New York State of Denial

"Everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people," a teen-age Mariel Hemingway chides Woody Allen at the end of Manhattan. Little did she know what she was in for a decade and some later. Of the host of TV shows set in New York this season, the most hype and highest hopes have been pinned on Central Park West, in which Hemingway plays a new editor at a trendy but faltering magazine, having moved from Seattle with her writer husband. CBS is counting on Hollywood honcho and Aaron Spelling-protégé Darren Star to work the same magic he did with the Los Angeles-based Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place--perhaps willfully overlooking the fact that Models Inc., his last show before CPW, was a qualifiable bomb.

Given Hemingway's role and the locale, it's easy to imagine him renting a copy of Manhattan for inspiration. Then again, maybe his assistant just told him what it was about: In the film, two prospective lovers roam the city all night and wind up on the waterfront at dawn, talking about how beautiful New York is, but CPW's corresponding scene has all the texture sucked out of it. Peter Fairchild, a city attorney unabashedly modeled on JFK Jr., intones, "I love the city at this hour. It's so peaceful, almost surreal," and tabloid reporter Alex Bartoli replies, "I know what you mean." The exchange is so lackluster you have to wonder if they, like Star, were imported from L.A. to make this show (Melissa Errico, who plays Alex Bartoli, is actually a native New Yorker).

In approaching New York City as a quintessential Los Angeleno, and in addressing his audience --that is, everyone who lives in between those cities--Star is operating from some rather odd premises. In one of many preview features, he told Vogue that "There is still something forbidding and dangerous about [New York]... and I think the characters in the show are a fearsome bunch to most of the world. I think people will be frightened--and captivated."

Suffice to say that CPW is not the next X-Files, despite the ghoulishly operatic wailing in the theme song. But Darren Star isn't really out to scare all of us bumpkins west of the Hudson--instead, in the first few episodes he's created a veritable travelogue, a whirlwind tour of Manhattan featuring uptown's cafes, charity balls, and Central Park carriage rides; downtown's lofts, chi-chi bars, antique stores, and art galleries. And let's not forget Stephanie and Mark's two-story apartment overlooking Central Park West ("$3,000 a month!" she tells her husband incredulously, clutching a wad of cash).

Of course none of this is meant to seem real (and homeless people are of course strictly verboten), but one would hope that, being filmed in one of the world's liveliest cities, CPW would have more of a pulse. Even a scene at a downtown drag-queen haunt is palpably hollow as viewed through the wide eyes of Stephanie and Mark, our (and Star's) new-to-New York stand-ins. Then again, maybe this is a newer strain of New York realism, as the likes of Disney, Starbucks, The Gap, and Barnes and Noble colonize the city, polishing over the grit for the benefit of its more affluent classes--and, of course, the all-important tourists.

This canned urbanism is an appropriate milieu for the show's cast, who--like everyone on Darren Star's shows--are such antiseptically good-looking creatures that at times they appear subtly grotesque. There's the impossibly long, narrow face, dewy eyes, and sculpted nose of Deanne, the unstable woman spurned by "toxic bachelor"/stockbroker Gil, who probably longs to be a Baldwin brother. Gil's buddy Peter is a hybrid of a smooth-looking JFK Jr. (bigger lips, better hair) and Scott Wolf, the high-school heartthrob from Party of Five; and gallery owner Nikki is so loaded down with makeup that her already wide-set eyes seem about to slide onto her temples.

Naturally, all that hyperreal beauty facilitates the headlong dive into rivalries, sexploits, and intrigue. The stories on CPW, like those of Melrose and 90210, have a fantastical sketchiness. Everything gets neatly conveyed through a now-familiar system of streamlining symbols and signifiers. This allows for maximum plot propulsion per episode, which is why people love talking about these shows as much as watching them. As if to sum up and confirm what just happened between characters, scenes tend to finish with a sidelong glance, a smug smile, or brief wince. Plenty of other physical cues provide substance by proxy: In the same way that "artsy writer" is signified by Mark's goatee, when the kooky Deanne turns up at Gil's apartment in a trench coat (never mind how she got into the building), you know she's got nothing on underneath.

It's precisely those condensed doses of absurd drama that thrill and humor Melrose fans, not to mention the fact that the characters get lucky with astonishing frequency. CPW doesn't skimp on sex, either (the second episode wedged in four bedroom romps, plus a number of other passionate clenches), but it has yet to come through with Melrose's campiness. Lines like "Intelligence and a sense of humor are at the top of my list" lack a crucial irony when spoken by Peter, New York's most famous bachelor. Deanne's got nothing on Melrose's Kimberly in the psycho department, and poor Stephanie clumps around trying to act authoritative when she's in fact getting set up to become everybody's favorite chump. Only Carrie's evil vixen role, in large part thanks to Mädchen Amick, shows any promise; it's clearly up to her to carry the show the way Heather Locklear does Melrose.

In shifting coasts and getting bankable names such as Hemingway and Lauren Hutton, Star is attempting to amplify and glamorize his successful soap formula, topping it off with lots of champagne. CPW is straining for chic melodrama, when it should really go for an edgy semi-parody of New York and its tonier denizens. Yet there's a point at which even farcical viciousness is simply depressing. Sure, maybe "real life is dull," as Star maintained in that same Vogue interview, but so far all CPW demonstrates is that mainlining fantasy can get pretty tiresome too.

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