TV Review 'Hidden Palms'
Pretty Faces With Plenty of Troubles, and Secrets
By GINIA BELLAFANTE
“Hidden Palms,” the new series from Kevin Williamson making its debut tonight on CW, may be the first teenage soap opera visually dedicated to mid-20th-century Modernism. Remove the sex, sociopathology and possible filicide, and you will still be left with a quite inspiring home design show.
Set in Palm Springs, the last patch of Southern California this genre hasn’t yet trammeled, the look is all Eames benches, Barcelona chairs and geometric patterns. The mood is severe, but the colors are happy. Mr. Williamson has created a sick world, but one for which you wouldn’t mind having the swatches.
The clichéd aesthetic choice of so many single art directors, midcentury Modern isn’t necessarily the easiest signifier of typical American family life, and that is precisely the point. The families on “Hidden Palms” don’t convene at the table or watch movies together or talk about SAT scores or college admissions. The show is set during the summer, but still there is no evidence that any of the 17-year-olds in it actually go to school.
What kind of people decide to bring up children in Palm Springs anyway? As the resident satanic charmer explains to the newcomer in town, “It’s all retired grays, gays and streets named after dead people,” he says. “People come here to die.”
The charmer is a high school junior named Cliff Wiatt, played by Michael Cassidy, an actor so good at conveying sham authenticity that even when he sniffs, it doesn’t quite feel as if he means it. His mission is to keep at bay the new arrival, the economically named Johnny Miller (Taylor Handley, who, like Mr. Cassidy, is a veteran of “The OC.”)
Johnny begins to suspect that Cliff might have had a hand in the death of Eddie, a teenager who once lived in Johnny’s new house. And it isn’t as if Johnny doesn’t have a whole big pasta bowl of problems already. In another life he wore crew-neck sweaters and his hair neatly combed back. He cared about math and lived someplace where it rained. But then his sweaty, gin-drinking father killed himself, sending Johnny down the road to addiction, then rehab, then unbuttoned shirts and a coiffure in the mode of Jarvis Cocker.
“Hidden Palms” is high soap opera, a kind of “Masterpiece Theater” of unjustifiable television, which means that there won’t be anything quite so much fun to watch all summer. It takes its suspense seriously. It doesn’t tease your attentions so much as kidnap them, with many of the tropes of Mr. Williamson’s auteurism: the love triangles, suspicious deaths, bloody Halloween costumes and nods to gag horror. For the uninitiated, Mr. Williamson created the “Scream” films and “Dawson’s Creek,” and “Hidden Palms” seems the inevitable hybrid of his opposing impulses toward satire and sincerity.
“How does it look?” Cliff’s mother asks him when he’s removing the bandages from her plastic surgery. “It’s bruised,” he responds. “But it looks like the noses two noses ago.”
If I were watching “Hidden Palms” as a 16-year-old, I’d be grateful for whatever parents nature gave me, their refusal to let me drive the Jeep Cherokee be damned. It is hard to think of another television show of this kind that has portrayed mothers and fathers so perversely.
Ultimately, “Hidden Palms” derives its creepy tension from the question of how morally debased the show’s parents will actually prove themselves to be. At best they are dangerously attached or uncommunicative; at worst, criminal, lecherous and pedophilic.
It is a good thing, then, that they haven’t aggressively reproduced. The show is certainly true to the demographic realities of Palm Springs: not a single one of the young people appears to have a sibling. In some sense, “Hidden Palms” marks a radical departure in popular culture’s depiction of only children, who for the better part of the last two decades have been depicted as self-reliant superstars or geniuses (Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rory Gilmore.)
The teenagers on “Hidden Palms” make a strong case for benighted arguments that only children are socially maladjusted, neurotic, disturbed. It seems fairly certain that “Hidden Palms” received no subsidies from the Population Council.
CW, tonight at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.
Kevin Williamson and Scott Winant, executive producers. A Lionsgate Televison production in association with Outerbanks Entertainment.
WITH: Taylor Handley (Johnny Miller), Gail O’Grady (Karen Hardy), Sharon Lawrence (Tess Wiatt), D. W. Moffett (Bob Hardy), Amber Heard (Greta Matthews), Michael Cassidy (Cliff Wiatt), Ellary Porterfield (Liza Witter), Tessa Thompson (Nikki Barnes) and J. R. Cacia (Travis).