'Eastwick' review: Heck of a mess

eastwick_cast_290.jpgSomebody really, really wants audiences to visit Eastwick. John Updike's 1984 novel "The Witches of Eastwick" enchanted movie audiences in 1987 -- thanks, Jack Nicholson -- and, well, didn't so much put a spell on them with a 2002 television movie starring Marcia Cross, Kelly Rutherford and Lori Loughlin.

With ABC's new "Eastwick," we're introduced early on to Roxie Tercoletti (Rebecca Romijn), who dreams of coming into money and then finds fifty cents; Kat Gardener (Jaime Ray Newman), whose last name pretty well sums up her power; and Joanna Frankel (Lindsay Price), who doesn't have an immediately obvious power but really, really wants to be confident and sexy.

All three women find fifty-cent pieces and wish simultaneously on a fountain adorned by three women. There's a hint of dark comedy here, when the wistful, "Harry Potter"-esque narration is interrupted by an army of ants attacking the narrator.

Enter mulleted New York millionaire Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross, so great on "Slings and Arrows"), who buys an abandoned mansion outside town. He hires Roxie to sculpt him; he buys the newspaper Joanna works for and asks her to write an article about him; and he... well, fondle's Kat's hand and calls her a healer.

Darryl encourages the women to use their powers -- yes, Joanna's is revealed -- in simple but selfish ways. It's no spoiler to say he's not your everyday millionaire, something anyone who encountered any of the story's previous incarnations will already know.

lindsayprice_eastwick_290.jpgThe three leads are asked to carry the story, but we don't ever learn much about their characters. Roxie is broadly drawn in "Desperate Housewives'" Susan mold, the unlucky-in-love bohemian with a wise-beyond-her-years teen daughter; Kat's willingness to stay in a bad situation at home is brought up but never explained; and Lindsay Price is simply too attractive in Joanna's "mousy" phase to be believable. Instead of wondering how she could land the object of her affection, we wondered whether he might not be more attracted to Kat's rough-and-tumble husband.

That's hardly Price's fault, and to her credit she plays mousy well. Romijn appropriately channels Teri Hatcher as Roxie, and Newman succeeds at making Kat a nurturing force with a steely undercurrent.

Due to the nature of the story, Paul Gross is asked to tie everything together, but here he's hampered by a horribly hairstyle and someone's apparent instruction to act as much like Jack Nicholson as possible. (Nicholson, of course, played van Horne in the 1987 movie.) Gross has the right dark twinkle in his eye, but his performance is so over the top as to belong to a darker, funnier take on the story.

Which brings us to the show's biggest problem: "Eastwick" wants to be too many things without putting in the necessary work. The premiere veers from dark comedy to "Sex and the City" bonding to vague mystery (the town historian says Darryl's been there before). Part of that problem is precisely because it's based on a novel: The central story can be told and resolved in less time than the typical television season. We would've spent the first episode truly exploring the leads and introduced Darryl at the end; instead, "Eastwick" jumps too quickly to the mischief at the expense of the characters.

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