Made-for-TV Movies are a fascinating and forgotten artifact of American mass culture. Basically B-Movies “not good enough for the theater,” they still took time and money to produce, still required name actors, and still basically all have the potential to be quality work, if only the scripts were better… but they rarely are. Steven Spielberg’s Duel being the notable exception to the rule, Network TV Movies have always existed to fill time slots and sell ads on, back in the day when people only had a few channels to choose from on any given night.
Enter T-Bone N Weasel, a long-forgotten, early 90’s TV Movie about a couple of ex-cons who hit the road looking for adventure in America’s South. The script, written by Jon Klein and based on his play (this was originally a play???) is not great- the one-liners aren’t half as funny as they’re trying to be, and in the end, nothing much really happens. The subtext and theme woven into the story is not elegantly worked, kinda obvious, and a bit dated in its execution. And yet, thanks to the combination of great acting and the passage of time, T-Bone N Weasel works surprisingly well as both an entertaining buddy movie and a reflection of where America was in regards to race and racism 30 years ago.
The great acting is undeniable, with two of America’s best in Gregory Hines and Christopher Lloyd, both seasoned actors well known in American culture. Despite their cartoonish roles, both men bring out the best in each other with an oddball chemistry which is both fun and genuinely human. Add to that some wonderful cameos by character acting greats: Rip Torn, Ned Beatty, Wayne Knight, Rusty Schwimmer, Larry Hankin and Sam Whipple all have memorable scenes playing off of our leads that make the best out of a lukewarm script.
But what makes the film take a more interesting turn is the undercurrent of racism prevalent in Southern Culture that the film weaves into these goofy escapades. T-Bone, being Black, is not only aware of it at all times but crippled by its weight. His own insecurities and self-defeating attitude stems from a slave-derived system that has programmed him into believing he is worthless and destined for failure. Weasel, by contrast, is just as much of a loser, but he’s White- and with that comes a confidence and ignorance of the other America that he’s never had to consider. He even states it plainly at one point when T-Bone confronts him: “I never think about it.” “Yeah, you don’t have to, because you’re White,” replies T-Bone.
As the film moves forward, Weasel’s racial awakening leads him to a realization most White people still have yet to grasp- and even though we end up with a cute, pat, clichéd happy ending (it is an American TV Movie after all) we have to give kudos to the film for being as bold as it is in attempting to bring that conversation to a predominately White primetime audience in 1992. Hopefully, we’ve evolved in the 3 decades since T-Bone N Weasel aired (though, obviously, not much) but the film is one of the many unacknowledged pop culture building blocks that we climb on in our attempt to build a truly better society for the future.
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