Jonathan Storm: 'Hallmark Hall of Fame' sends a message: Teachers can make a difference

Emily VanCamp and Treat Williams play a teacher and a school administrator in "Beyond the Blackboard," a Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast.
Emily VanCamp and Treat Williams play a teacher and a school administrator in "Beyond the Blackboard," a Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast.
Posted: April 24, 2011

If anyone knows anything about sending messages, Hallmark does. So it's very hard to imagine that Sunday's Hallmark Hall of Fame comes as a coincidence.

For its 243d go-round, the Hall of Fame dusts off an obscure 16-year-old book about an exceptional teacher, turning it into a heartwarming ode to the dedicated practitioners of a profession that's been getting kicked around pretty brutally these days by politicians.

"Beyond the Blackboard" stars the beautiful Emily VanCamp, who came to TV attention in Everwood and blossomed in Brothers & Sisters, as Stacey Bess, a beginning teacher who gets assigned to a no-name school in a Salt Lake City homeless shelter.

The story is as predictable as the sunrise, but somehow, instead of distracting from the film's enjoyment, that adds to it. As the world spins faster and more coarsely every day, it's a quiet pleasure to watch an old-fashioned production in which virtue, charity, and hard work are rewarded.

The Salt Lake City public school bureaucracy, personified by Timothy Busfield, who plays a heartless administrator, joins the rest of the world in having no interest in the kids. The teacher whom Bess replaces counsels her to play videotapes to keep them distracted and call the cops if things get bad.

But that won't do, and the idealistic young woman invests her spare time and her own money to try to make the decrepit classroom in the decrepit shelter in a decrepit, abandoned warehouse and office building more conducive to learning. (So many public school teachers spend their own money on students that the IRS provides a special income adjustment for that on its 1040 tax form.)

Wouldn't you know it? The kids, and even some of their down-and-out parents, respond to Bess' enthusiasm.

She still has no desks or books, but when she goes to complain, wouldn't you know it again, VanCamp finds her old acting buddy Treat Williams working in another office in the bureaucracy.

Williams played the father of VanCamp's character's boyfriend on Everwood. Everybody talked about what a wonderful family atmosphere there was on that set, and you can almost feel the warmth when these two get together again on-screen.

Ironically, Everwood, set in Colorado, was filmed in Salt Lake City. "Beyond the Blackboard," set in Salt Lake City, is filmed in Albuquerque, N.M., and some of the wonderful child actors in the film were drawn from the environs. Half of them had never performed on TV.

It's extremely difficult to maintain interest and energy when things get as sappy as they do here, but VanCamp and veteran director Jeff Bleckner, with two Emmys (one for Hill Street Blues) and scores of TV shows and movies under his belt, keep viewers absorbed as everybody travels the bumpy road toward happiness.

It's difficult to understand how a profession that's so important to the survival of society has become almost a pariah under the weight of political bombast.

Hallmark's countervailing message will be welcome in many quarters, including among the remaining people in the TV audience who still like a well-told story and who usually deliver Top-20 ratings every week the Hall of Fame comes around.


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.

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