Entertainment executives like to work with recognizable brand names, because they think audiences respond to familiarity, as if The CW’s “Melrose Place” would be doing even worse if it were called, say, “Pretty Twentysomethings Canoodle In An Apartment Complex None of Them Could Afford.” Similarly is NBC’s “Parenthood” more or less likely to succeed with an old Ron Howard movie’s name attached than if the network just called it “Brothers & Sisters”? Wait. That name’s already taken.
Another case study in brand names run amuck is ABC’s new “Eastwick,” which somehow still assumes there’s money to be made from playing off of memories of a tepidly reviewed 1984 John Updike novel and a slightly better remembered 1987 film from George Miller.
From the source material,”Eastwick” takes a core — the arrival of a dark stranger (The Devil, presumably) is part of the trigger for three lovely women to uncover their witching powers. It’s interpreted here as a flimsy metaphor for empowerment for women in their 30s, but as such, it’s really just an aged up “Charmed” or a slightly expanded “Practical Magic.”
I can’t figure why ABC thinks that calling this mixture of female bonding, sex talk and magic “Eastwick” is any more or less marketable than calling it “Broomstick Jungle.”
[Review after the break…]
Ideally, the best thing about borrowed premises should be that storytellers can jump right into the story without any needless exposition. That’s not the case with the Maggie Friedman-scripted, David Nutter-directed “Eastwick” pilot.
Not only do we need initial voice-over — delivered by Veronica Cartwright, the one carryover from the movie — explaining the history of witchery in the Generic New England Community Eastwick, but then we have to spend time with our three heroines before their powers kick in.
Somewhat confusingly, all three three ladies have been renamed from both the book and the film, even if the characters are identical. Rebecca Romijn is Roxie Torcoletti, a flighty widow sculptress (Cher in the movie). Lindsay Price (she of the witchcraft-free “Lipstick Jungle”) is uptight journalist Joanna Frankel (Susan Sarandon in the movie). And Jaime Rae Newman is Kat, a nurse and mother (the Michelle Pfeiffer) role married to the kind of beer-swilling deadbeat lowlife (Jon Bernthal) who says things like “What’s gotten into you, woman?”
Like Courteney Cox’s character in “Eastwick” lead-in “Cougar Town,” the three heroines of “Eastwick” are all in ruts. We know this because they sit around a table and get drunk and discuss the state of their lives, their hopes and their dreams. What they need is a little magic, plus the arrival of Paul Gross’ Darryl Van Horne, a wealthy man with special powers, fancy suits and a gigantic penis.
Oh, did I say too much?
“Eastwick” is very much the sort of giggly show that cracks vibrator jokes in the opening five minutes, progresses through not-even-slightly coy double entendres and has one character describe the leading man’s endowments, while another character strokes a wine bottle suggestively.
The “Lipstick Jungle”/”Cashmere Mafia”/”Sex and the City” side of “Eastwick” is probably the one that works best, on a show that struggles from tonal problems. The Girl Talk, martini-swilling and skipping around in fountains suggest comedy, while a character getting attacked by a swarm of fire ants and a teenage girl nearly being raped imply a jarring shift into drama. With the introduction of all three women, plus Van Horne and the obligatory “Oh look, I suddenly have super powers” discovery period, there just isn’t time for a clear tone to develop. As it stands now, “Eastwick” isn’t funny enough or it isn’t scary enough and though the cast doesn’t lack for visual appeal, it isn’t even sexy enough. There has already been behind-the-scenes tinkering on the show, so what “Eastwick” ends up being in Week Two is a mystery, but I don’t know if I’m engaged enough to follow up.
The pilot splits its time amongst the three actresses and while none are bad, the one I’d most want to see more of is Price. That’s saying a lot since she’s saddled with one of those ludicrous plotlines where she has her hair up and wears glasses, but then when she discovers her new gift for persuasion, she loses the bun and the specs and… she’s sexy! Even dating back to her days on “Beverly Hills 90210,” I’ve always though Price had a flair for screwball comedy. Here, she also gets to spend time with Sara Rue, who probably deserves a better TV venue than being a fifth wheel.
For many viewers, the tipping point in “Eastwick” will be Gross’ Devil. The first time I watched the pilot, I could only be distracted by how not Jack Nicholson Gross is. The second viewing, I still was distracted by his Canadian accent and his oddly wooden physicality, but his deep voice and cocky line readings played much better. It’s a safe bet that viewers who adore Gross from “Slings and Arrows” and “Due South” won’t hesitate to embrace his interpretation of the role. For Gross neophytes, I can’t say if this will initially be any more convincing than his work in “Aspen Extreme.”
One last thing: “Eastwick” needs to stop spending time outside in its Generic New England Community. The show was filmed almost entirely on the Warner Brothers lot and the setting is primarily recognizable as Star’s Hollow on “Gilmore Girls,” a show that more effectively handled its limitations. I know that finding locations to work around is complicated and expensive business, especially if you’re in LA and you need to pretend to be Salem, but the town in “Eastwick” looks tacky and artificial and if it’s actually going to be a fifth lead character in the show, that’s a bad sign.
Finally, “Eastwick” is so bland and harmless I almost didn’t bother to review it. It’s not a pilot I really enjoyed and I don’t recommend it, but if magical woman-power fantasies are your cup of tea? Well, “Broomstick Jungle” is on.
“Eastwick” premeires at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 23 on ABC.