On ABC, whine, women and song

Preview: `Wasteland' is a waste of time if you don't buy into the show's self-indulgent thesis.

October 07, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

When I first heard about the show "Wasteland," I thought, "Hey, that's interesting. They're bringing T.S. Eliot to prime time."

Not exactly, old boy.

"Wasteland" is ABC trying to bring a slightly older, urban version of "Dawson's Creek" to viewers in their 20s, hoping to get them to switch over from NBC after "Friends" and "Jesse." It could happen, if viewers in their 20s are willing to ditch "Frasier" for a set of self-absorbed, kind of whiny characters their own age who make more references to their "generation" than F. Scott Fitzgerald did to his.

"Wasteland" has big problems -- such as a hole where its soul is supposed to be -- but it is not without appeal. The ensemble drama about six college friends now living in New York and trying to find themselves personally and professionally is the creation of Kevin Williamson ("Dawson's Creek" and the "Scream" movies). Williamson has crafted a slick, easy-on-the-eyes, fast-paced pilot with good montage and a great beat. As with virtually every episode of "Dawson's Creek," the soundtrack, if nothing else, is worth your time.

He's also managed in the 45 minutes or so of running time to almost make each of the characters distinct. Those who saw the sloppy pilot for John Wells' "Third Watch" drama know this is no easy task.

At the center of "Wasteland" is Dawnie (Marisa Coughlan, "Teaching Mrs. Tingle"), a 26-year-old graduate student in anthropology who is obsessed about still being a virgin. Dawnie is supposed to be our guide to the group and our point of entry into the drama. This is where the problems start.

Dawnie is writing a thesis about "her generation." The idea at the center of it is that Americans used to become adults about age 18. But, for her generation, it doesn't happen until about age 30. Members of her generation use their 20s as a "second coming of age," an extended time of growing up instead of actually being adults.

What a convenient, self-indulgent notion for folks in their 20s. And I bet it will be news for those young persons who had to go to work right after high school, who don't enjoy the privileges Dawnie and her friends do with their designer clothes, great haircuts, dinners out in New York restaurants and nicely furnished apartments.

Dawnie doesn't bother to offer any hypothesis to explain the change from previous generations, but let me offer a thesis: There will be a direct correlation between liking the show and buying her thesis. If you think she's right about her generation, you'll probably like the show.

As for me, if I were the professor she is shown pitching this pile of nutsiness to, I wouldn't just throw her out of the office, I'd throw her out the window of the office. Extended time for growing up is a function of social class -- and it always has been. Even a beginning graduate student in anthropology would know that.

The others in Dawnie's group are a jaded publicist (Sasha Alexander, "Man on the Moon"), an aide to an assistant district attorney (Rebecca Gayheart, "Scream 2"), a gay soap opera star who is still in the closet (Dan Montgomery, "Little Death"), a struggling musician who is working as a bartender (Eddie Mills, "Dawson's Creek"), and Dawnie's ex-boyfriend (Brad Rowe, "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss").

The African-American assistant district attorney for whom Gayheart's character works (Jeffrey D. Sams, "Soul Food") is also going to become a full ensemble player. But he did not go to college with the gang and was added only after the NAACP denounced the four major networks for their lack of minority characters in leading roles.

The three female characters talk to each other on the phone a lot and are shown in split screen as they do so -- a technique I last saw used this much in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day movies. And, hey, this is just an idea, but maybe that's why they are having some career problems: because they're talking to each other all day at work instead of actually working.

Tonight, the action centers on the return of Dawnie's ex, whom she has not seen in three years. He is an ex-college-stud-boy now struggling and possibly headed for the skids in the big, bad city. And, hey, this is just an idea, too, but I think all the face-slapping and dirty dancing is just a teeny bit too theatrical.

But those are minor problems. The big mistake is Williamson setting Dawnie up as the "voice of her generation." Good television is always anthropological in the lives it depicts, but great television never announces it or even lets the viewer know it's happening. Television that announces its anthropological intent is pretentious and heavy-handed.

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