Love Bites

The perkiness of an acne-cream pitchwoman, the inspiration and spontaneity of a financial planner: Jennifer Love Hewitt

The perkiness of an acne-cream pitchwoman, the inspiration and spontaneity of a financial planner: Jennifer Love Hewitt

More than a few teenage punk rockers of my acquaintance adore Jennifer Love Hewitt. Far as I can tell, they don't "love" her in the way they might campily resent mainstream crap like the Backstreet Boys. They just flat-out adore her manifold wonders: the debated boob job ("all real," she declares); the canny way with media synergy that's translated starring spots on TV and commercials since her preteen days into movies and recordings--all before the age of 21, which she'll hit in February 2000.

The only reason I can possibly adduce for all this adoration is that Love, as millions of intimates know to call her, is so clearly postmodern, such an expert at the melding of consumer demand and product placement, as to be exactly the star we need for the next century. Scrupulously careful of an image hospitable to merchandisers of anything from acne medication and lipstick to SUVs (just you wait!), she's played sweet-but-tempting with a delicacy that has eluded younger acolytes like Britney Spears. (Brit, currently being sued by Nickelodeon for playing braless on a cold day, should hearken to Love's supernally kitschy, quasi-feminist anthem "Free to Be a Woman.") Alarmingly fresh-faced, Love suggests the rare human born free of the concept of original sin.

But behind that preternatural perkiness there lurks the inspiration and spontaneity of a financial planner: Unlike poor Old Kids on the Block Joey McIntyre and Jordan Knight, striving mightily not to be thrown out with yesterday's Nintendo system (not to mention their interchangeable boy-band progeny, who should be taking thorough notes on every Behind the Music teen-idol episode), she's in it for the long haul, having already lined up the coveted role of Audrey Hepburn for a TV movie and cemented the profitable, if crappy, I Know What You Did... movie franchise. (Personally, I'm waiting for I Know What You Did Last Century, which we could enjoy next year, come to think of it.)

Yet while it feels in some sense irrelevant to face up to a colossus of this magnitude (who reviews Nike's sneakers any more?), the truth must be acknowledged: Our Love is no actress. In the grand model of Party of Five-star Neve Campbell, Love has perfected a repertoire of shrugs, sentence fragments, verbal stumbles, and cutesy affectations that muscle her through an hour while hinting at the presence of, you know, depth. (This is, more or less, the same swindle James Dean pulled off in the Fifties.) On Party of Five her shortcomings were less exposed, or at least they had the opportunity to filter through the reactions of her similarly impaired co-stars--as if one acting style, and one star's worth of talent, had been apportioned among the entire cast.

Someone high up in the production engine of Love's new starring vehicle, Time of Your Life (7:00 p.m. Mondays on Fox, Channel 29), seems to have mistaken shortcomings for talents. Sarah, her whiny, annoying character on Party of Five, has followed felicity (and Felicity) to NYC in quest of her father (a conceit that instantly reminded me of one of my favorite children's books, Are You My Mother?, which probably musters more emotional juice as well), though sadly not in quest of less irritating mannerisms. Yet no one else in front of the camera is allowed to recognize this. The performances of every other actor on the first episode consisted solely of reaction shots to various Love epiphanies: Sad, perky, happy, devil-may-care, you name it, her supporting cast nodded approvingly. Among the insights on offer: "Invent yourself!" "A sorority girl from the suburbs. Is that all I am?" "I don't want to be the Marcia Brady of the new millennium!" It's Love's world, and we're just living in it. Coy, precious, eternally self-absorbed--but in a putatively cute way--she's an adult's nightmare of all-powerful adolescence: a child with a millionaire's buying power. (As they warned in Godzilla, we're witnessing the birth of a whole new species.)

Such narrative narcissism highlights the real woman behind the curtain. Though Time of Your Life has been concocted by the same team as P5, this new show screams "vanity production" by means of the same unremitting slovenliness that pervades Nash Bridges, which has my vote for worst series on TV. It's all there: the poorly camouflaged star vanity (on the opening episode, Love sings twice, the second time when she's "forced" to do karaoke); the gratuitous neglect for accuracy (on the second episode, Love's allegedly artsy roommate takes her romantic interest, allegedly a lifelong New Yorker, to that hipster mecca, Cats, where he is utterly outraged to discover the exorbitant price of tickets; what isn't wrong with this picture?); the stupefyingly obvious plotting (her rich employer's son sneeringly disdains her on the second episode, then--get this--actually nices up and falls for her on the third).

Really, it's hard to know where to begin. Fox has long cultivated a brood of creepily generic actors (the stars of most of the network's "serious" dramas seem to have been hatched en masse on some California pod farm), but on this program, they've manufactured the perfectly bland species. Not a single member of the supporting cast has achieved the emotional dimensions of a cardboard cutout in a movie-theater lobby. Calling them stereotypical seems somehow to shortchange the notational value of stereotypes, so let's just say that one of them works in a record store, one is an aspiring actress, and one is a funky, hard-nosed, but ultimately lovable landlady. Were one of Love's supporting actors to leave the show, she would disappear unnoticed, an usher abandoning her post in the middle of the midnight monologue from Lady Macbeth.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Time of Your Life has to do with its strange conspiracy of silence. Whatever the genesis of Love's cleavage, it's clearly a major selling point in all of those steamy, or at least cloudy, photos you can find on the Web (her first nude scene, sure to be suitably gussied up in "artistic" values, is destined to top $100 million at the box office). Indeed, Sarah's experience flies in the face of, oh, 150 years of New York stories to suppose that a young woman this unrelentingly dewy would make it more than a day without being propositioned. Yet as far as we can tell, not a single character seems to harbor any desire for Love other than what she might dream for herself. The sugar daddy she thought might be her father, but wasn't, takes it into his head to care for her in his most fatherly manner; the happenin' record-store dude falls chastely for her, too; hipsters throw themselves at her feet. This is plain weird, as bizarre as the suggestion that Nash Bridges's Yasmine Bleeth would be married to Don Johnson, or the more fundamental suggestion that Don Johnson is a commanding and compelling presence. Hell, even 90210 occasionally acknowledged the weird reverse-Oedipal undertones of Aaron Spelling's wild daughter playing a hypersexed virgin.

But here we're not so lucky. The result is a supposedly boho New York show in which not a single one of the characters appears to have even visited New York; a fearful spectacle of youthful ego (or adult pandering to the teen audience's imagined demands) run amok; a program so remarkably bogus from beginning to end that you wind up grateful for the stray moments of accuracy. Thrown far out of whack by its star's peculiar gravity, Time of Your Life dwells in some never-never land that feels false even for TV--imagine Rent, only the G-rated version, produced by the Disney Channel. I'd like to think it'll flop, but as television history has already proven, Love conquers all.