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Pilot Inspektor: An Advance Review of CW's "The Beautiful Life"

Imagine a series that features some very beautiful people indulging in some very dubious behavior in Manhattan. Picturing Gossip Girl? Guess again.

The Beautiful Life, launching this fall on the CW, does approximate the decadence and excess of that other drama series but it takes place in the demimonde of the modeling world rather than in the privileged corridors of power on the Upper East Side... and it does so with a flair and distinctive filmic style all its own, creating a darkly frothy series about the downside of famous faces and fast-made fortunes.

Written by Adam Giaudrone (Swingtown) and executive produced by Mike Kelley (Swingtown), Carol Barbee (Jericho), and Ashton Kutcher, The Beautiful Life follows the personal and professional lives of some of New York's modeling elite as they head out to go-sees, walk the runway, issue catty remarks, and crowd together (among other things) in an underlighted New York apartment building with a picturesque view of the Brooklyn bridge.

I had an opportunity to watch the pilot presentation for The Beautiful Life and was struck by how much more gritty and compelling it was than I had anticipated. It also balances a soapy plot about superhot models with a cutting look at what really goes on behind the catwalk. It certainly doesn't hurt to have Zak Posen himself turn up playing himself to lend the proceedings some authenticity.

As for the models, they are motley bunch of bristly personalities, jaded egos, and killer cheekbones. For the most part, anyway. There's newly crowned It Girl Raina (Last House on the Left's Sara Paxton) who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when she gets to wear Posen's showstopper of a dress in his fashion show, ripping the coveted slot away from scandal-laden supermodel Sonja (The OC's Mischa Barton), who's been out of commission in Rio the last six months. (Was it drugs? A vacation? Rehab? I'm not telling.) Despite Sonja's protestations and the jealousy of fellow up-and-comer Marissa Delfina (Secret Diary of a Call Girl's Ashley Madekwe), Raina does make it out there in that dress... and suddenly becomes the talk of the fashion business after wowing the crowds.

Meanwhile, Iowa farm boy Chris Andrews (The Line's Benjamin Hollingsworth), in New York on a family vacation (which his farmer dad says he'll be paying off "for the next three harvests") gets discovered by lecherous agent Simon (Dusan Dukic), who has more on his mind than just modeling when it comes to Chris. Not surprisingly, Chris and Raina get thrown together on several separate occasions and their shared good nature and affability make them fast friends, though there are definite sparks between them, even as Raina conceals some secret from her past.

Yet not is all right in model world. Sonja is determined to claw her way back to the top if she has to, especially as the head of Covet Modeling Agency, Claudia Foster (Friends' Elle Macpherson), seems to regard her as little more than a has-been. But a Versace campaign beckons... that is, if the job doesn't go to Raina. Meanwhile, the rest of the models, including Egan (As the World Turns' Jordan Woolley), Issac (High School Musical's Corbin Bleu), and Kai (Twelve's Nico Tortorella) make life as difficult as possible for newcomer Chris, who winds up making his feelings towards Simon clear enough at the agency's anniversary party.

While there's a certain shakiness to the start (not helped at all by the fact that some of the exposition--especially that surrounding farm boy Chris and his family--is laughably over the top), the pilot presentation quickly finds its feet even as it dazzles with an elegant grittiness that's miles away from the glossiness of Gossip Girl. (Special kudos go out to director Christian Duguay for the backstage scenes at the fashion show, Chris' photo shoot, and Raina's runway moment.)

Anchoring the cast is the remarkable Paxton, who manages to charm with little more than a smile and a tilt of the head. That she manages to come off as sunny and optimistic (though devious in her own way) without seeming Pollyanna-ish is no small feat. And the always delightful Ashley Madekwe (so memorable as Bambi on Secret Diary of a Call Girl's second season) brings an energy and edge to her role as Raina's frenemy Marissa, a girl prone to offering "advice" just cutting enough to make you take a misstep in your Jimmy Choos. I'm hoping that subsequent episodes will give Benjamin Hollingsworth's Chris more to do than glower and reluctantly take his clothes off but here he's affable enough that you buy his fish-out-of-water spiel. (I'm less than sold on Misha Barton, who seems to be channeling a slightly older yet just as spoiled Marissa Cooper here.)

Ultimately, The Beautiful Life is a surprising treat: a rare combination of grittiness and glamour filled with heaps of potential. It's a slick and stylish production that doesn't forget our obsession with pretty faces... or the pettiness that often lurks behind such glittering facades.

The Beautiful Life will air Wednesdays at 9 pm ET/PT this fall on the CW.


Bella Spruce said…
I had doubts but after reading your review (thanks!) and watching the clips I have to say I'm intrigued. I thought that Misha Barton was the main lead but it looks like it's more of an ensemble cast, which is a good thing. I will at least check out the first episode!
Anonymous said…
The harvest thing made me laugh out loud. Surely they could have been less heavyhanded with the exposition? ;)

Marisa Cooper bugs the hell out of me. Recast her and I could watch.
Mazza said…
Could be the perfect replacement for Gossip Girl for me. The promos look intriguing and your review tips the scales for me. Will check it out this fall. Any chance CW will do a sneak like the GG/Lily pilot????
Wendyburd1 said…
After I saw the clips on Futoncritic I knew this show was going to be killer fun!! With so many real modeling shows, we want to see the catfights and the more interesting (less ANTM) the better!!

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