Hidden Palms‘ angst-ridden, possibly supernatural mystery buried beneath the characters’ superficial indolence is just as oppressive and maddening as the Palms Springs heat that purportedly drives its denizens crazy. As far as summer programming goes, the show’s painful deficiencies in writing, character and story are perfect reasons to slather on the SPF and find entertainment outside.
Sprung from the keyboard of Kevin Williamson, the CW would like to intrigue you with the show’s possible hybrid of Dawson’s Creek youth soap drama and Scream‘s dark and edgy horror homage. It’s not even remotely close to either.
Instead of an optimistic Dawson or a sassy Sidney, Hidden Palms’ protagonist is the troubled and rather sallow-faced Johnny Miller. Played by (Taylor Handley), whom The O.C. fans will recognize as Oliver, possibly the most hated character on the history of the show, Johnny is the unsympathetic face of today’s disaffected youth.
Sure, Johnny’s been through a lot: his dad commit suicide right in front of him, and Johnny has just gone through several months of drug and alcohol rehab as a result. Throw in a new step dad whom his mother married less than a year after becoming a widow and a new life in the alien world of Palm Springs, and you have every reason for Johnny to be maladjusted. But no worries, he’s got a creative outlet: photography.
In short order, Johnny encounters the other few young people living in the area: his goofball neighbor Cliff (Michael Cassidy); plain Jane chemistry geek Liza (Ellary Porterfield) and the requisite love interest, the enigmatic, sprinkler-worshipping bombshell Greta (Amber Heard).
But nothing is what it seems here, especially the people. In the space of one episode, we discover that prankster Cliff is actually cruel and that the stunning Greta is smart. Try to wrap your head around that one. And then there’s the tragic mystery of Eddie, Cliff’s friend who died and who just happened to live in Johnny’s place. And thanks to vague hints highlighted by dramatic pauses, we know that there’s something big left unsaid here that affects Cliff, Greta and subsequently Johnny.
And as luck would have it, the grown-up characters are just as misguided and caught up in appearances and power plays as their degenerate offspring — whether it’s Cliff’s mother Tess (Sharon Lawrence) who’s had her third nose job or Johnny’s mother Karen (Gail O’Grady) whose infidelity might have sparked her late husband’s suicide.
Unfortunately, this means that almost every character, including our put-upon protagonist, is not only unlikable, but annoying to boot. Everyone is playing games, and as a viewer, I’m not willing to play along.
Williamson continues his tradition of planting extensive, insightful and convoluted dialog in his young characters’ mouths, which doesn’t lend to their clout but rather makes them more insufferable. And even when they deign to speak simply, it’s fraught with melodramatic meaning. Cliff is the master of this. At one point, he notices where Johnny’s attention is at the pool and comments, "That’s Greta. Name doesn’t fit though. She’s much more than a Greta, don’t you think? Stay away from her. She can be enigmatic … Greta can be dark, hot but dark."
The show hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be tonally: a hodge podge of wackiness, intriguingly cryptic or unrepentantly scandalous. Somehow it just falls short of every endeavor. And why does every song on the soundtrack sound it was a Top 40 hit five years ago? This only adds to the show’s disjointedness.
With the CW still trying to create an identity, it makes sense for it to take chances with its summer programming. Hidden Palms’ execution, however, has made the show’s elaborately set-up mystery backfire. Instead of trying to puzzle out the various characters or what happened to poor Eddie, the viewer is left wondering, "Why should we care?"