'Hidden Palms': Teen Soap All in a Lather

Amber Heard plays girlfriend Greta, irritating teacher of life's big lessons.
Amber Heard plays girlfriend Greta, irritating teacher of life's big lessons. (By Justin Lubin -- The Cw)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Life is rough for affluent teenagers. Take poor rich Johnny, who is forced to move with his mother and stepfather from one deluxe suburb to another. When he tries to take pictures of the girl next door, she shuts her blinds. And when he comes upon his despised stepfather, the seemingly well-meaning loser tries in vain to win Johnny's approval.

"Hidden Palms," the teenage soap in which those and other sorry events transpire, is the latest bit of pubescent pandering from the CW network, a rather shaky enterprise whose target audience appears to be, in the lingo of another decade, lots of crazy, mixed-up kids.

Even that lax lot might find too little in "Palms" to engage or titillate. Various plot strands could have been culled from the cutting-room floors at "The O.C." or "Melrose Place" -- and that's pretty crummy culling.

The central figure around whom various crises whirl is the aforementioned Johnny Miller (Taylor Handley), who often walks around with a dizzy, goofy grin on his face. One of his nemeses is young Cliff Wiatt (Michael Cassidy), such a rotter that he kicks a friendly if yappy dog. Of the squeaky-shiny suburb in which the boys find themselves, Cliff scowls: "People come here to die."

Johnny, poor dear, has sought relief as well as solace in the dread Bottle. He's a recovering alcoholic who dutifully attends AA meetings and tries to stay clean and sober.

The show does provide real reasons to feel sorry for Johnny. Death haunts him; not only did he witness his father's suicide a year earlier, but he also learns that the house into which he and his mother and stepfather move was the site of yet another suicide. A young man about Johnny's age died tragically in the very room that's now Johnny's.

Obviously Johnny needs a nice happy, upbeat girlfriend to pry him from the jaws of despair. Amber Heard as Greta might do the trick, except she's so infernally kooky and twee. She has more eccentricities than the entire Addams family. Johnny doesn't appear to stand much of a chance of emerging from the situation intact, yet more often than not he flashes that foolish, oblivious, happy-go-lucky grin.

His father's parting words had urged him to lay off trigonometry and other esoteric forms of math (numbers are "too damn accurate," Dad advised) and instead "be creative, feed the soul . . . play an instrument or paint something."

What to paint? Maybe the kitchen walls; this house could use some color.

Some young viewers might possibly identify with Johnny and his trumped-up traumas, or find something instructive or edifying in Greta's grating life lessons, but too often the characters appear to have originated in Column A or Column B of the standard family-trauma potboiler -- with some actors serving more as decoration than as characters contributing to the drama. That is, if there were drama -- instead, it's just an icky, sticky void.

Some of Johnny's chats, and innermost-thought exchanges, do have fleeting peeps of truthfulness in them, but the empty outweigh the heavy by a long shot.

"Hidden Palms" makes its many like-tempered predecessors -- from "The O.C." (from which Handley and Cassidy came) to "Dawson's Creek" (from which "Hidden Palms" writer Kevin Williamson came) to "One Tree Hill" -- look virtually Eugene O'Neilly by comparison.

You're likely to find more fascinating figures and intriguing dramatis personae in the latest catalogue from J. Peterman, and somehow Peterman comes off as more emotionally authentic.

Hidden Palms (one hour) airs tonight at 8 on the CW.

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