Thursday, November 29, 2007

ABC Again Walks Down "October Road"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

“October Road” (ABC, Mondays, 10:00 p.m. Eastern) premiered late last season, dropping into the high-profile Thursday night slot after mega-hit “Grey’s Anatomy” for six episodes and holding its own in the ratings. The show was rewarded by ABC with a second season, but not a spot on the initial 2007-2008 schedule. After a “sneak preview” last week (which was really the final episode of last season held over for this year), “October Road” returned on Monday, this time on a lower profile day of the week. The new scheduling is appropriate, since the show, while admirably ambitious, isn’t at a level where it can be expected to maintain a key spot in the network’s lineup.

“October Road” is a traditional melodrama presented with a cinematic scope. Set in the impossibly idyllic yet beaten down town of Knight’s Ridge, Mass. (or simply “The Ridge,” as the locals refer to it), last year’s mini-season followed Nick Garrett (Bryan Greenberg of “One Tree Hill”) as he returned home after a sudden, ten-year, self-imposed exile to New York City following his high school graduation. Nick left behind a first love, Hannah (Laura Prepon of “That 70s Show”), and went on to write a best-selling literary novel (are “best-selling” and “literary” mutually exclusive?) that pretty much trashed The Ridge and all of its inhabitants, including his best friend, Eddie (Geoff Stults), and the rest of his crew, the hard-scrabble Ikey (Evan Jones), the married lug Owen (Brad William Henke), and the now agoraphobic sensitive guy “Physical” Phil (Jay Paulson), as well as the town tough guy/villain, Ray (Warren Christie), who goes by the nickname “Big Cat.” Nick also left behind his simple brother, Ronnie (Jonathan Murphy), and his tough-guy father, “The Commander” (Tom Berenger).

Nick did more than just run out on his girlfriend and trash his town and friends in a book. He committed the larger crime of crossing the literal and metaphorical October Road that divides The Ridge, with the locals on one side of the barrier and the high-brow Dufresne College (or “The Doof,” as the townies call it) on the other. If it isn’t bad enough that Nick moved to New York and became a novelist, he came back to The Ridge to give a lecture at The Doof, and then to teach a class there. Back in town, Nick discovers that Hannah is now dating Big Cat, and he suspects that he might be the father of Hannah’s wise-beyond-his-years son, Sam (Slade Pearce).

“October Road” is, at its core, a melodrama that plays on the interactions of its characters. There is nothing new here in the will-they-won’t-they tango of Nick and Hannah, the blood feud between Big Cat and Nick, the frayed friendship between Nick and Eddie, the back-home-again conflicts between Nick and Ronnie and The Commander, and the us-versus-them dynamic between the townies and the school. But what elevates “October Road” above typical nighttime soap opera fare is its scope, both in its production and its outlook.

The show is shot like a film, which is not surprising since the first season was directed by feature helmer Gary Fleder (“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”). There isn’t a bad studio set in sight, and exteriors are in abundance, one more authentic and picturesque than the other. And the cinematography is beautiful, moody and nuanced, far closer to an indie film than, say, “Desperate Housewives.”

Much in the way the twee overload of “Pushing Daisies” pushes audiences to extremes of devotion or nausea, the affected literary tone of “October Road” can swing in either direction. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a show, especially a melodrama, that treats its blue-collar characters like they’re not monosyllabic morons. Then again, it can be off-putting to watch a pizza delivery driver wax philosophical about how an ice cream sundae is a metaphor for the melting pot that makes up the United States. It rings false, but then again, it helps that as embodied by Lindy Booth, Pizza Girl (we don’t know her actual name), the girlfriend to shut-in Physical Phil, is sweet, funny and empathetic. So it’s a pick-your-poison scenario, I suppose. Do you want characters that you enjoy watching, or do you want authenticity? I’m willing to go for the interesting characters, so long as the show doesn’t pull me too far into disbelief. And it definitely walks the line, way more than I’d like.

There is a certain irony that everyone in The Ridge talks like they’re sophomores at The Doof. Physical Phil examines the fading image on his television and describes Brian Williams as looking “wan” and “consumptive,” before later giving a lecture about how the television has been his window on the world (which is why he named the set Jason). Even Big Cat, before popping the question, compares his relationship with Hannah to a lilac bush they planted together.

