Same Time, Next Year

Fox’s Reunion brings high-concept plotting to the teen soap.

You’ve got to give Fox’s new teen drama Reunion props for so earnestly trying to get in on the ground floor with this high-concept thing. Like Lost, it’s an intricately plotted, flashback-laden mystery that ends each episode with a cliffhanger, and like 24, it rocks the time-trickery angle; each episode, instead of representing one hour in a day, represents one year in the life of the six main characters.

This group of old friends (as we know from St. Elmo’s Fire and Friends, groups of old friends tend to come in heterosexual, gender-balanced sets of six) graduates from high school in 1986, tossing their mortarboards in the air to the sound of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” (Somewhere, Judd Nelson is pumping his fist with pride.) The hapless teens then proceed to curse the rest of their lives by celebrating with the toast, “May everything always stay just as perfect as it is right now.” Flash-forward to 20 years later; one of the six has been brutally murdered, and another is being questioned by a homicide detective (Six Feet Under’s Mathew St. Patrick.) To parse the events leading up to who might have killed whom and why, you’ll just have to tune in, oh, 20 more times to get back up to the present day.

If Reunion lasts that long. Given its brutally competitive time slot (Thursday nights at 9 p.m. ET, up against NBC’s popular The Apprentice and CBS’s top-ranked CSI), this show would have to really catch fire in the popular imagination to stay on the air. And despite a bold premise and an appealing young cast, that seems unlikely to happen. Reunion doesn’t seem to get how important character is to carrying a show. Its characters are types (the devil-may-care golden boy, the shy tomboy, the troubled slut), whereas the quirky denizens of, say, The O.C. are individuals, however absurdly overplotted their predicaments may be. The generic replaceability of Reunion’s cast was underscored by the show’s writer, Jon Harmon Feldman, at a press conference last month, when he told reporters that if the show survives the season, “the goal would be to use one of our characters to transition to a new group of friends and tell their story over 20 years.” And we should care about this new group of people … why?

In the pilot episode’s main story, Craig (Sean Faris), the aforementioned golden boy, crashes his Porsche on graduation night with his best friend Will (Will Estes) in the passenger seat. Because Craig was drunk and Will wasn’t, they decide to tell the cops Will was driving, thus turning a potential DUI incident into a harmless mistake. But when the driver of the other car dies unexpectedly, Will finds himself charged with vehicular manslaughter—and taking the rap for his buddy to the tune of a year behind bars.

The car-crash story, predictable though it is, has it all over the show’s wimpy pregnancy subplot, in which yet another knocked-up TV teen (Alexa Davalos) decides that, darn it, she just can’t go through with the mysteriously unnamed procedure that she briefly stooped to considering, so she hops off the examination table at the last minute to meet her maternal destiny. The word “abortion” is never spoken in this episode; instead, there are discreet, ladylike references to “an appointment.” Whatever your position on the issue, the fact remains that women in this country occasionally terminate their pregnancies, and not all of them go mad or kill themselves afterward; when is a mainstream TV series going to have the simple courage to represent that fact? (And don’t talk to me about Maude. Maude’s abortion was 33 years ago. In the decades since, I’ve seen one too many dewy adolescents save entire networks from controversy with a convenient miscarriage or an 11th-hour change of heart.)

Even if, as I suspect, it’s destined for the ash-heap of midseason cancellation, Reunion does offer up a field of young actors ripe for the picking for future shows. Carla (Chyler Leigh) is the “plain girl” of the group by TV standards, that is to say, gorgeous in a brunette and slightly tomboyish way. Despite Carla’s overt mooning, Aaron (Dave Annable) can’t seem to take the hint that they belong together, so he continues to pine over the blond party girl Jenna (Amanda Righetti.)  Leigh is the standout of the cast, capable of investing ho-hum dialogue with hidden layers of vulnerability and wit. As the gang’s amoral alpha male, Sean Faris is a Tom Cruise double, complete with the lupine eyebrows and rows of subway-tile teeth. He seems destined to play Cruise in the inevitable television movie chronicling the actor’s sudden descent into insanity.

In the meantime, the most interesting thing about Reunion is the question of how it will handle its ambitious, if cumbersome, time-lapse premise. “Could things get any more complicated?” pouts one character at the end of the first episode of Reunion. Honey, you don’t know from complicated. See you next week, in 1987.