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Television review: 'The Jensen Project'

Nothing says family togetherness like a game of Predict the Cheesy Dialogue. Gather around, kids — it's time for 'The Jensen Project.'

July 16, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

"What's to keep you from rebooting the nanobot once I've given you the assembler?"

You have to hand it to Walmart; when it does a thing, it does it big. "The Jensen Project," a two-hour, self-described family-friendly movie produced by Walmart and P&G and airing Friday night on NBC, is not just bad, it's super bad. So bad, in fact, that it's almost worth watching for its "Mystery Science Theater 3000" potential.

Nothing bonds a family more than the opportunity to predict cheesy dialogue — "all the systems have been shut down!" — preferably in unison. Similarly, one could easily construct a drinking game involving the term "molecular assembler," though I can't imagine that's what the good folks at Walmart's family moments department had in mind.

"The Jensen Project," in case you were wondering, was not named after whoever came up with the brilliant idea of allowing the wholesome forces of corporate America to create an oasis of G-rated content in the corrupt wasteland of network television. ("Secrets of the Mountain," the first of three, possibly four, similarly produced films, aired in April.) No, it refers to a secret high-tech lab deep in, according to the press release anyway, the Allegheny Mountains, where a variety of geniuses have been gathered to solve the world's problems. (And yes, that is LeVar Burton.) Except one of the geniuses has gone rogue, taking with him a medical nanobot that in the right hands could save the world or in the wrong hands end it. You will know which hands it is heading for when I tell you that rogue scientist Edwin ( David Edwards) has a Roman emperor haircut and that his new point person says things like "my investors won't be pleased."

To save the nanobot and the world, Jensen Project administrator Ingrid ( Patricia Richardson) must reach out to former project smarty pants Claire Thompson ( Kellie Martin), who left the lab's mountain stronghold in tears when her mentor (that would be Edwin) said really mean things about her, like she wasn't that smart and her nanobot prototype was stupid. Of course, it turns out that he was totally lying just so he could steal the nanobot himself, not caring at all that he had shaken Claire's self-esteem so terribly that she was reduced to teaching (teaching!) and having clipped conversations with her doctor-husband, Matt (Brady Smith).

Matt: "Is everything OK?"

Claire: "Fine."

Matt: "You sure?"

Claire: "We'll talk about it another time."

Matt: "Suit yourself."

Clearly, a marriage teetering on the abyss.

The good news about "The Jensen Project" is that the product placement is minimal, all things considered. But frankly, it would have been worth a few more shots of Diet Pepsi and prototypical skycars if that would have meant more time and attention paid to the dialogue, the writing and the delivery. Douglas Barr, a Lifetime favorite and director of "Secrets of the Mountain," is in the chair, and his main note seems to have been "this is serious, so frown more."

Catnip, no doubt, for Martin, who after "Life Goes On" and a stint on "ER" has perfected her Scowl of Concern on Hallmark Channel's "Mystery Woman" series. Smith is given little to do save act supportive, which is actually quite heroic, considering he is forced to spend the climactic scene wearing what appears to be a human-sized version of the suit worn by the Oompa Loompas when they transport Mike Teevee in the original "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." Even the normally reliable Richardson seems strangely flattened, though who wouldn't be when asked to explain Edwin's defection with this little gem: "My fault. He wanted to skip the necessary protocols and advance the nanobot to the next phase."

Like we haven't learned that skipping protocols is the first sign of evil genius.

It's too bad, actually, because there's a decent enough if very familiar concept behind "The Jensen Project" buried under all the wooden dialogue, barely believable gadgetry and 7-ton soundtrack. But while the writers and fans of " Doctor Who," "Fringe" or even the "Mission: Impossible" films know that the best way to ensure suspension of disbelief is to acknowledge it, often with a wink, the creative team behind "The Jensen Project" doesn't seem to have a sense of humor. Which is a problem. Because when you're shooting off at the mouth about molecule assemblers and saving the world with an app, you really need to let the audience laugh with you. Otherwise, their only alternative is to laugh at you.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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