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Pilot Inspektor: The CW's "Runaway" and "Hidden Palms"

I decided to switch gears a bit today and take a look at two pilots that the new CW network ordered to series: Runaway, which premieres this fall, and Hidden Palms, which the CW has decided to hold until mid-season.

While both deal with a mix of teen and adult actors and storylines, the two shows couldn't be more different and I would have swapped Runaway for Hidden Palms. I'm no network programmer, but Hidden Palms is easily the superior of the two series and could have used the visibility of a fall launch to gain an audience early on.


From executive producer Darren Star (Sex and the City), Runaway is the story of the Rader family, on the run after papa Paul Rader (Donny Wahlberg) is framed for the murder of his assistant/girlfriend. When it becomes clear that his family's lives are in danger from the people who set him up, Paul packs up wife Lily (24's Leslie Hope), teenage kids Henry (Dustin Milligan), and Hannah (Sarah Ramos), and eight-year-old son Tommy (Nathan Gamble) and they begin a life on the run, assuming new identities and backstories with each town they stumble upon. On their trail is an FBI team bent on retrieving Paul and bringing him to justice, as well as the source of the mysterious conspiracy that has placed the Rader family squarely in this mess.

But the Raders are tired of running and leaving behind what few connections they manage to grow and they plonk down some roots-however temporary-in the idyllic town of Bridgewater, Iowa. In between looking for a wi-fi signal for his nifty-looking Blackberry-type device, Paul takes a job as a line cook at a local café, the kids enroll in school, and Lily makes up a rather astonishing lie about them being Hurricane Katrina survivors when she's pulled over by a cop after running though a stop sign. The kids are growing restless however: Henry misses his girlfriend Kaylie, whom he had to leave behind, and briefly runs away with the family's car, little Tommy can't remember his latest cover story, and Hannah soon falls for the son of their next-door neighbor (Andrew Lawrence). Your typical teen/family drama ensues.

It's hard to see anything of exec producer Darren Star in this shlocky, glacially paced drama. Given the show's pedigree, I was hoping that we'd see some witty dialogue or three-dimensional characters, but it's hard to sympathize entirely with any of the Rader clan members. Flashbacks attempt to give the audience some backstory on the family before they were forced to go on the lam, but they don't inform any of the characters and the scenes are rather banal (Lily orders a delivery of chicken for dinner and argues with the kids). Worse still, the corporate conspiracy storyline is flat and uninspired, especially compared with that of Kidnapped, Vanished, or Traveler. Ultimately, this is no Prison Break; rather it's something more along the lines of 7th Heaven on the run. Everwood fans looking for a timeslot replacement for their beloved (and now deceased) show will have to look elsewhere.

Hidden Palms

On the other hand, I was rather entertained and intrigued by the pilot for Hidden Palms, the latest offering from Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek, Scream), which joins the CW's lineup in the spring. While Williamson's last few series have failed to click with viewers (Wasteland, Glory Days), he's returned with this series to the blend of thriller/mysteries and teen angst that he's best known for. The result is something along the lines of Desperate Housewives meets The OC, though I wish that the emphasis weren't so much on the Wisteria Lane angle.

Back in Seattle, Johnny Miller (The OC's Taylor Handley) was the perfect son: studious, well behaved, and clean-cut. But that was before his drunk father (guest star Tim DeKay of HBO's Carnivale) shot himself right in front of Johnny's eyes. Two years and a stint in a rehab facility later, Johnny and his mom Karen (Gail O'Grady) arrive in a luxury gated community in Palm Springs. Karen's now remarried-rather quickly, no less-to the attentive if naïve Bob Hardy (D.W. Moffat) and Johnny? Well, he's turned into a bit of a grungy rebel: longhaired, camera 'round his neck, offering up pithy and sarcastic observations of his new environs. But like Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane, the neighborhood that they've moved to has its own share of secrets and odd characters... including the object of Johnny's affections, a mysterious teenage siren named Greta (Amber Heard) who enjoys running through the golf course sprinklers at night, a swinging married couple who aren't above bribing a land surveyor with sex, a tomboyish teenage mad scientist named Liza (Ellary Porterfield), a shrewish nosy neighbor (Cheryl White) hellbent on driving everyone crazy, and an aging Southern belle (Sharon Lawrence) and her teenage son Cliff (The OC's Michael Cassidy), an oily playboy who might have had a hand in the fate of Eddie, the kid who used to live in the Hardys' house.

There's a bit of a teen conspiracy here, as Cliff, Greta, and the mayor's daughter Michelle (The Nine's Dana Davis), are all keeping tight-lipped about what exactly happened to Eddie--Cliff says it was an accident, Greta claims it was suicide--and it will be some time before Johnny (or the audience) learns what actually happened that fateful night.

There's also a rather tight love triangle between Johnny, Greta, and Cliff that has none of the lingering bitter aftertaste of the Joey/Pacey/Dawson romance. While the emphasis is split pretty evenly between the kids and the adults, I am hoping that subsequent episodes put more of a focus on our teen protagonists. Neighborhood land disputes and petty feuds might be funny, but it doesn't make for enthralling soapy drama.

