TV Review: ABC Family’s ‘The Nine Lives of Chloe King’

06.14.11 7 years ago 13 Comments

ABC Family

Back in the day, the old WB and The CW used to be in the star-making business, taking actors and actresses with a few supporting credits and then making them into mainstream sensations (or, at the very least, making them into fodder for cheaply produced slasher films).
It’s not what The CW does so much anymore. 
This year’s new dramas include The Triumphant Return of Sarah Michelle Gellar (“Ringer), The Triumphant Return of Rachel Bilson (“Hart of Dixie”) and The Triumphant Return [After We Canceled Her Last CW Drama] of Britt Robertson (“The Secret Circle”). Last year’s CW dramas were fronted by semi-movie-star Maggie Q (“Nikita”) and tween favorites Aly Michalka and Ashley Tisdale (“Hellcats”). While several of those shows feature less-familiar potential breakouts in supporting roles, The CW has begun to increasingly bank on stars who bring their names to billboards in addition to their pretty faces.
So it’s left to ABC Family to break Katie LeClerc and Vanessa Marano in “Switched at Birth.”
And in “The Nine Lives of Chloe King,” ABC Family gets to showcase Skyler Samuels in what feels like a potential breakout role.
The 17-year-old actress had a supporting role in last summer’s ABC cult favorite/ratings-dud “The Gates,” but she carries “The Nine Lives of Chloe King” all by herself, giving the sort of versatile leading turn that had me jotting down notes comparing her to former CW debutantes like Keri Russell and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Although “The Nine Lives of Chloe King” is weighed down by a few clunky supporting performances and a background mythology that’s more than a little silly (and probably a reminder that I’m not the target demo for this show), Samuels anchors both the drama and the welcome comedy in what turns out to be a solid, low-pressure summer winner for ABC Family.
[More after the break…]
If you’ve seen MTV’s bland, leaden “Teen Wolf,” it’s probably easy to approach “The Nine Lives of Chloe King” as a brighter, livelier “Teen Cat.”
Chloe (Samuels) is, as we like to say, an ordinary girl approaching her 16th birthday. She’s got her trusted friends (Grace Phipps and Ki Hong Lee) and her mom (Amy Pietz), but she’s also got the usual assortment of teenage insecurities, including the fear that her life has become too predictable and risk-adverse. 
Then, Chloe starts changing: She’s got weird new cat-like reflexes, weird new heightened senses and, um, claws. Normally shy with guys, Chloe has a newfound aggressiveness. 
She’s also got a scary dude with scars chasing her through San Francisco-area parks trying to kill her. That’s bad news, right? Well, here’s the good part: Chloe can’t die. 
Based on the Liz Braswell young adult novel series, “The Nine Lives of Chloe King” has an explanation for the changes Chloe is going through. It’s not just puberty, but I won’t insult either of us by attempting to explain the exact details. It has something to do with ancient Egyptian theology and…zzzz. I’m kinda hoping we aren’t going to have to deal extensively with the origins, though I fear we will. It doesn’t help that the characters entrusted with delivering the necessary exposition are the least interesting and most wooden in the entire show. Every time I scribbled something about “The Mai” in my notes, my eyes glazed over.
With this sort of origin story, I’m always more interested in the discovery period than the explanation, which is almost always best dealt with as quickly as possible. A radioactive spider bites Peter Parker? PLEASE don’t spend five minutes of screen time telling me about how this could plausibly give Peter Parker the powers of a spider. Just tell me the spider is radioactive, show me the biting and then let’s get to the swinging from buildings and the spidey senses, please. Similarly, there’s no explanation you can give me that will justify why a 16-year-old girl has cat-like powers, so the less time you spend telling me it’s possible and the more time you spend showing me the character discovering it’s possible, the happier I’ll be.
“Chloe King” works best in its opening stages when the main character goes through the logical progression from perplexed to giddy to terrified with the things she can suddenly do and their repercussions. Unlike “Teen Wolf,” conscious effort has been put into finessing this as a coming-of-age parable, without going too heavily-handedly into specifics of the female adolescent experience. And it’s to Samuels’ credit that while you maybe don’t fully buy her as a wallflower, you understand her initial discomfort and you swiftly get how what’s happening to her is both a blessing and a curse. 
The story doesn’t get bogged down in secret keeping, so Chloe instantly finds herself with her own mini-Scooby-Gang, including an Asian Xander and a Willow-Cordelia hybrid. What’s going to happen next is a bigger question.  I don’t have a clue how far the narrative has gone in the books or how much of Braswell’s story is burnt through in the first two episodes. The bigger arcs — Chloe is special, therefore some people want to kill Chloe — are in place and there’s also a forbidden love story with “Friday Night Lights” veteran (wasted though he was) Grey Damon. The second episode puts much of the grander story on hold, though, for Chloe to use her powers to help somebody whose life she inadvertently screwed up. I’m stuck in a tough place here, because as much as I enjoyed the two episodes I watched, I don’t much like the idea of “Chloe King, Good Samaritan,” nor do I love the idea of “Chloe King and the Long, Complicated History of The Mai.”
That puts a lot of pressure on Samuels to keep “Chloe King” engaging, mostly on her own. She does awkward comedy well and she’s as believable in the stunt work as any physically slight actress would be (meaning that she strikes a pose very well). There’s a very good energy in her scenes with Ki Hong Lee and Grace Phipps and there’s a good sincerity to the scenes between Samuels and Pietz. By the end of the second episode, I was dreading appearances by Benjamin Stone and Alyssa Diaz, because both actors are attempting inconsistent accents and both of their characters are saddled with blather about The Uniter.
When it premiered way back in 1997, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” also struggled with its episode-to-episode narrative intentions and with the proper dissemination of an initially cumbersome mythology. “Buffy” also took a while to integrate what was eventually an exemplary supporting cast along with its dominant leading lady. What “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had, which “Chloe King” can’t really compete with, is Joss Whedon. A lot of those early “Buffy” high school freak-of-the-weak episodes were salvaged by the joy of listening to the way everybody spoke. 
In lieu of “Buffy”-speak, “Chloe King” has a mostly earnest, anonymous voice sparked with just enough humor and quippiness to prevent a slide into “Teen Wolf”-esque gloom. Directed by versatile TV veteran (and former editor) Wendey Stanzler, the pilot is sunny, urban and moves at a rapid clip, generating ambiance from a San Francisco backdrop that I suspect was only second-unit, but still comes through.
With Samuels’ star-power and the proficient execution of the episode episodes, “The Nine Lives of Chloe King” is the sort of summer fun that I’ll happily watch in the summer and it has the potential, if it navigates the story properly, to become the rare ABC Family series I might stick with even against regular programming. I don’t know how much of my enthusiasm sounds like it’s built upon backhanded compliments, but my bottom line will probably resemble another: For what it is, I liked “The Nine Lives of Chloe King” and if you approach it with similarly tempered expectations, you’ll get similar returns.
“The Nine Lives of Chloe King” premieres on Tuesday, June 14 at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.

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