Against my better judgment, I like the story line following the beginnings of a romance between high school football hero Eddie and Janet (Rebecca Field), the overweight bartender at the local watering hole. I’m not sure I believe for a second Eddie would give Janet the time of day, but it makes for good TV, nonetheless. The story line is getting some juice this season with the addition of Sean Gunn (Kirk on “Gilmore Girls”) as Janet’s quirky co-worker, Rooster. The relationship between the two grown-up unpopular kids gives some context to the Janet-Eddie pairing. When Rooster invites Janet on a walk of the town, and then reveals the purpose was to show her the type of girls Eddie had bedded and discarded, the Janet-Eddie arc took on a new dimension.

Then again, the fact that I’ve spent so much time talking about two of the program’s other couples without even mentioning Nick and Hannah is a potential fatal flaw to “October Road.” In the end, I care less about the lead potential pairing than I do about Phil and Pizza Girl, Eddie and Janet, or even Owen and his wife, Alison (Elizabeth Bogush, memorable as the woman stuck in an MRI machine in “Scrubs”), who cheated on him with Ikey. All of those relationships engage the viewer in a way that Nick and Hannah don’t.

In Monday’s episode, Hannah turns down Nick’s request to get back together, telling him that all they have is memories, and they have nothing else after so many years apart on which to base a relationship. I’m usually a sucker for guys or girls going back to reconnect with long-lost loves, but even I shrugged at Hannah’s announcement and said to myself, “She’s right.” There is really no reason to hope that Nick and Hannah work it out. Not that we can root for Hannah’s engagement to Big Cat to work out, since he is such a slimy presence that Hannah’s attraction to him makes her unsympathetic as a character. But it’s not enough to help us pine for Nick and Hannah to get together.

One reason for the disconnect may be Nick’s romance last season with one of his students at The Doof, the whip-smart (is anyone dumb in this town?) Aubrey (Odette Yustman). Nick broke up with Aubrey late last season to placate the dean at The Doof (Penny Johnson of “The Larry Sanders Show”), who, much to Nick’s surprise, is dating his father. But if you can put aside the ethical dilemma of a professor dating his student, Nick and Aubrey make far more sense than Nick and Hannah. When Aubrey made her return to campus in Monday’s episode, I found myself rooting for her to try and get Nick back, which is not the reaction, I’m sure, the producers were hoping to elicit.

Similarly, Nick’s visit to New York City only furthers the idea that he doesn’t belong with Hannah. In the sneak preview episode last week, Nick and Eddie go to Manhattan to retrieve Owen, who, after finding out about Ikey and Alison’s affair, moved in with his demonic brother, Big Boy Brett (Will Sasso of “Mad TV”). As we watch Nick and Eddie move through Nick’s old life, from the supermodel apartment-sitting for him to the hip club where he knows the bouncer, I couldn’t help thinking that Nick, a successful novelist and still a young man, belongs in New York, not back in The Ridge chasing after a girl he hasn’t talked to since both of them were three years away from legally drinking. Again, not the reaction the producers were going for, I’m sure.

Despite its flaws, I enjoy that “October Road” makes the effort to go beyond the boundaries of the normal television soap opera. I like that the characters tend to be smart, and I find the cinematic approach to the production refreshing. While “October Road” may lack the sharp storytelling of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the gonzo abandon of “Dirty Sexy Money” or the sly humor of “Pushing Daisies,” it’s still an enjoyable hour of television on the ABC roster of one-hour dramas, less syrupy than “Brother and Sisters,” more engaging than the jumped-the-shark “Desperate Housewives,” and far more compelling than the self-absorption-fest that is “Private Practice.”

The characters on “October Road” repeatedly ask each other, “What goes on?” What goes on at “October Road” is a pleasant place to spend some time on Monday nights and a respectable slot on ABC’s increasingly ambitious schedule. Not to mention a place where pizza is delivered by cute girls with an interest in philosophy. If that sounds like too much for you, I understand. But, if you think it would be fun to hang out with philosophy-spouting pizza girls, check it out. You might even find yourself wondering, “Does The Doof have a graduate school?