For some segments of the TV industry, this truly is the most wonderful time of the year, a couple of months (or, if you’re Hallmark, make that 10 months) when heartwarming can trump a general absence of quality.
“Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” premiering Thursday on NBC, may not be a holiday-themed movie, but it’s so perfect for the season, you can pretty much expect it to be repeated next December and probably many Decembers thereafter. In fact, Parton, who narrates the film, also introduces it while perched in Santa’s sleigh to emphasize that fact.
The film is based on Parton’s early life and, more directly, on her signature song, “Coat of Many Colors,” recalling her youth in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee where she was one of eight children born to Robert Lee and Avie Lee Parton. The family barely managed to get by on whatever money Robert earned from his small tobacco farm. Avie Lee was only 15 when she married Parton.
As Parton fans know, the “Coat of Many Colors” was a garment stitched together for nine-year-old Dolly by her mother, using bits and pieces of material left over from other projects. Dolly was proud of her coat, until she was mocked by other kids for having a coat made from rags. Her pride turned instantly to shame, until she came to understand that it didn’t matter if the coat was made from scraps of material: What was important was that it was made by her mother from love.
Alyvia Alyn Lind truly stands out as young Dolly. She’s a gifted young actress with the kind of wise-beyond-her-years sass and precociousness that earned Tatum O’Neal an Oscar years ago for “Paper Moon.” She is more than convincing as the headstrong youngster who is determined to be a big star some day.
If only the words she speaks had even the least bit of credibility. The dialogue is pretty unbelievable, like a few hundred Hallmark card greetings strung together over two hours. How much of the story is really true and how much is so much spun sugar crafted by screenwriter Pamela K. Long is unknown, but the film feels like the kind of revisionist bio-pic Hollywood used to turn out in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.
It really doesn’t matter, though. Although it’s a struggle at times, you do suspend disbelief and go with it because Lind is so adorable and you want to accept that the saccharine story line could have played out in real life just the way it’s depicted in the film.
Dolly’s parents are played by Ricky Schroder and Jennifer Nettles. Robert Parton is a quietly stubborn man deeply in love with his wife. He drives the family to church every Sunday, but stays outside smoking while the rest of the Partons go inside to hear the weekly sermon from Pastor Jake Owens (Gerald McRaney), Avie’s father.
Avie Lee has always been deeply religious until a tragedy tests her faith beyond endurance. She folds under the weight of grief, spending her days sleeping or simply sitting and staring blankly into space. She no longer sews, or tends to her house and family as she tries to understand how God could allow a tragedy of this magnitude to occur.
It’s a foregone conclusion that she’ll snap out of it, and that Dolly will be the catalyst. .
In a note to critics, Parton rightly despairs the general absence on contemporary TV of heartwarming shows like “The Waltons,” the 1970s family drama created by Earl Hamner Jr. Each episode of that show ended with a shot of the Waltons’ homestead at night and the voices of family members bidding each other good-night at the end of the day.
But what Parton and her creative team seem to overlook is that credible characters speaking believable dialogue and finding themselves involved in real-life situations brought us to those gentle good-nights on Waltons Mountain, week after week. Happy endings are simply more effective if they are preceded by credibility.
NBC’s “Coat” may be poorly made, but it will warm your heart for a couple of hours. Heaven knows, we certainly need that right about now.
“Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors” airs at 9 p.m. Thursday on NBC.