By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Those aging boy wonders Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz have never been so lazily content as to create just another safe and sanitized TV show -- they like to stretch the medium as far as they can. There's always the risk, though, that when you stretch things way out of shape, they might snap back and whap you in the face.
NBC's "Quarterlife," the title of which is reminiscent of the fellows' big hit "thirtysomething" (and of their ingratiating adolescent drama "My So-Called Life"), aims to be as culturally current as an Obama campaign speech or the latest spiel from Geico's cockney lizard. It deals with young people caught up in the Web and blogging their brains out and shooting their own video and, like, totally saying awesome stuff.
Alas, they're an insufferable lot for the most part -- cutesy and coy and as precious as kitties with balls of twine. They spend much of their time putting out an Internet magazine called Quarterlife to which any of them can make a seat-of-the-pants contribution merely by plopping themselves down in a chair within range of the camera and microphone attached to the main computer terminal.
Once there, they whine away the hours, mostly complaining that Boy A doesn't love Girl B or Girl C doesn't love Boy D, or some other combination of kids who fail to see what's smoldering in someone else's eyes. Maybe if they'd sit down and talk about it, they could come to some sort of rational understanding, but they choose to do much of their communicating in public, as it were, via the Webmag or whatever term has been given such enterprises. That gives Boy G or Girl J the option of tossing a tantrum over this violation of their privacy, even though they all do it whenever a mood swings.
Moods don't swing around here so much as keep up perpetual motion in a revolving door. The hard part is caring whether who knows who's gone goofy about whom and whether they'll wind up in each other's arms, or thoughts, or thrall. One mustn't expect a game of musical beds, however; on this show, even the sex seems sexless. Nothing can happen to anyone without a preface, a preamble and a few thousand words of stammered inquiry.
The names of Zwick and Herskovitz are well represented in the opening credits -- created by, executive-produced by, written and, occasionally, directed by. In addition, Herskovitz does an extended cameo in tonight's premiere as the world's most ill-tempered acting teacher, one who appears to delight in dressing down the women in the class. After one girl does a scene in the opening show, the coach goes into a tirade: "Sexuality is power! Power! Where is your power?!" A nice face counts for nothing, he says: "Your beauty is boring!"
Of the group, one member appears to be working at an old-fashioned actual magazine, the kind that's printed on paper, and another works as a bartender at the group's requisite hangout. The two guys who manage Quarterlife have a momentous occasion to observe tonight: They've sold their first commercial. A local car dealer is talked into the deal with promises of reaching the proper "demographic" for his mid-scale yuppie-mobiles.
But when the time comes to shoot the commercial, the boys bicker and squabble and take turns having snits and hissy-fits (with perhaps a hissy-snit thrown in for good measure). One of them, enraged over creative differences (ahem), stomps off in a huff. The other finds himself so entranced by a female salesworker at the dealership that he decides, in a future installment, that he wants to try to sell cars, too -- sort of the way Larry David capriciously changed professions in a very funny episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
The boy in "Quarterlife" has about as much success as Larry did, but his experience is devoid of laughs and, like so much that happens to the characters in this drama, devoid of interest. One is overcome with the sensation of being underwhelmed, as if none of this is even pretending to be happening -- even as the characters accuse one another of failing to live in "the real world." Come on -- these little rascals wouldn't know the real world if a meteor destroyed it.
Any digression from usual TV formulas is to be encouraged, ipso facto. Zwick and Herskovitz point out, in a letter to critics, that "Quarterlife" has "ambulated from television to the Internet and now back to television" and that, having been "wrought for the Internet" and then bought by ABC, it was delivered to the network "as a completed entity, without the network even seeing the scripts beforehand."
This, they say, is probably without precedent, a television first. The program may represent another dubious innovation: a scripted show that tries to sound like an unscripted show -- or maybe that more common occurrence, a poorly written show passing itself off as a well-written one.
The creators of "Quarterlife" do get points for taking chances and trying an alternative route to a network berth. Regardless, what made it to the screen is something that is no stranger to television -- whether it's aired or wired, blogged or beamed, uploaded or downlinked -- and that something, sad to say, is mediocrity, with a portion of sheer annoyance thrown in.
Quarterlife (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 4.