[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]
There is an old adage that you are more apt to find love when you're not looking for it. Two new series, "The Ex-List" (CBS, Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern) and "Privileged" (CW, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern), follow women confronted with this situation, only from opposite sides.
In "The Ex-List," Bella (Elizabeth Reaser, the amnesiac-turned-nut-job Ava/Rebecca on "Grey's Anatomy"), wants to get married, but in the opening moments, she says that she's not one of those women who wants to get married at all costs. She wants to find the right person. But she makes her declaration seconds before her whole life is about to change. Leading a bachelorette party for her sister Daphne (Rachel Boston), Bella takes the gang to a psychic, who tells Bella that if she is to marry, it will be in the next year, and it will be to someone she's already met. If she doesn't find him, she's screwed and will spend the rest of her life alone. When one of the psychic's other predictions comes true (it involves vomit on her dog ... yes, you read that correctly), Bella becomes convinced that she has to re-visit her past men to find her soulmate.
It's a cutesy premise, but it has its advantages. Much in the way each episode of "My Name Is Earl" is built around scratching an item off of Earl's list, thus opening up the show to guest stars and new and recurring characters, "The Ex-List" appears to be destined for an ex-boyfriend of the week format, with the same advantages. Up first in the pilot is the terminally creepy Eric Balfour (who played one of Claire's nutso boyfriends on "Six Feet Under") as a sappy folk singer (as we see in a flashback) turned goth-rocker who Bella dumped (on his birthday, also seen in the flashback) for being too clingy. Balfour's final revenge break-up by rock song was entertaining. You didn't want to see him win, but you wanted to see Bella with him even less, so it worked out. Plus, the song was lousy, fitting the loser character. The opportunity is definitely there for some interesting exes in future episodes.
Bella's crew is entertaining enough. When she's not in her flower shop, she lives with her two guy friends, Augie (Adam Rothenberg) and Cyrus (Amir Talai of "Harold and Kumar Go to Guantanamo Bay"), in a small beach cottage in what appears to be Venice Beach or Santa Monica in California. Along with Augie's girlfriend, Vivian (Alexandra Breckenridge), they do a lot of hanging out (including taking turns in a little kiddie pool) wearing not much of anything (75 percent of the wardrobe expenditures must go to bathing suits, tank tops and shorts). They make for a fun group. I rather enjoyed a subplot having to do with Vivian getting a Brazilian wax as a surprise for Augie, but he is repulsed rather than turned on, leading to Vivian buying a merkin (if you don't know what that is, Google it) that gets stuck, requiring Bella to get rather intimate with Vivian to remove it. It was fun, but I couldn't help feeling that Augie's reaction was more of a female fantasy of what a guy would say rather than what a guy would actually say.
The only member of the gang I was not excited about was Bella's most recent ex, the bland commitment-phobe veterinarian Elliott (Mark Deklin), with whom shares joint custody of a dog. Elliott wants to be a part of Bella's life, but is too earthy, go-with-the-flow California dude to commit. Elliott doesn't look like a plausible vet (he looks more like a Calvin Klein model who's dabbled in a few too many designer steroids), and he just isn't interesting enough to make for a compelling foil for Bella. Let's hope it's established early on that he's not the guy Bella is looking for.
But, ultimately, "The Ex-List" will only rise as high as Reaser can take it. Based on the pilot, she makes for an engaging lead. Smart, funny and flawed enough to be interesting, and attractive (the producers have my official permission to continue to dress her in bikinis), but not so out-there gorgeous that her search for love seems unsympathetic. You wouldn't necessarily be able to tell from her turn on "Grey's," but Reaser is more than capable of carrying her own light-hearted show.
I liked the "Ex-List." It made me proud that I included it on my top-five-most-anticipated-show list from August. But there is one off-show element of the program that threatens its continued success. "The Ex-List" was adapted from an Israeli show by Diane Ruggiero, best known as a writer and producer of the critical and cult favorite "Veronica Mars." Ruggiero's wit and quirky storytelling technique is all over the "The Ex-List," and it is one of the things that makes it such a promising program. But news came in mid-September that Ruggiero had left the show, unable to work with CBS's efforts to more closely follow the lead of the Israeli original (which only ran for 11 30-minute installments). Based on some of Ruggiero's statements (you can read a good article about her exit here), I am concerned that the new direction of the show will focus too much on Bella's weekly quests, at the expense of developing her character. Only time will tell, but for now, "The Ex-List" is off to a great start.
