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August 06, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The astonishingly cretinous new soap opera Passions replaces the 35-year-old Another World and is apparently intended to represent the new wave in soaps. Among its touted innovations: A cast that is young, multicultural, and beautiful enough to give Felicity a run for its hair-gel budget (the graying soap genre needs to attract younger viewers); plus the addition of supernatural themes to the usual array of bad marriages and illicit affairs, in order to draw in…well, whom, exactly? Agoraphobes who post romantic Mulder-Scully fan fiction on X-Files websites?

Passions is set in the New England town of Harmony, where law is maintained by police chief Sam Bennett (James Hyde), a talking hunk of granite whose wife, Grace (Dana Sparks), suffers from amnesia (she can’t recall the first 20 years of her life, a trauma incurred when Sam rescued her from a fire years ago). Grace currently sees visions of a ghost child who speaks in ominous pronouncements (”It’s time, Grace — I’ve come for you!”).

Sam’s deputy is Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald (Galen Gering). While Luis feels a long-lived hatred for the town’s rich family, the Cranes, his sister Theresa (Lindsay Korman) dreams of meeting and marrying the Crane son, Ethan (Travis Schuldt), a talking hunk of concrete who’s in love with Gwen Hotchkiss (Liza Huber), a mumbly dishrag of a girl whose presence seems patently unbelievable until you understand that the actress is the daughter of soap queen Susan Lucci. (Like Tori Spelling, Huber can deploy nepotism to advance a career that seems destined for years of polite derision. Start looking for those cred-building indie-film projects now, Liza.)

Harmony also seems to contain exactly one black family, the Russells, including dad T.C. (Rodney Van Johnson), who’s grooming his daughter Whitney (Brook Kerr) for a pro tennis career, and mom Eve (Tracey Ross), an M.D. who’s best friends with Grace. And I will further try your patience by mentioning Tabitha, played by Juliet Mills, Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress and costar of the ’70s sitcom Nanny and the Professor (or as the giddy NBC press release calls it, the racier-sounding Nanny in the Professor). Mills’ Tabitha is Sam and Grace’s next-door neighbor, sweet and kind to their faces but a cackling, mystical-powered meanie behind their backs (”Their souls will be mine!” she crows). Which brings us to Timmy.

I am planning to take a short leave of absence to have surgically removed from my mind the image of Timmy, the mischievous doll created by Tabitha to wreak havoc in Harmony and cause nausea in viewers. Timmy comes to life at Tabitha’s command, at which point he is played by Josh Evans, whom you may remember as a charmlessly grumpy child-prodigy attorney in a few Ally McBeals last season. As Timmy, Evans is required to talk about himself in the third person. ”Timmy is confused,” he’ll say. Or, my favorite so far, ”The first thing Timmy’s gonna do is make himself a big martimmy.” ”You mean martini,” snaps Tabitha. ”No, a martimmy,” he replies. ”It’s my own special recipe.” Hmm, strychnine and bleach, shaken not stirred, please?

Although Passions was created by soap vet James Reilly (Days of Our Lives), it lacks even the basic suspenseful pacing and layering of subplots that hook viewers into daily watching. The show lurches from one Harmony house to another, with abrupt visits to Paris, where, in the show’s most exploitive story line, Ethan’s aunt Sheridan (McKenzie Westmore) is still getting over the death of her ”close friend,” Diana. That’s right, the Princess of Wales is a plot device. Sheridan says things like, ”If only I could find true love the way Diana did with Dodi,” then, pursued by paparazzi, guns her car into a Paris tunnel. ”Mon Dieu!” mutters one of the French shutterbugs. ”Not a-gayn!” You said it, mon frére.

So far, the most interesting characters are the two who’ve had the least screen time — Ethan’s parents, Julian and Ivy Crane, played by veteran good-looking guy Ben Masters and former As the World Turns star Kim Johnston Ulrich. Julian and Ivy are rich, unhappy with each other, and knock back martimmys — excuse me, martinis — as if they were vitamins. Masters and Johnston Ulrich (sounds like a soap sex-research team) have the best acting chops here; they know how to wring the melodrama out of a wet line, but you get the feeling that because they’re middle-aged and white, they’ll be kept in the background of this determinedly hip, multi-culti show.

Then again, who knows? Julian and Ivy may soon take center stage. Prince Charles’ cousin Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia has lodged a complaint about the Diana references. And the only other story line that’s barely working is Grace’s amnesia scenario — if only because of its use of the old reliable twin-sister-she-didn’t-know-she-had plot, and because Sparks is a sparky actress up to handling a dual role.

That aside, Passions gets a grade to match its wilted purple-orchid mustiness: F+

TV Show
In Season
Galen Gering,
Juliet Mills,
McKenzie Westmore,
Josh Ryan Evans,
Tom Joyner
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