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Planet Whatever

Photo by Richard CartwrightA recent casualty of the fall TV season was UPN’s Sex, Love and Secrets. But since the show tried on some levels to be The O.C. of Silver Lake, a postmortem may be instructive for the next producer who comes trolling through the clubs and cafés east of Hollywood in search of a hip place to set one more nighttime soap. One big problem was the show’s visual language — jump cuts within jump cuts, slam shots of crotches, high-speed time lapses of downtown L.A. and close-ups of high heels. This jittery aesthetic, along with the series’ accent on sex, sexual treachery and sexy clothing, made it a prime-time soap for audiences with hummingbird attention spans — Koyaanisqatsi edited by Russ Meyer. Viewers who initially tried to discern a storyline quickly abandoned the misguided effort. Instead of plot, the program had characters who appeared every week with distinct hairstyles and attitudes. Jolene Butler, played by onetime Bond girl Denise Richards, was clearly SLS’s alpha figure: She was slightly older and blonder than other women we encountered and, unlike the rest of the leads, had a surname. And she alone seemed to have a purpose in life — to make people cry.Jolene was, in other words, an Amanda Woodward for the 21st century, and if she reminded the show’s more aged viewers of Heather Locklear’s character in Melrose Place, that’s because SLS appeared to be graft stolen from the Darren Starr hothouse of soaps. While Melrose Place was set in a West Hollywood almost entirely devoid of gays and émigrés, SLS took place in a Silver Lake completely cleansed of not only gays but also Latinos, people older than 35 and anyone who might have shopped at a 99 Cents Only store. (The second episode did feature one wide-eyed Latina — a maid — but she got fired right off the bat.) For local purists who insisted the Silver Lake they saw on SLS was not the neighborhood they lived in, writers Michael Gans and Michael Platt had three simple words: Get Over It. Now UPN is over them.The show followed the tried-and-untrue formula of portraying a group of friends as a surrogate “family,” although we were hard-pressed to compare any family we know to the kids on SLS. Hank and Rose (James Stevenson and Lauren German) formed its center as an earnest couple — she interviewed celebrities for a living, while he slung hash by day and fronted a rock band at night. Their doctor friend, Nina (Tamara Taylor), was a geeky square who couldn’t get laid and inexplicably rented out a room to a gun-wielding weirdo named Milo (Lucas Bryant). Charlie (Eric Balfour) was the show’s stud, who added a sense of heightened surrealism as a heterosexual hairstylist working in Silver Lake. Coop (Omar Benson Miller) was sincere, blue-collar, Hank’s drummer and Charlie’s roommate — which meant he was the group’s fifth wheel and another character who couldn’t get laid. Was it coincidence that Coop was black and Nina Afro-Canadian?It’s not easy to describe what happened in SLS, because the central characters all seemed to materialize in one spot spontaneously, as if flash-mobbed into existence. They listened to bands and watched the L.A. skyline morph in time-lapsed montages outside the windows of their fabulous pads, as the parade of crotches and high heels passed by at Sunset Junction. They didn’t use drugs or discuss politics — or even acknowledge a wider world outside of what the show’s ad called “L.A.’s hippest neighborhood.” In the tradition of most soap-opera characters, they were passive and pursued by others — even Charlie was attacked and handcuffed to a bed by feral stewardesses. The only plotline that seemed to develop was the fact that earnest Hank and Rose were on the rocks because a dead boyfriend of Rose and Jolene’s turned up not dead and returned to L.A.’s hippest neighborhood. This allowed Jolene to work her mischievous magic by manipulating everyone in Rose’s orbit. Everything else was parsley.In the end there’s really no use faulting a TV soap for misrepresenting a real-life locale (even a certified bohemian enclave), and I was willing to cut miles of slack for any show that featured Denise Richards as a heartless Hollywood agent whose only honest statement was “I’m a bitch.” Perhaps the show’s biggest crime was to occasionally employ the smug voice-over of a woman pontificating on the predatory antics of the animal kingdom, sort of like having Sarah Jessica Parker, in her Sex and the City voice, narrate a Walt Disney nature documentary. It was supposed to be ironic. Whatever. Now we won’t get the chance to see where the series was going to take the old neighborhood — CSI: Silver Lake, anyone?