Saturday, September 10, 2005

So What Do They Do For An Encore?

In a reversal of their strategy from previous years, which saw most of the Fox Network's new Fall schedule start after the extended Baseball playoffs - usually towards the end of October - this season Fox has been the first to have new shows debuting. While CBS is still recovering from The Cut (which one might say was the unkindest Cut of all considering the ratings), NBC is still labouring under the misapprehension that anyone at all wanted to see Meet Mr. Mom, and ABC has a couple more episodes of My Kind Of Town that haven't escaped yet, Fox has had the premieres of two new series. In fact Prison Break has actually been on for two weeks. This past Thursday night Fox debuted their second new series for the Fall with the one hour premiere of Reunion as well as the season premiere of The O.C.

The first thing that's obvious, just from reading the initial description of the show is that we're looking at the antithesis of 24. While 24 takes the events of a single day and spins them through a twenty four episode season, Reunion takes the events of twenty years and compacts that into around 20 one hour episodes. More accurately of course it takes what appear to be the key events of the period between the high school graduation of a group of six friends in 1986 and the murder in 2006 of one of them, a crime that one of the five remaining friends is accused.

First episodes are most often not indicative of the direction that series that rely heavily on continuity will take. That is probably the case here. The episode opens inside a church in the present day. It's a funeral and the speaker is eulogizing someone (although carefully avoiding revealing the name or even the gender of the deceased) as being a member of a very special group of high school friends. This leads to the first of the flashbacks to 1985 when Jenna (Amanda Righetti), Carla (Chyler Young), Will (Will Estes), Aaron (David Annable), Samantha (Alexa Davalos) and Craig (Sean Faris) graduate from high school. Each of them - except Carla - has plans which will take them away from their hometown but not out of each other's lives. Samantha and Craig - the perfect couple - are going to Brown University even though Samantha has received a scholarship to study in London; she wants to stay with her man. Will, Craig's best friend since childhood even though Craig is rich and Will's father does landscaping work, is going of to study at "Hopkins" (presumably Johns Hopkins). Jenna is going to be a star on Broadway while class nerd Will (who thinks Wham is going to be bigger than The Beatles - proof of nerddom) is going to MIT. As for Carla, she's been taking care of her father since her mother died - and swiping stuff from his pharmacy - and is either unwilling or unable to break away.

Of course this is only the surface: there are secrets and and events will conspire to keep teenaged plans from being fulfilled. Among the things that have gone missing from Carla's father's pharmacy are early pregnancy tests. Several have gone to Samantha who is pregnant... but not with Craig's baby. During a period when Craig and Samantha had broken up she had sex with Will, who also loves her. Meanwhile Aaron has an incredibly obvious crush on Jenna (at least obvious to everyone but Jenna) while Carla has a much more carefully concealed crush on him. What sets events in motion, and what we learn in the present is a major turning point in all their lives, is a car accident. Craig and Will go on a beer run in Craig's Porsche. Craig is driving and his significantly more drunk than Will. Naturally the car crashes into a truck. Will is persuaded to say that he was driving because he wasn't as drunk as Craig. The thing spirals out of control of course. The truck driver dies and even though Will's lawyer (paid for by Craig's father who refuses to let his son take the blame) arranges a very good plea bargain with the local District Attorney, Will is sentenced to a year in the county correctional facility by a judge who is obviously running for reelection on a platform of being tough of teen drinking (even though Will's blood alcohol is .02 - well under the legal limit - it's more than she had to drink that night, and he is a minor). In the end Samantha, who is conflicted in her relationship with Craig and Will, decides to take up the scholarship in London and Carla finally decides to find herself by going with her best friend.

The first episode of the series shows copious amounts of teen angst in the 1986 sequences which make up most of the show. The writing is reasonably strong. The mystery is constantly in the our minds as we watch the stories of the six friends; what parts of the stories are important to the solution of the mystery and which are extraneous will inevitably be in viewer minds as the show progresses. At least so far - and it's probably too early to tell - most of the acting is adequate with only Chyler Young as Claire really seems to stand out at the moment. She is the only person seen in the "present" sequences and for a 23 year old actress she's doing relatively well at playing a 38 year old smoker (although as a 38 year old she is definitely a MILF - Mother I'd Like to... Fornicate with). The other character in the "present" sequences is Matthew St. Patrick (from Six Feet Under), but so far he doesn't have much to do. However his presence points out one of the problems that seems like to crop up as the show progresses. He looks like someone in his late 30s or early 40s. As the series progresses the actors - who range in age between 23 and 27 - are going to have to change in appearance and attitude. In the end they'll all have to play people up to fifteen years older than they are. And I don't know about you, but when I went to my class reunion (25 years) there weren't a lot of people who looked remotely like what they did when I knew them (oddly enough there were a lot of comments on how much I hadn't changed - of course I haven't gained a lot of obvious weight and I still have my hair). They need to be able to carry this off for the series to be successful.

Thursday night promises to be one of this year's most contentious nights of programming. Every network - including UPN - is making an effort in the first two hours to come in second. CBS is probably untouchable in that time period, but NBC's lineup has been seen as weak and metaphorically at least the vultures are gathering to take over some of their audience. In the 8-9 p.m. (CST) slot Reunion will be up against ABC's remake of Night Stalker, NBC's The Apprentice (which has been losing viewers after the first series), UPN's Cuts and Love Inc. and The WB's Everwood in the race to come second to CSI. The early start may give Reunion something of a head start in the race, but it remains to be seen if the show can hold its debut audience particularly once the competition starts showing new episodes. The first episode of Reunion seemed very familiar, with only the hook of unravelling of the ongoing mystery and the notion that since one episode equals one year we'll see these characters grow and develop setting it apart from a series such as its lead-in The O.C. I'm afraid I'm a bit lukewarm warm on this show. I can't really give it an unconditional recommendation based on the first episode alone. It does well enough but it isn't the ground breaking series we were promised, at least not yet. If the show doesn't manage to find and hold an audience relatively quickly, the question of what they could possibly do for an encore - a second season - will probably be the least of their worries.

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