`Zoe' and her friends a teen dream

Preview: Smart show can relate to youthful angst, though parents might be a bit put off by the adult conversations.

January 16, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA -- "Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane" is the midseason series with the biggest buzz. And some of it is even deserved.

The WB, a red-hot network built on such teen dramas as "Dawson's Creek" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," is billing "Zoe" as its signature sitcom, the first WB comedy to embody the same angst, wit and edge as its dramas.

It's been called a teen version of "Friends" and a teen "Seinfeld." There are similarities, especially to "Friends."

"Zoe" is an ensemble sitcom with four main characters -- two girls and two guys. The four are friends at a prep school in New York City, specifically, Greenwich Village.

The girls seem headed straight for art school. Zoe Bean (Selma Blair) is cute, funny, self-conscious and self-effacing. Smart, too. In the pilot, we see her reading "The Catcher in the Rye" and "Crime and Punishment" at her subway stop.

Her best friend, Jane Cooper (Azura Skye), is cynical and wise in ways beyond her years -- to the point that some might find her jaded. Maybe it's just that striking, severe page-boy-cum-Cleopatra haircut.

Jack Cooper (Michael Rosenbaum), Jane's twin brother, is the self-confident one in the group -- the guy who seems to be gliding through the same swamp of adolescence angst that looks as if it is about to swallow his friends. Duncan Milch (David Moscow), a childhood pal of Zoe's, is as insecure and relationship-challenged as Jack is seemingly cool.

The four sit at a coffee house worrying things big and small to death. The angst and uncertainty -- especially when it comes to relationships and s-e-x -- follows them on the subway, into gym class and to their bedrooms like a fifth member of the group.

Some say that, like "Seinfeld," the series is about nothing. But those who say that are adult television critics. At 16, a few words from a good-looking guy on the subway can seem more important than life itself.

In tomorrow night's pilot, a college student (Scott Foley of "Felicity") about whom Zoe and Jane have fantasized talks to Zoe at their subway stop. She thinks he might have even invited her out for Chinese, but the arriving train drowned out much of what he said. Zoe spends most of the episode trying to figure out what he said besides the word "Chinese," which is all she heard. Her efforts include befriending the dream guy's bully of a sister.

Be advised, there is lots of talk about sex.

The first conversation between Zoe and Jane is on the phone, with Zoe talking about her subway encounter.

"Who have we been lusting after since we knew the difference between lust and horseback riding?" Zoe asks in trying to make Jane guess whom she met.

After telling Jane every detail, including how she touched the chest of the dream guy's Columbia University T-shirt, Jane says: "What a crappy story. You talked a little and touched his emblem. Where's the raw sex?"

"But I think he asked me out," Zoe says.

"Testament to your Wonder Bra," Jane replies.

Next week's episode centers on Zoe thinking that she might want to have sex -- "just to get it over with."

I think it's a clever and even touching episode. But, then, I am not the parent of a teen-ager. I have a feeling some parents will have a much different reaction.

The series is not being written for parents. The bedrock of the WB is teen girls -- the audience that came to everyone's attention after it made "Titanic" a monster hit -- and that is clearly the target here.

One of the most consistent findings of research on teen viewers is that they identify with television characters who are slightly older. In fact, most teen-agers generally see themselves as older than they are.

And "Zoe" has that covered, too. Blair and Rosenbaum are 26, and Moscow is 24. Skye is the only real teen at 17.

Executive producer Michael Jacobs says you can't "write down to teens." He says you have to address them as adults.

The talk in "Zoe" about sex is decidedly adult. Lenny, Squiggy, LaVerne and Shirley were pushing 30 and still not having these kinds of conversations down at the Shotz Brewery.

All of which should make for a show that teens will love and many parents will hate.

Whatever your feelings about its values and potential messages, "Zoe" is a well-crafted and smart sitcom right down to the ad campaign, with the four characters crossing the street in such a way as to mimic the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album cover.

The title itself has echoes of the feature film "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." The theme song, "Charmed" by the group My Friend Steve, opens and closes each episode with an undeniable jolt of high spirits and energy.

Most of all, writers Sue and Daniel Paige have provided the kind of care and imagination that it takes to create a sitcom universe intriguing enough to make you want to explore it.

The world of "Zoe" is subway-tile stark, leather-jacketed, graffiti-marked and heavily sexualized -- a darker, urban, postmodern version of "Happy Days" that seems dedicated to the proposition that sitcoms should not try to offer moral lessons.

And, yet, there is also warmth, support, tenderness and optimism among these friends.

I admire "Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane," but I won't go out of my way to watch it. The sitcom makes me feel old. It makes me feel like we're 20,000, not 20, years away from "Happy Days" with Potsie, Richie and the Fonz at Arnold's.

`Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane'

When: Tomorrow, 9 p.m. to 9: 30 p.m.

Where: WB (WNUV, Channel 54)

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