By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
|Photo by Sharon Stevens|
Anatomically correct Martin Villafana, in his acting debut, plays the enormous Junior, and if his delivery is slightly stiff, the role accommodates it; he’s emotionally true, and moves through his part with the motive delicacy of the very big. Lynn Whitfield (Eve’s Bayou) is Mom, all buttoned up with nowhere to go; Rainbow Sun Francks, born about a decade too late for his name, is Junior’s friend and protector, Buddy; Sarah Polley (tiny in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, bigger in The Sweet Hereafter) is Buddy’s beloved Butter; Homicide’s subtly solid Clark "Meldrick Lewis" Johnson is a janitor-professor and builder, in the school basement, of a 10-planet model solar system (the 10th planet being Junior’s); and Margot Kidder is (I don’t want to say typecast as) a paranoid piano teacher. All are as fine as baby hair.
The titular teenage quartet of Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane (the WB’s bid to extend its highly successful youth franchise into situation comedy, Sister Sister having entered the college years) is more materially and socially privileged than the inhabitants of Junior Brown’s Planet —they’re white prep-school students, and they live in a sitcom, which means that nothing permanently bad can happen to them — but no less confused, no less alienated, no less unadapted. (This is of course the great teenage affliction, and the not-so-secret theme of all these series.) You may have heard the show described as kind of an adolescent Seinfeld, and there are superficial similarities: the central inseparable quartet, the short scenes, the NYC locale, the habitual nicknaming, the secondary grotesques (a mean girl in a wheelchair, a man with one eyebrow), the sitting around in a place where coffee is served. Woody Allen is also invoked, if not evoked: Fielding Mellish (Allen’s character in Bananas) is the school they attend, and the word transplendent is at one point waved like a colored banner.
But J.D. Salinger, bard of disaffected/self-absorbed/spiritually questing Manhattan youth, seems to me the show’s real patron saint. Indeed, Zoe (the resonance with Zooey, as in Franny &, is perhaps not accidental) begins the pilot on a subway platform reading Catcher in the Rye. ("I’m reading it for school," she tells hunky older guy Scott Foley, moonlighting from Felicity, which in a sense is a slightly older version of this series, twice as long and without the laugh track, "but I would have read it anyway.") Though the principals share their domain-mastering counterparts’ preoccupation with sex, it’s because they’ve never had any: Zoe spends one episode considering whether to lose her virginity but in the end opts for another day, or many more, of childhood. One feels that, like Holden Caulfield (or Junior Brown), she would be distressed to find the word fuck written where little kids might see it. (Here, for example.) And where Jerry & Co. are Greek-tragical cartoons doomed to perennial envy and frustration, Zoe et al.works the warmer emotions. Being young, the characters are still more defined by what hasn’t happened to them yet than by what’s gone horribly wrong; they look forward. David Moscow (Duncan, lactose intolerant), Michael Rosenbaum (Jack, willfully smooth) and Lulu-bobbed Azura Skye (cynical, sad Jane), who might have something to discuss with Rainbow Sun Francks, are all jolly amusing; but there’d be no show worth mentioning without Selma Blair’s Zoe, its center of gravity — the series was originally called Zoe Bean — and the only character who isn’t even the teensiest bit a caricature. Blair, though she is in real life already out of college, seems persuasively untested; she’s got flusterability, and a face that lights with delight. Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane has taken some knocks from the critic corps, but I find it sweet and appealing and fairly often funny — which, if my affections hold to form, means it’ll be off the air before you reach the next paragraph.
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