While most of the cast is top notch (O'Grady, Lawrence, Moffat, and White are all superb), the best thing about the pilot is Michael Cassidy, who manages with his very first line to make us forget that he ever played a character named Zach on The OC. Cassidy is so self-assured and charismatic that it's impossible not to fall under Cliff's dangerous spell, as nearly everyone on Hidden Palms already has. This guy is an actor to watch and his performance teeters on a knife's edge as he makes Cliff both sympathetic and repulsive, no mean feat. Cassidy's former cast mate Taylor Handley also turns in a performance that's light years ahead of his portrayal of the detested Oliver on The OC.

I'm not totally set on Amber Heard, who plays the enigmatic Greta here; when she's on she's really on, but when she's bad, she's really bad (i.e., the scene by the pool where she deletes pictures of herself off of Johnny's camera). I'm not sure she nails the sexy/bitchy aspect of Greta all that well, though her emotional breakdown at the end of the pilot (as well as the surprising reveal at the very end) make me believe that she can find Greta's center as the series continues. That said, look for a few supporting cast shake-ups as the series gets underway and producers streamline the show.

(Keep an eye out for a hilarious cameo by Will & Grace's diminutive Beverley Leslie--a.k.a. actor Leslie Jordan--as Jessie Jo, a drag queen in Johnny's AA group who offers him some sage advice.)

Director Scott Winant does a fantastic job at capturing the heat and lethargy of Palm Springs, as well as its magnificently manicured lawns and pristine homes. The establishing shot of Palm Springs, a long take that shows the Hardys driving up to their new house, perfectly sets the tone for the show. I only wish that the scene in which Johnny chases the ghostly Greta through the golf course had been shot a little more clearly (it seems at first as if he lives on the course itself) and was a little more atmospheric and mysterious than matter-of-fact. The dialogue is trademark Williamson: teen characters speaking in rapid-fire metaphors that's Morse Code for their feelings and identity quests.

While the name irks--Hidden Palms sounds more like a retirement community for the elderly--this is one desert oasis where I wouldn't mind spending a few hours.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Gameshow Marathon (CBS); My Name is Earl/My Name is Earl (NBC); Smallville (WB); NBA Basketball (ABC; 8-11 pm); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX); Everybody Hates Chris/Love, Inc. (UPN)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); My Name is Earl/My Name is Earl (NBC); Supernatural (WB); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX); Eve/Cuts (UPN)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS); Windfall (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

7-9 pm: Hex on BBC America. (10 pm EST)

I described it as a British Buffy in a boarding school and, until I see otherwise, I'm sticking by that description. In tonight's two-hour premiere ("The Story Begins"), Cassie is forced to claim her birthright after an ancient curse is unleashed upon her--wait for it--boarding school. Televisionary reader Bart says that reaction to the show's airing in the UK on Sky was not all that kind, so I might just have to reconsider putting this series on my watch list for this summer.

10 pm: Windfall on NBC.

I'm not totally convinced that I'll wind up watching the entire series, but I am definitely checking out tonight's premiere ("Pilot"), in which twenty friends win a lottery jackpot; with millions to their names, their relationships are changed forever. Now why can't something like that happen to me?

10 pm: 5 Takes: Pacific Rim on the Travel Channel.

On tonight's installment of 5 Takes: Pacific Rim ("Singapore"), the reality/travel show I just can't say enough about, the gang leaves the Antipodes for Singapore, where they'll dine on such delicacies as scorpions. Everyone now: mmmm, scorpions...


Anonymous said…
Hey, i have seen the pilot of Hidden Palms but i haven't seen the pilot of Runaway. How can you watch them before anybody else ?
Anonymous said…
Love Hidden Palms. Can't wait.
Anonymous said…
I just found this blog, and it's great! I loved Hidden Palms as well. I couldn't BELIEVE that Michael Cassidy was the same person who played Zach on The O.C., he was so compelling. I actually went to IMDB just to make sure I wasn't crazy. The only thing I didn't really get was the smart tomboy neighbor, but hopefully that will make more sense as the series goes on.
Anonymous said…

I thought you might like some advance info on Taylor's upcoming cover story - click the link above.

Please feel free to copy/disseminate the 2 images of him (thumbnail or half-cover)!

Warmest regards-
Alan C. Baird
The Desert Quidnunc blog
Anonymous said…

I thought you might like some advance info on Taylor's upcoming cover story - click here.

Please feel free to copy/disseminate the 2 images of him (thumbnail or half-cover)!

Warmest regards-
Alan C. Baird
The Desert Quidnunc blog
Anonymous said…
Congratulations to Mike Cassidy. Heard he just got married.
Anonymous said…
I hate that you weren't set on Amber Heard.

You seem to make a great analysis, but I LOVE Amber Heard.
Anonymous said…
I Love Hidden Palms so far! its full of drama,romance and thrill! i can't wait till the next one!

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