Every couple years, I find myself with a real guilty pleasure primetime soap to watch, something all made up of artificial relationships and manipulated situations, yet with a certain bounce to its trashiness, and perhaps a willingness to explore something that is not usually explored in trashy primetime soaps. Dawson’s Creek. Hyperion Bay. Yet what happens is this: six episodes of good trashiness, then a quick slide down into crappy trashiness, in which every possible combination of romantic pairings is introduced and exhausted for no good reason except that they need things they haven’t done. The show was pitched with the initial six episodes plotted out, I reckon; they hadn’t need to structure it beyond the six to make the sale, and there’s not enough depth there to go beyond.
Friday’s premiere of PASADENA, a new ABC primetime soap, gives me hope for something more. The foreshadowing narration makes it clear that the events we are seeing are leading to certain specific things a year down the road, giving me hope that they sold this with at least a rough plot for a full first season. I may get 24 episodes of enjoyable trash out of this one.
First, let me set up my relationship with this series: I lived in Pasadena for about 7 years, and still go there frequently. I know Pasadena, from the floatilla of Chinese-speaking students who attend the large Pasadena City College (alma mater to Stan Freberg and Eddie Van Halen) and hang out at the Pak-Mann Arcade, to the million dollar homes overlooking the Rose Bowl. I know it from the Spanish-speaking day laborers hanging out on the corners of Villa Street to the once-funky-artsy stores of Old Town that have been replaced with major chain outlets to take advantage of all the people who had been coming for the funky-artsy stuff. I lived directly between the path of the Rose Parade (which causes the sidewalks to be so densely populated with sleeping people the night before that it looks like the world’s worst homeless problem) and the campus of CalTech (where all are nerds but some of the nerds are unspeakably beautiful.) But I sure don’t know the Pasadena seen in this series (filmed in Canada except apparently for a few exteriors, notably an all-too-limited shot of the world’s most beautiful city hall), the severely race-and-class-stratified country-club society, where non-white faces are somehow unseen. This may be some other place. It may (or may not) be Grosse Point. But it sure ain’t Pasadena.
But if you’re looking for realism, this isn’t the place to look. If you’re looking for the ugly inner-workings of a family of hidden, overwrought corruption viewed through the opening eyes of the family’s fifteen year old daughter, then this is a series for you. Photographed better than it deserves, we’re watching the bland exteriors of an L.A. newspaper magnate’s clan get pulled away to reveal the various forms of darkness beneath. The process is apt to be slow, but it has the potential for fun, and despite the warning of erudite reviewers I find myself wanting to see what happens next. (Hey, how could I not want to find out what happens to a character named Nate who is just like me — living off of large amounts of unearned wealth, brooding, going around in fast cars to buy hard drugs, it’s uncanny!)
But should this series last beyond however-many-episodes-they-pitched, I’m sure my interest will quickly disappear.
DANNY was put together by the same advertiser coalition for positive programs that brought us The Gilmore Girls, and it shares some of the feel of that show (despite being half its length). It is, however, missing Gilmore Girls’s central charm, the relationships between the continuing characters. The titular Danny (played by the voice that haunted The Wonder Years, Daniel Stern) is the founder/head of a boisterous community center. He is a dreamer of a man who is kept to earth and on his toes by the goings-on around him, yet never battered down. We meet his loving family, his enthused-but-not-always-responsible employees, and his gruff-but-not-bad-hearted boss — no true nasty characters to be found in this show. But those are all just backdrop to the central character. There are some amusing moments here, but they work on the level of concept (what one does with a roomful of little girls in ballerina outfits when they don’t want to learn to dance); little of the humor arises from character or dialog. So this show is polished-looking and aggressively inoffensive, but it needs to develop an actual heart or theme in order to rise out of its blandness. Don’t avoid this show, but don’t go to great efforts to watch it either.
THIEVES takes the basic Neil Simon formula (take two people with strong similarities, strong differences, and equal levels of passion and force them to be together) and applies it to an action series. They’re both good-looking high-end thieves. He’s a man of finesse and delicacy, she’s a proponent of brute force and technology, and they’re forced together to work for the good guys (the government). They bicker constantly, but always in ways full of both acknowledged and unacknowledged romantic tension.
The problem with the pilot lies in that “constantly” aspect. Between and amidst a-okay crime/con bits, the bickering blanketed the show. There was no room for subtlety and certainly no time for things to build. This tension should be the undercurrent of the series and it certainly should be the touchpoint of the series but it shouldn’t simply *be* the series. Later episodes will show us whether every one is destined to be a repeat of the pilot, or whether they’ll let the individual plots carry each with the romantic tensions simmering, perhaps eventually coming to a boil. (And before anyone raises the ever-present specter of Moonlighting: No, bringing Dave’n'Maddie finally to a boil did not kill that series. Quite the opposite, it brought us that series at its best. In the wake of that, however, the series was beset with production problems including pregnancy and injuries; throw a couple of awkward creative decisions on top of that, and that’s where the lack of a clear and effective direction for the show came in. Anyone who does not believe that good stuff could have been done if it wasn’t for those problems should go out and rent some of the Thin Man movies.)
Saturday saw the premiere of CITIZEN BAINE. Saturday did, but I didn’t; a failure of the antenna hooked to my second VCR lead to a unviewable recording. I’ll try to review episode 2 when it rolls around (although I expect to be doing a bit of traveling at that time, and my reviews may well lag by quite a bit.)