and wry. That note from 16-year-old Indiana Jones to his father suggests the tone of one of the most ambitious and exciting projects to hit prime time in some time, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," which premieres at 8 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).
Visually, there is nothing else on network TV that compares with it. Sunrise in Mexico, twilight in Egypt with the pyramids as backdrop, a huge battle scene between the forces of Pancho Villa and the Mexican army, all show how much of the big screen experience can be kept in the translation to TV when the right folks are doing the translating.
And the narrative of this series is one of multiple riches. It's a boy's coming-of-age story, a hero quest, a travelogue, a class in multiculturalism, and a simple, solid action-adventure serial all rolled into one sprawling, seat-of-the-pants yarn.
For those who haven't heard ABC's heavy drumbeat of publicity, the first thing to know is that filmmaker George Lucas created and produced the 14-week series. There will be a two-hour episode tonight, followed by a one-hour episode each week for the next 13 weeks, according to ABC.
The series chronicles the adventures of Indiana Jones before he became the archaeologist and adventurer played by Harrison Ford in Lucas' blockbuster feature films of the 1980s. The first hour of tonight's film is set in Egypt and features Indy at age 10; the second is in Mexico with Indy at age 16.
Our narrator throughout the series is a very old Indiana Jones, 93 years old to be exact, reflecting in 1992 on his adventures, which cover the entire 20th century. Each episode opens with the old man (played by George Hall) settling in to tell another story from his life.
It's all relatively easy to follow on the screen, a piece of cake for TV- literate youngsters. But it is a fairly sophisticated narrative strategy involving three different Indiana Jones characters intersecting with a host of historic figures -- Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, Theodore Roosevelt and Carl Jung -- each week. When you break it down, it is the stuff of graduate seminars in narration theory.
But tonight's show, "Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal," is too much fun to break down. Old Indy tells us the story of young Indy (played by Corey Carrier) accompanying his mother and father on a two-year, around-the-world speaking tour. His father has been booked for the tour because he is such a famous and brilliant professor at Princeton. A tutor is engaged at Oxford to accompany the Joneses and teach young Indy.
Almost before young Indy can say "holy smokes," he and his tutor are hanging out at an archaeological dig in Egypt with a young T. E. Lawrence (Joseph Bennett), also known as Lawrence of Arabia, and trying to solve the mystery of a murdered man and a missing artifact in a mummy's tomb. While there is some stock Saturday-afternoon, action-adventure serial stuff here -- a mummy falling on Indy -- the story grabs and does not let go.
The missing artifact -- a bronze jackal with jeweled eyes -- serves as a link to the second hour, which features the 16-year-old Indy (played by Sean Patrick Flanery) in Mexico. Before the teen-age Indy can say, "If I don't get back in time for classes, my dad is going to kill me," he's caught up in the events of 1916 and rebel leader Pancho Villa's battles with the Mexican army and Gen. John Pershing and the U.S. Army. Indy signs on with the revolutionaries.
A scene involving a young Lt. George Patton, who guns down several Mexicans in a cantina and then straps their bodies to the hood of his Army car like deer, raises serious questions about the blending of fact and fiction in this series. There is a historical account of the incident, though it didn't happen exactly as depicted in tonight's film. Debate about the docudrama aspect of these chronicles is sure to be ongoing.
But there should be no debate about the overall excellence of the final hour. It's enlightened. Notice how Lucas and company go out of their way to avoid being ethnocentric and gender-biased even though their hero is a white male. And it's exciting. Two big endings -- both involving lots of dynamite and good guys in peril -- literally light up the screen.
It's questionable whether network TV can afford programming this grand in these downsized days. But let's enjoy these first 13 episodes and worry about that later.