Class of '96
By now it's clear that rather than build a better network mousetrap, the Fox network wants to build a mousetrap that looks just like all the others. Thus, in kicking off a new night of prime-time programming — Tuesdays — Fox has given us two weekly series: Class of '96, which is thirtysomething crossed with The Paper Chase, and Key West, the tropical version of Northern Exposure that's not Going to Extremes.
As knockoffs, Class of '96 and Key West are flat experiences to anyone who watches TV regularly; television shows that do little more than remind us of other television shows usually are. But these two efforts are knockoffs with pretensions — they believe deeply that they are gleaming originals. This inspires some inadvertent entertainment.
My favorite moment in the pilot episode of Class of '96, for example, comes at the very end of the hour, when our hero — a handsome, intelligent, yet absurdly innocent freshman at fictional Havenhurst College, played by Jason Gedrick (Iron Eagle) — is permitted voice-over time to intone these words with emotional solemnity: "This is the September of my 19th year, and I've come to Havenhurst; I've come to the place of my birth."
"The place of my birth"? That's gonna be news to your mother, pal. Class of '96 panders to Fox's young audience by assuring them that teenagers are indeed the center of the universe, that going away to college is nothing less than the beginning of life. Family, childhood, and adolescence were just a bad dream; awakened from the coma of home, reality is sex, rock & roll, and keg parties. To the rest of us, of course, there's a good chance that the students in Class will seem like nothing more than moody brats, especially the sultry, sneering, poor-little-rich-girl (Doogie Howser‘s Lisa Dean Ryan) over whom Gedrick's character is gaga.
Class unfolds at a stately pace, to the accompaniment of acoustic folk guitar — a thirtysomething trademark. So is the presence of Peter Horton, who in an occasional role plays much the same character he did in thirtysomething — a glibly earnest, shaggy English professor who makes cardigan sweaters seem sexy. Horton is listed as creative consultant and has directed the pilot, so he probably deserves the credit for the fact that Class‘ talented ensemble cast underacts as skillfully as it does. And to be fair, the shoe does capture perfectly the passionate callowness and self-centered romanticism of not a few college students. But I avoided graduate school to get away from people like this.
Where Class of '96 exploits innocence, making exam time seem like a cruel rite of passage, Key West strip-mines eccentricity. Its protagonist is a New Jersey working-class shlub named Seamus (The Marrying Man‘s Fisher Stevens) who wins the lottery. Suddenly wealthy, he moves to Key West, Fla., to pursue his dream — to work as a newspaper reporter and be a writer just like his idol, former Key West resident Ernest Hemingway. But if you were suddenly rich and wanted to emulate Hemingway, wouldn't you buy a big fishing boat and scribble novels at you leisure instead of tying yourself down to newspaper deadlines and dictatorial editors?
Seamus' dictator is a blind grouch name King Cole (played by Ivory Ocean) whose opening words to Seamus are, "Is you nuts?" Everyone in the Key West is furiously "colorful." The sheriff (Brian Thompson) is a zoned-out Zen adept who says, "My influences are Ted Nugent, Buddha, and Wyatt Earp." There's the loveable prostitute, Savannah, played by Jennifer Tilly (The Fabulous Baker Boys), who exists to coo groaningly obvious lines ("You're in my capable hands, and these are very capable hands — I have that on the authority of six senators, two kings, and one President") In the premiere, Savannah tells Seamus that Key West is "magic." We're supposed to be beguiled by these wide-eyed oddballs and the paragraph-long speeches that pass for dialogue. Key West must be fun for the actors — all those words! all those quirks! — but for the rest of us, it's Northern Exposure without wit or purpose.
At a press conference last summer, Tilly announced with pride that "nobody in this cast and the producers, nobody watches television…ever." (Tilly, by the way, also said that television was "evil," a comment that didn't provoke a peep of protest from an audience composed of score of TV critics. I guess using a term as grand as "evil" to describe a medium so crass that is has produced three versions of the Amy Fisher story struck many of us as very generous on Tilly's part.) Key West would have benefited from a few people behind the scenes familiar enough with prime time to realize how hollow this self-adoring show really is. Class of '96: C+ Key West: C-