I like to praise ABC Family for having one of the clearest brand identities of any network — broadcast or cable — particularly when it comes to dramas.
That doesn’t mean, though, that all ABC Family dramas are identical. In fact, they fit into a few easily identifiable categories.
“Melrose Place” with Training Wheels: Teenage girls (and random adults on my Twitter feed) love a trashy primetime soap, even if ABC Family’s sure to put a cap on the depicted violence or sexuality. This category obviously includes “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Lying Game,” so basically anything relating to teenage mendacity.
Extended After-School Specials: Let’s not forget the *family* in ABC Family and let’s not forget that it’s important to have programming that kids can watch with their parents and maybe learn a lesson. This kind of good-for-you development can yield preachy messes like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” but it needn’t necessarily be a bad thing. If handled right, this category can also include thoughtful, sensitive shows like “Switched at Birth.”
Convolutedly Aspirational: “Make It or Break It” is ABC Family’s surviving offering in this genre, but it’s probably also where “The 9 Lives of Chloe King” — I still want resolution from that finale! — and “Greek” might have fallen, assuming your aspirations could expand to include becoming a teenage superhero or a law student.
ABC Family’s newest drama series, “Jane By Design” fits squarely into the Convolutedly Aspirational category, since it’s not especially soapy and I don’t know that watching it is going to teach people anything.
“Jane By Design” is inoffensive and after watching two episodes, I didn’t feel the sort of annoyance that I get from two minutes of “American Teenager” or from the full season of “Pretty Little Liars” that I stuck with before quitting. But it falls short of that bar that ABC Family shows clearly strive for, which is “Can we provide enough depth and sustenance to give Dan a reason to watch, even though he couldn’t possibly be less in our target demographic?” The answer there is “No.” “Jane By Design” is the story of a teenage girl who’s living two lives, but since neither of those two lives is especially interesting or original, I think I’ll politely check out, albeit without any animosity.
More after the break…
Our heroine is Jane Quimby (Erica Dasher), a high school zero who applies for a fashion internship in New York City because she wants to go to the Parsons School of Design and because her parentless family — I don’t quite get what’s happening with older brother Ben (David Rogers) who seems to be suffering from PTSD stemming from teenage popularity — is struggling to make house payments.
At her interview, world-traveling boss Gray Chandler Murray (Andie MacDowell) thinks Jane is applying to be a full-time assistant and hires her with the caveat that she runs through assistants at a prodigious rate, which Jane must have known, since surely she’s seen “The Devil Wears Prada.” Somehow, Jane gets the job and because Gray is always on the road, this is apparently an industry job that allows her to waltz in at midday and rarely answer phone calls or texts before noon, which is convenient, since she’s continuing to go to a high school that apparently doesn’t mind that she barely ever goes to classes.
Before you can say “The Secret of My [Unlikely Teenage Fashion] Success,” Jane is balancing two different versions of herself that aren’t really all that different. At high school, people look right through her, but she has a hostile minority rival (Megan Tandy’s Lulu, as the latest in ABC Family’s somewhat problematic run of Buppie Mean Girls) and a crush on an unobtainable, square-jawed pretty boy (Matthew Atkinson’s Nick). In the fashion world, people underestimate her, but she has a hostile minority rival (India De Beaufort’s India) and a crush on an unobtainable, square-jawed pretty boy (Rowly Dennis’ presumably age-inappropriate hot-shot designer Jeremy).
Bridging the gap between the two worlds is best friend Billy (Nicholas Roux), who has an annoying fauxhawk, enough disparate character traits for two or three more logically rendered characters and, we suspect, an inevitable crush on Jane (even though he’s in a different relationship).
And why the heck wouldn’t he have a crush on Jane? Dasher looks like the genetically modified offspring of Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johansson and the producers don’t even pull a cheat by putting her in glasses or bulky sweaters for the opening scenes. She’s gorgeous and yet overlooked by all around her, which I assume has to be encouraging for viewers who don’t want to go through that “ugly duckling” phase before becoming a swan and would prefer to believe that the only thing standing in the way of the winter formal date of their dreams is the blind obliviousness of those around them.
Dasher is totally appealing and watchable as a leading lady and she contributes just enough gawkiness that her “Woe is Invisible Me” lamentations come across as only 75 percent disingenuous and not 100 percent. Dasher would be worthy of carrying a better show, if only “Jane By Design” had any fresh rings for Jane to jump through.
Instead, “Jane By Design” is by-the-numbers in its every facet. The scheming and backstabbing of the fashion world is meant to mirror the scheming and backstabbing of the high school world, which is completely acceptable, but what’s less acceptable is how every second mirrors something you’ve seen before on the big or small screen. There isn’t a surprising plot development or character in the two episodes I’ve watched and we live in a world with too many relatively fresh depictions of high school and fashion for me to chow through this pot of doubly refried narrative beans.
I guess I could take a step back and say that MacDowell’s character at least has a twist. She’s just the latest iteration on the Miranda Priestly/Anna Wintour archetype, but if you’re wondering how ABC Family was able to lure MacDowell to the small screen, it may have had something to do with her character mostly only appearing on a small screen. Because Gray is traveling, most of her appearances and communications are via satellite (or something) on a TV in her office. Gray says a few withering things against a vaguely international backdrop and signs off. Other than a couple pieces of set-dressing and costume changes, much of MacDowell’s season could have been filmed in an afternoon. MacDowell looks fantastic and Gray could be fun, if she’s ever given the chance to directly interact with any of the other characters. For now, it’s a performance-in-a-box, though she’s sometimes joined by other people in that box and I recognized at least one as designer Patricia Field, so it’s possible that folks with more fashion savvy will be able to make additional IDs.
As for the rest of the supporting cast, I really couldn’t find anybody worth liking or disliking, other than the best friend’s ridiculous fauxhawk and Evil India’s hammy evilness. The high school kids all look a year or two too old, while the people in the design scenes all look a year or two too young, which is presumably to keep Jane from looking too out-of-place in either setting, but also to keep her possible romantic options from feeling less skeevy.
“Jane By Design” is all about the excitement of a kid getting to live in the grown-up world, but rather than following the “Switched at Birth” model and pragmatically examining all possible complications without sensationalism, it’s opting for a Cinderella-style hyper-simplicity, at least in the early-going. Perhaps I’ll tune back in to “Jane By Design” a bit later in its run to see how long they’re choosing to play out Jane’s ruse and what tone the show takes once it settles there, but until then, I’m probably out.
But as I always say with ABC Family shows, whether I love ’em or not: I may not be the target demographic here.
“Jane By Design” premieres on Tuesday, January 3 at 9 p.m.