One year to the week since NBC canceled "Homicide: Life on the Street," Baltimore is officially back in the network television series business.
"Young Americans," a new teen ensemble drama for the WB (Warner Brothers) network, started production yesterday in a huge warehouse-turned-sound stage down in Locust Point where Hull Street runs into the harbor. Once again, Hollywood producers are making a million-dollar-an-episode series here, and this one promises to make the city that bleeds look affluent and pretty.
"Once we came and saw Baltimore and understood how absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful it is here, that was it. We decided we were going to do the series here," Steven Antin, the creator and co-executive producer of the series, said during an interview Saturday at his production headquarters.
Absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful? Gritty Baltimore, home of HBO's "The Corner"?
"Yes," Antin says without hesitation. "In Los Angeles, I think, gritty is definitely the perception of Baltimore based on what people see on television and, I guess, we hear in the news or whatever. But the side of Baltimore that we're showing is the sort of bucolic, wholesome, wonderful side of Baltimore that's also there."
No, "Young Americans" is not a promotional film from the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce. It's a teen drama set at a boarding school in New England, with Baltimore standing in for Maine the way Wilmington, N.C., serves as Capeside, Mass., in "Dawson's Creek," one of WB's most successful teen dramas.
In fact, this Wednesday and next, one of the leading characters of "Young Americans," Will Krudski (Rodney Scott), appears on "Dawson's Creek," as WB uses the established show to promote its new drama. Krudski's three-episode story arc ends with him saying goodbye to Dawson's world and leaving for Rawley Academy, the fictional private school at the heart of "Young Americans." The new series will premiere in early July.
Last year, Antin produced a 38-minute presentation film of "Young Americans," which WB made available to critics. Presentation films are shortened versions of pilots. With the pilot for an hour-long drama costing from $1 million to $1.5 million to make, filming only 38 rather than the 51 or so minutes (an hour of network TV minus commercials) of each script amounts to considerable savings when spread across dozens of proposed series each year. This is part of the new way of doing business in vertically integrated, economies-of-scale Hollywood.
Based on the presentation, which was filmed near Atlanta, this is a series that not only looks good -- the WB's stock in trade with all those young models in leading roles -- but is also one with some dramatic meat on its bones.
Krudski is a working-class kid from a household headed by a physically abusive father. That's two topics right there rarely explored in network dramas, teen or otherwise: social class and abusive parents. Krudski gets into Rawley on a scholarship based on his achieving one of the highest scores ever on the entrance exam. But there's a problem with the way he got those scores.
His roommate, Scott Calhoun (Mark Famiglietti), is from a background of great privilege. Think Kennedys. By the end of the first hour, Calhoun is deeply involved with a beautiful townie, Bella Banks (Kate Bosworth).
Antin takes the clash of townies and preppies -- one of the few narratives in our popular culture that allows for an exploration of social class inequities -- and gives it several smart twists. The first meeting of Bella and Calhoun takes place at the pumps of her father's filling station just off a small town square near Rawley. She's filling a car with gas, when Calhoun and Krudski approach wearing only their undershorts, the result of a hazing ritual.
The ensuing conversation between Bella and Calhoun crackles with social class animosity, as well as a mounting sexual attraction as the rich boy stands there in his shorts and the blue-collar girl with the sweet-sweet smile takes him apart with her eyes and her words.
The series has something to say about gender, too; one of the new students at the all-boys school is a girl in disguise, Jake Pratt (Katherine Moennig). Moennig makes Pratt believable and intriguing in the 38 minutes I saw, though it's hard to tell from the presentation film where Antin is going with this character. Antin says think Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" or "Shakespeare in Love."
Not that "Young Americans" is all sociology and Shakespeare. Believe me, it isn't. This is the WB, after all, and Antin himself seems perfectly happy describing the series as "high school without your parents."
"I mean, our show is relationship oriented, and it's thematically about star-crossed lovers," Antin says. "And it's inherently melodramatic, because teen-agers, I think, are inherently melodramatic."