Meanwhile, over at the CW, on "Privileged," Megan (Joanna Garcia of "Reba" and the short-lived "Welcome to the Captain") is experiencing the flipside of Bella's quest. Laser-focused on her work, the Yale graduate is toiling for a New York City tabloid when her boss (Debi Mazar in a pitch-perfect guest turn), realizing Megan is in the wrong place, fires her, but recommends her for a job in Palm Beach, Florida. Megan heads south and finds out that the position is to tutor the 15-year-old fraternal twin granddaughters of a makeup magnate, Laurel (Anne Archer, looking exceptionally nipped and tucked). The money and the potential connections that could help make her writing career lead Megan to take the job.
What we soon find out is that Megan is no stranger to Florida. She grew up in Fort Lauderdale, so her estranged father (who we haven't seen yet) and sister Lily (Kristina Apgar) are close by. In Lily's case, this means she is around to disrupt the new, high-society-infused life Megan is trying to build.
Since Megan is not looking for love (and admits she has not had sex in some time), of course, love comes looking for her in a flood. First we meet her best friend, Charlie (Michael Cassidy), who obviously is in love with her, something he admits to several episodes into the run. ("Privileged" premiered in early September, and as of last night, five installments have aired.) Next we meet Laurel's next-door neighbor, Will (Brian Hallisay), the good-looking, model-dating trust-fund playboy who sets his sights on Megan. The two have a flare for witty banter. And finally, Megan falls for the twins' youthful substitute school headmaster, Jacob (David Giuntoli), who she likens to the kind of guys that she thought she'd date at Yale but never did.
So Megan, who had professed to swearing off dating (and to not having done much of it in her life), is overrun with three suitors, all of whom are attractive enough to have Megan's new gay best friend/confidant, the talented house chef Marco (Allan Louis), urge her to pursue each of them. In a funny moment, while Will and Megan are getting acquainted, Marco stands behind Will and mouths to Megan, "Have babies with him," while running his hand over his belly as if he was expecting.
Despite Megan's ambition to write, and as she tries to figure out her love life, she can't help but dive headfirst into trying to help the twins she's been hired to tutor. Left with Laurel when their parents died in an accident, the seemingly naive and sweet Rose (Lucy Hale, who I remember as Robin's bent-on-having-sex sister in a funny episode of "How I Met Your Mother") and the domineering and manipulative Sage (Ashley Newbrough) pose different but difficult challenges for Megan. Sage resents Megan's attempts to guide Rose, unhappy that she is, in Sage's mind, trying to take her place as the nurturing sister. And while Rose is interested in Megan's help, she is torn by the demands of the socialite life and fearful of upsetting Sage. While Sage effortlessly gets good grades, Rose has a lot of work to do to achieve academically.
Like "The Ex-List," ultimately, "Privileged" will rise or fall based on its lead actress. And Garcia has the makings to be a film star, specifically as a romantic comedy lead. On "Privileged," she's funny, displaying the comic timing of an old pro. She has a self-effacing way about herself and an ease in her skin that allows her to be relatable despite being beautiful. And there is something innately likable about her, which helps you to care about her character's dilemmas.
"Privileged," while not exactly soapy, has a tendency to get caught up in the plots of who is doing what with whom, whether it is Lily on a date with Will or Sage concocting one of her many schemes to mess with Megan. I generally prefer more character-driven dramedies, but "Privileged" works. Executive producer Rina Mimoun, who has written for the interesting "Pushing Daisies" and the last season of "Gilmore Girls," has constructed a group of engaging characters, enough so that the show keeps my interest.
Full credit to Mimoun for the quick and entertaining way she sets up the show's circumstances in the pilot. It can often be hard to construct a new world in one episode and still manage to make it entertaining, but Mimoun manages to get Megan to Palm Beach in two funny scenes (a post-shower video chat with Charlie from her New York apartment, followed by her meeting with Mazar's editor at the tabloid office). A lot of programs could learn from Mimoun's example.
While Bella in "The Ex-List" is running towards the men in her life, and Megan of "Privileged" is running in the other direction, both of their quests are entertaining and worth a look. For me, I prefer the tone of "The Ex-List," but I find Garcia to be the more interesting actress. But both shows will happily stay on my TiVo Season Pass.