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Bang, Bang, Bling, Bling, Blah, Blah

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"Nothing from nothing leaves nothing," Billy Preston sang long ago. Tonight, the puny UPN network inadvertently proves that nothing plus nothing can add up to less than nothing -- Exhibit A being the vacuous "South Beach," a preposterous and pretentious drama series set in what one character calls the "alternate pastel universe" of modern Miami.

In addition to being the sum of two zeros, "South Beach" is an attempt to combine "Miami Vice" with "Baywatch," offering viewers pleasing sights of the shore -- most of them nubile nymphs in teeny bikinis -- plus the occasional gun battle or fistfight. It's the old "kiss kiss, bang bang" formula common to filmed pulp fictions for decades. Every now and then, however, the formula shows its wear and tear, with UPN having proved itself a particularly commodious showcase for that.

The expository approach used in "South Beach" is on the hallucinatory side; things appear to be about to happen or just to have happened, or to be threatening to happen -- and yet you get the feeling that nothing ever happens. The "drama" is like an overheard conversation on an elevator that stops at no floors. Fortunately, there is a way out: your channel-changing remote, wondrous transport to that blessed refuge known as Anywhere Else.

Although billed as a special two-hour premiere, "South Beach's" opening night consists of the pilot and second episode spliced together (and airing at 8 on Channel 20). The persistently ravishing Vanessa Williams stars as Elizabeth Bauer, hip owner of the hip Hotel Soleil, which in turn is the hip home of the hip nightspot Nocturna.

Bauer's glamour-puss path crosses those of two best buddies from New York: Matt (Marcus Coloma) and Vincent (Chris Johnson), wayward wastrels who have to get out of Brooklyn quick like a bunny.

Matt is sort of a twerpy-looking dork, whereas Vincent is sort of a dorky-looking twerp. Or maybe it's the other way around. Whatever, Matt has barely changed from one T-shirt into another when he runs smack into Arielle (Odette Yustman), a fashion model with whom he had a big thing going back up north. Arielle has moved on, however, into the clutches of Alex Bauer (Lee Thompson Young), who is manager of Nocturna and anything but hospitable to visits from Arielle's old honeybunches.

Among other resident tough guys is the estimable Giancarlo Esposito as Robert Fuentes, a partner in the hotel who has numerous unsavory dealings in the wings. Matt gets on Fuentes's good side when he overhears a muscle-bound baldy planning a $4 million caper. In the second hour, the big crisis has to do with the theft of jewelry from a rapping actor who's shooting a movie at the hotel (and is played by "guest star Pitbull" -- no kidding).

Says Williams: "We've got bigger things to worry about than some rapper's bling!" Wanna bet? Name one.

Interaction between characters consists of either come-hither looks or go-thither looks, with little tolerance for subtleties -- or credulity. It seems it's a jungle down there in mean ol' Miami, especially in the most fabulous and fashionable part. "South Beach will eat you alive," one longtime resident declares. Meanwhile Ms. Bauer warns a relatively new arrival, "Look, if you want to make it in South Beach, you've got to get over some of your hang-ups."

Hmm. South Beach sounds like Orange County, as least as depicted in "The O.C." And Melrose Place as depicted in "Melrose Place." And maybe even Dallas as depicted in "Dallas." The protagonists get younger and dumber, but the shows are basically all about the lust for power and the lust for lust and knowing the right thing to wear. "South Beach" lacks distinguishing characteristics, except for the pretty location shots used as transitions from scene to scene. And they aren't all that prettier than those on "Miami Vice" were -- just wider.

There is a genuinely campy moment or two, as when an embittered old model whose career is on the skids falls to her knees to snort spilled cocaine off a bathroom floor. But when it comes to jaw-dropping shockers, that scene pales in comparison with one that comes a little earlier in the second hour. Three gorgeous models are sitting on the beach chatting and -- I hope you're sitting down now -- reading books! Honest! One book is a novel, it appears, another is about a supermodel named Noel, and the third one has the word "mathematics" on its cover.

Talk about your alternate universes -- pastel or otherwise. Unfortunately, "South Beach" has far too few such revelatory moments. Just after his first meeting with Fuentes, ambitious young Matt asks rhetorically, "What the hell was that about?" One could ask precisely the same question after sitting through an evening of "South Beach."

South Beach(two hours) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 20.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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