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Suntans, Swimming Pools, and Murder on CW's New Series, "Hidden Palms"

I'll admit it. I was rather sucked in by the CW's eight-episode teen drama, Hidden Palms, the latest offering from Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek, Scream). For those of you who missed my original review of the pilot last May, below is an updated version of that review, now that I've seen the actual series.

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 crossed with The OC. (Though I am seriously baffled by critics' recent usage of Twin Peaks as a reference.)

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 teenage mad scientist named Liza (Ellary Porterfield), 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 Liza are all keeping tight-lipped about what exactly happened to Eddie--Cliff says it was an accident, Greta claims it was suicide--and it's some time before Johnny (or the audience) learns what actually happened that fateful night. (Like, say, episode eight.)

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 cast is top notch (O'Grady, Lawrence, and Moffat are all superb), it's Michael Cassidy who steals the show. Cassidy manages with his very first line to make us forget that he ever played a character named Zach on some show called 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 wasn't initially set on Amber Heard, who plays the enigmatic Greta; 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 first episode (as well as the surprising reveal at the episode's very end), along with her stronger performance in subsequent episodes, show Heard's greater confidence as an actor as the series continues.

That said, look for a few supporting cast shake-ups as the series gets underway (bye, bye Liza's parents and a few others) and producers streamline the show. Look for Veronica Mars' Tessa Thompson to turn up as a former rehab buddy of Johnny's who sticks around in Hidden Palms for the long term (and catches a certain someone's eye), and keep an eye out for 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.

Scott Winant, who directed the series' first installment, 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 still 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 this summer.

"Hidden Palms" premieres Wednesday, May 30th, at 8 pm on the CW.

Comments

Anonymous said…
This is Manda, from hidden-palms.com. Mainly, I think the Twin Peaks comparison comes from the unaired pilot, large amounts of which were cut from the official first episode.

The show has such a blatant surrealism about it that to imagine real life as you and I know it being anything like the world created on this show is, for lack of a more fitting term, Lynchian. David Lynch, creator of Twin Peaks, has a rather unsettling way of making horror lurk just below the surface of what appears to be average drama, and Williamson has brilliantly captured a similar ambiance with Hidden Palms.

Being one of the critics (and in reference to myself, believe me, I use that term loosely!) who has made the Twin Peaks observation, I felt I would be remiss not to explain.
Jace Lacob said…
Thanks, Manda. Having seen both the unaired pilot along with the completed pilot (not to mention the seven subsequent episodes), I still diasagree with any Lynchian or Twin Peaks references being applied to this series. I loved TP and continue to worship Lynch but don't feel that the comparison is particularly apt.

While both deal with the mysterious death of a teenage, the similarities end there and the characters on HP aren't as nearly as twisted, bizarre, or frightening as those on Twin Peaks. Tonally, too, the two series couldn't be more different, with HP taking a more bubblegummy, breezy approach and Twin Peaks a taut, off-kilter, and at time terrifying look at life in small town America, peeling back the pristine facade to reveal the seedy corruption and moral decay of the town.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for such a thorough write-up. Now I'm definitely going to check out Hidden Palms. I just stumbled upon this blog, and I really love it. Keep up the good work!
Anonymous said…
I still say it sounds more like a soft-core porn title.

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