Saturday, July 11, 2009

"10 Things I Hate About You" Is One of the Few New Comedy Options This Summer

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

Summer has become synonymous with reality television. An alien landing on earth last week who watched television to learn more about American culture would probably come away thinking we were obsessed with rich teens, people getting hit with padded objects and overweight people dancing. At this point, I am desperate to watch a new scripted show, and especially a comedy. So I ventured to teen-friendly ABC Family to catch the series premiere of "10 Things I Hate About You" (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Eastern ).

Adapted from the 1999 feature film of the same name that launched the career of Heath Ledger, the single-camera sitcom follows two sisters as they start a new year of school. Cat (Lindsey Shaw, the much-missed "Aliens in America") is an NPR-listening, universal-health-care supporting rebel who couldn't care less what the kids at school think of her. Her younger sister, Bianca (Meaghan Jette Martin, "Camp Rock"), on the other hand, just wants to be popular, telling Cat to "speak English" when she makes references to Kim Jong Il and burkas.

In fact, before stepping foot in high school for the first time, Bianca has done extensive Facebook research to learn everything she can about queen bee Chastity (Dana Davis, "Heroes"), plotting their first encounter so she can ass-kiss her way into the popular clique. Bianca is seemingly oblivious to the fact that sophomore dork Cameron (Nicholas Braun) has a major crush on her, so smitten he takes the idea of his fellow nerd buddy Mikey (Kyle Kaplan) -- although he wants to be called Michael now, part of his plans to escape the lower rung of the social ladder -- to throw a party at his house.

While Bianca is on a mission to be popular, Cat keeps running across bad boy Patrick (Ethan Peck, in the part Ledger tackled in the film). Everyone is terrified of the motorcycle-riding Patrick, except Cat, that is, who, in a cute scene, outstares him, fixing her glare until he finally turns and leaves. Cat also has a run-in with Chastity, purposely taking off the bumper of her Mini Cooper after she tries to commandeer Cat's parking spot (when Cat sneers at Chastity that she didn't know the spaces were assigned, Chastity replies, "They were assigned. By Charles Darwin."). Cat and Chastity's running battle threatens Bianca's plan to hitch her wagon to Chastity.

Cat and Bianca live with their slightly overprotective doctor dad Walter (comic Larry Miller, reprising his role from the film), a single-father who has raised his two girls since their mother passed away.

With a soundtrack filled with female-fronted pop-punk anthems (Letters to Cleo's cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," which appeared on the movie's soundtrack, plays over the last scene of the first episode of the program), a peppy and zinger-filled pace, and a swoon-inducing alleged bad boy to obsess over, "10 Things" is clearly targeted at ABC Family's main demographic: teenage girls. Which has to be why no effort is made to deviate from the plots and themes of seemingly every other Hollywood high school movie and television show ever offered to the American public. Everything we've come to expect is present and accounted for: geeks and jocks, cheerleaders and quarterbacks, outcasts and artists, and struggles of the heart. Chastity is dating a quarterback, but she threatens to leave him if he isn't named the starter. Mikey is carried off to be stuffed in a locker, Cameron pines for the girl out of his league who doesn't know he's interested, and there are cheerleader tryouts and a big party.

So if adults come to "10 Things" expecting anything out of the ordinary, they will be disappointed.

That's not to say that there aren't good things about the show. The writing is way sharper than a teen-targeted comedy has a right to be. When the two sisters are about to start their first day of school, Bianca asks Cat, "How do I look?" When Cat replies, "Shallow," Bianca, without missing a beat, shoots back, "Thank you!" When Cat is hauled into the principal's office after purposely hitting Chastity's car, Chastity claims her neck is sore, leading Cat to snap back, "That's probably from flipping your hair too much." Cameron and Mikey get their moments, too. When Bianca talks to Chastity before Cameron gets a chance to approach her, he tells Mikey, "Too late. Voldemort's got her." And when Mikey suggests Cameron throw a party to get Bianca's attention, Cameron argues, "The last party we went to was a bar mitzvah. Yours."

I also liked the acting of the main family. Martin is steady as the vain Bianca, resisting the urge to take her too close to cliche-land and giving her some heart below the ambition. Miller is restrained (that's a compliment) as the gruff-but-lovable father who keeps the peace between his two very different daughters. And Shaw does a good job carrying the bulk of the action, adeptly handling the witty banter written for her character. If you were an "Aliens in America" fan, you will be impressed by how different Shaw is in "10 Things."

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast members sometimes feel like they're appearing in a different program, playing their characters to the extremes. Braun is especially broad as the geeky Cameron, acting as if he was in a stage musical, rather than a single-camera sitcom. (I thought it was funny that Chastity chooses Justin Timberlake over Zach Ephron in response to a query from Bianca, but Braun and Davis's performances feel like something out of "High School Musical.")

And while I'm happy to go with the simple, tried-and-true plotting, I can't buy Peck's Patrick as a dangerous guy, as he looks far more "Zoolander" than "Rebel Without a Cause." When outcast aspiring artist Mandella (Jolene Purdy of the short-lived "Do Not Disturb") tells Cat that Patrick is so dangerous that he is rumored to have "tasted human flesh," I laughed, thinking that it looks far more likely that he's modeled in Armani runway shows. Cat asks Patrick why everyone is afraid of him, but I can't imagine Patrick striking fear in anyone (excpet maybe a girl afraid he was going to steal her eye liner). I'm sure that teenage girls will find Peck to be crush-worthy, but as the Cat-Patrick potential relationship is supposed to be the center of the show, it's problematic that the character falls flat (and is badly miscast). It's a lot to ask Peck to live up to Ledger's legacy, but that doesn't mean that the performance (and, to be fair to Peck, the way the character is written and directed) gets the job done.

When I reviewed "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" last summer (another ABC Family program), I noted that I couldn't begin to say I knew if teenagers would like the show, but I could assess if adults would be entertained. The same can be said for "10 Things I Hate About You." Maybe teens will like the snappy dialogue, or maybe even they're sick of the done-to-death themes of high school comedies (with nothing new to add). I can't tell you. But for adults, I would say that the plot may not keep your attention, and some of the acting is hard to watch, but some fun can be had from the witty dialogue and strong performances of three of the stars. Which may be enough to draw attention in a summer filled with lousy reality programs. After all, the bar hasn't been set all that high when the schedule is filled with entires like "Wipeout," "NYC Prep" and "Dance Your Ass Off."