Beautiful people worth your time

Review: `Young Americans' isn't all Shakespeare and sociology. But there's enough of both to make you feel you're not wasting your time by watching.

July 12, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Young Americans," a new WB drama set at a boarding school full of pretty people, tells the very old stories of star-crossed lovers and a hero on his quest.

The result: a series that not only looks good, but also has some dramatic meat on its bones. Maybe I'm just desperate for any kind of new drama in this summer of reality programs, but I think WB might have another "Dawson's Creek" in the making. "Young Americans" is pleasant to look at but doesn't make you feel stupid for looking.

The heart of the series, which is filmed in and around Baltimore, belongs to Will Krudski, a "townie" from the fictional town of Rawley who wins a scholarship to the prestigious Rawley Academy, prep school for the future leaders of America. Krudski, a working-class kid, comes from a household headed by an abusive father.

That's two topics right there that are rarely explored in network dramas, teen or otherwise: social class and abusive parents.

Krudski gets into Rawley by achieving one of the highest scores ever on the entrance exam. But there's a big problem with the way he got those scores.

His preppie roommate, Scott Calhoun (Mark Famiglietti), is from a background of great privilege. Think Kennedys. Five minutes into tonight's pilot, Calhoun is deeply involved with a beautiful townie, Bella Banks (Kate Bosworth), who works at her father's filling station. The trio of Krudski, Calhoun and Banks is the core of this ensemble drama - Calhoun and Banks as the star-crossed lovers, Krudski on the hero quest.

Executive producer and writer Steven Antin takes the clash of townies and preppies - one of the few narratives in our popular culture that allows for the exploration of social class differences - and gives it several smart twists. One of the first meetings between Banks and Calhoun takes place at her father's filling station just off Rawley's town square. She is washing a car when Krudski and Calhoun approach wearing only their undershorts, the result of a hazing ritual.

The ensuing conversation between Banks and Calhoun crackles with social class animosity on her part, along with a mounting sexual attraction as the rich boy stands there in his shorts and the blue-collar girl with the sweet smile takes him apart with her eyes and words.

The series has something to say about gender, too; one of the new students at the all-male school is a girl in disguise, Jake Pratt (Katherine Moennig). Jake instantly connects with Hamilton Fleming (Ian Somerhalder), the alienated son of the school's dean - another set of gender- if not star-crossed potential lovers. In an earlier interview with The Sun, Antin said to think Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" or "Shakespeare in Love," and that's not such a stretch. Moennig and Somerhalder are talented enough to bring it off.

Not that "Young Americans" is all sociology and Shakespeare. Not by a long shot. This is the WB, after all, a network built on the beauty of young bodies. There's a girls' boarding school across the lake, and before Krudski has even unpacked his bags, he and Calhoun are swept up in what appears to be a sacred Rawley ritual of all the boys and girls running in their underwear from their dorms into the lake where it's wet T-shirt time.

As calculated as it is, Antin still almost redeems the moment by photographing the run in such a way that you can't help but feel the hormone-juiced joy of youth as all those hard bodies hit the water. The music that plays during the run, "Six Pacs" by the Getaway People, cleverly underscores the energy and excitement in the air.

Speaking of calculation, though, I could have done without the product placement. "Young Americans" is being billed as the "Coca-Cola Summer Theater Presents Young Americans." That's fine, but the very first scene ends with Banks taking a break from washing a pickup truck on a hot summer's day and leaning back against the hood of the vehicle to take a long, happy, cool drink of Coke straight out of the Coke Classic bottle.

One or two more of these, and it will be impossible to know where the ad stops and drama begins. Our media is commercialized enough without further blurring the line.

And, while I'm complaining, the final turn in the Calhoun-Banks storyline tonight does feel decidedly daytime soap-opera sudsy. But then Aaron Spelling has been playing that game in prime time for years from "Love Boat" to "Beverly Hills 90210."

The producers also need to seriously think about adding minority characters if the WB decides to extend the series beyond its initial order of the eight episodes filmed this summer. "Young Americans" can count on a failing grade on race from this reviewer if they don't add people of color.

But, for now, I like the leading characters we do have. I love the fact that a teen drama is willing to tackle social class.

The pilot ends back at the lake with Will Krudski splashing happily about, telling Banks and Calhoun how he used to sit on a pier across the lake and "look over here at the perfect lawns, the perfect building, the perfect people, the perfect life" and how desperately he always wanted the chance to go beyond what "was meant for him" by gaining admission to Rawley.

It's Jay Gatsby staring across the bay at the green light on the end of Daisy Buchanon's dock.

I'll take the heavy-handed product placement and all the gratuitous skin shots in the world for a drama that celebrates academic accomplishment and tries to communicate to its teen viewers the danger, exhilaration and joy of daring to exceed social-class expectations.

Keep over-reaching, Will.

WB scores

What: "Young Americans"

When: 9 to 10 p.m.

Where: WNUV (Channel 54).

In brief: A teen drama with more than just good looks.

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