To The Mat debuts tonight on CMT at 8 p.m. Eastern.
First of all, let’s give Ricky Schroder some credit that he unquestionably deserves yet often doesn’t get: not only did he successfully transition from child actor (The Champ) to teen heartthrob (Silver Spoons), but thanks to his work in Lonesome Dove, he managed to gain a foothold in Hollywood as an adult as well, earning subsequent stints on such series as NYPD Blue, Scrubs, and 24. He’s even begun to step behind the camera, writing and directing a few films here and there; in 2005, he took home a couple of CMT Music Awards for helming and starring in the video for “Whiskey Lullaby” by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss. He’s done all of this without making headlines in the tabloids, and, hell, he even had the good sense to realize that people were never going to start calling him “Rick” and finally went back to billing himself as “Ricky.” Kudos, Mr. Schroder. When it comes to former child stars, you’re the gold standard. Shame about your movie on CMT, though.
To The Mat, which teams Schroder with Broadway-belter-turned-country-crooner Laura Bell Bundy, is the first entry in CMT’s so-called Original Movies franchise. This would be using the adjective “original” very, very loosely. Bundy plays Janice Bailor, a big-city business consultant who, in a desperate attempt to show a catty co-worker that she’s fully prepared to claw her way up the corporate ladder, spontaneously decides to blow off a weekend of tasting cakes and listening to potential bands for her upcoming wedding in favor of helping a struggling academy in a small Georgia town. Her fiancé, Kevin (Cameron Bancroft), takes the news in stride, but it infuriates her rich-bitch mother, Mildred (Gwynyth Walsh), who is horrified that her daughter would take on such a task with a mere 11 weeks left before the nuptials. Then again, this is a woman whose hoity-toity manner has been painted in such broad strokes that she casually comments about how some power couple or other “won’t be having children—they’re acquiring antiques.” After the obligatory farewell scene where Janice and Kevin express their love for each other via a few kisses and—we’re led to presume—some off-screen coitus, it’s time to cue the country music and shift scenes to Janice driving her rental car down the road a spell and into the parking lot of The Slocum Academy. It is not, however, the quaint private school that Janice was expecting: It’s a training ground for future professional wrestlers, headed by Aaron Slocum (Schroder), who instantly rubs Janice the wrong way with his stubborn ways.
It would be critically inappropriate to approach a CMT production with preexisting expectations that it’s going to be playing to the lowest common denominator of viewer, but having now watched To The Mat, it would not be inaccurate to say those who fall into that particular demographic will find moments that will please them greatly. It isn’t that the film doesn’t have a few charms, but the majority of the plot is either so convenient or so predictable that you may not be able to appreciate those charms over all the groaning from the romantic comedy and fish-out-of-water cliches strewn throughout the script. Online etiquette requires that I include the words “SPOILER ALERT” in this sentence before I hit the first comma, but now that I have, be honest: Given the plot synopsis in the previous paragraph, would you find it in any way surprising to learn that the end of the film finds Janice returning home, discovering that her experiences at the Slocum Academy have changed her, and, after giving Kevin back his engagement ring, heading back to Georgia to lock lips with Aaron just before the closing credits roll?
There’s also a strange dichotomy within To The Mat, where writer C. Jay Cox seems to want to have his cornpone-comedy cake and eat it, too, having the characters act all silly and aw-shucks when necessary yet still turn around on cue to remind someone that folks down South can be cultured too. But Cox has mined this territory before—he’s the man behind Sweet Home Alabama—so that’s not entirely surprising.
Oh, right, I mentioned that the film has a few charms. The first of those comes via the presence of Christine Willes (a worthy candidate for The A.V. Club’s Random Roles feature), who plays Aaron’s mother and doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as she deserves. The wrestling scenes in To The Mat certainly don’t come anywhere near capturing the real deal, but there’s an unexpectedly touching moment in the middle of the film when one of Aaron’s students finds his eyes welling with tears when, after making his debut in the ring, his son—with a smile a mile wide—asks if he’d autograph something for him for a girl he likes. Even though the purpose of the scene is to heavily underline for Janice that Slocum Academy has real meaning for its students, the moment nonetheless conveys real emotion, which is something that’s in short supply throughout the rest of the proceedings.