HBO's "Cheaters" doesn't cheat. It pulls no punches in depicting the real-life cheating scandal that rocked an urban Chicago high school in 1995. The film could easily take on a preachy, "Afterschool Special" tone. Instead, "Cheaters" (9 p.m. tomorrow) raises complex questions and leaves it to viewers to supply their own answers after a fair amount of soul-searching. It's easily the best TV movie to air so far this year.
Steinmetz High teacher Dr. Gerald Plecki (Jeff Daniels) gets assigned to sponsor the school's academic decathalon team, bribing students to come to an organizational meeting with fast food. A team of seven is formed, with precocious Jolie Fitch (Jena Malone) assuming a leadership role.
Plecki and his students know they have an uphill battle. The city's only magnet school, Whitney Young, has won the state championship nine years in a row. The Steinmetz team studies at all hours, even quizzing each other while playing basketball.
Plecki clearly cares about the kids he's working with, telling them, "I just want you to know what it feels like to win... I will never abandon you. I will not hang you out to dry."
And the kids adore him.
"I just wish I could have done better for you," Jolie says after the regional competition. Steinmetz competes well enough to advance to the state round, but they're still far behind Whitney Young, whose team benefits from more money, better facilities and an all-around superior educational experience.
When one of the Steinmetz students swipes a copy of the academic decathalon question book from an upcoming competition, Plecki and his students are faced with a choice: Do they cheat and win, allowing themselves to win scholarships to college? Or do they remain honest, knowing they're bound to lose?
For some the answer is simple. For Plecki, it's more complex. His father worked hard for a lifetime, only to be fired when he got ill, so his company wouldn't have to pay for his health insurance. Plecki's brother is viewed as more successful. All the kids on the Steinmetz team have a chip on their shoulder about their rich rivals at Whitney Young.
"This may not be approved curriculum, but guess what? Winning does matter. Cheaters do prosper," Plecki says as he rehearses how he'll present the cheating option to his students.
Their decision leads to a brief moment of victory followed by unraveling and ultimately scandal.
Cheating has become a way of life, from grade school classrooms to the highest office in the land. "Cheaters" shows multiple points of view on the subject, from Plecki's disapproving mother ("They needed someone to tell them it was wrong") to his students ("The skills you taught us will serve us the rest of our lives").
Watching "Cheaters" presents the perfect opportunity for an ethics discussion. It's a thought-provoking film for parents and children, but it's entertaining enough to keep kids watching.
Among the young actors, Malone especially has a naturalness about her as Jolie, whose views on cheating at the end of the film will disturb some viewers. And inspire others.
"Cheaters" premieres tomorrow at 9 p.m. on HBO
"Dukes of Hazzard: Hazzard in Hollywood" (8 tonight on CBS)
What can one really say about a "Dukes of Hazzard" TV movie? Obviously, this isn't going to be deep, meaningful television since the show was purely escapist entertainment. It has to be evaluated within its own universe.
In that regard, "Hazzard in Hollywood" flunks the test. Little of the movie is set in Hazzard County, instead taking the characters on a "Beverly Hillbillies"-like journey to Los Angeles.
The best scene has Roscoe (James Best) bumping into people of various ethnic origins. He's baffled by them. After he leaves, they all get together and discuss how they couldn't understand a word Roscoe, that little dipstick, said.
But why take the Dukes out of Hazzard? Why not bring back recurring characters like Lulu Hogg or Miss Tisdale? Or even cousins Coy and Vance, who replaced Bo (John Schneider) and Luke (Tom Wopat) when contract talks with the leads broke down?
The first "Dukes of Hazzard" reunion movie a few years ago stuck closer to the formula that made the series a Friday night must-see for '80s kids. "Hazzard in Hollywood" goes too far afield.
"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (10 tonight on NBC)
Dick Wolf lays the groundwork for another one of his patented cast purges in tonight's season finale of this "Law & Order" spin-off.
In "Slaves," Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Benson (Mariska Hargitay) investigate a witness's report of a woman seeking escape from an abusive relationship. Just how abusive is the grisly revelation. Turns out the woman is a nanny for a slimey attorney (Andrew McCarthy).
But the "B" story will prove more interesting for regular viewers. A police psychologist (Audra McDonald) interviews each of the detectives and their boss (Dann Florek) and lays the groundwork for cast changes next season.
Who will get the boot? Some viewers have complained about Hargitay's performance, so it could be her. Florek has been fired before (from the original "Law & Order"), so there's precedent with him. Hopefully it won't be Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer), who adds much-needed levity to the somber cases of "SVU."
Then again, Munch, who originated on "Homicide: Life on the Street" before guest shots on "Law & Order," "The X-Files" and "The Beat," might get snapped up by another show. "Third Watch" could use him.
Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.