Watching “The L.A. Complex,” the Canadian drama that the CW will begin airing tonight at 9, reminded me of an exchange from the classic “How I Met Your Mother” episode “Slap Bet.” The gang has just discovered that Robin was a one-hit wonder as a teenager in Canada, and as they watch the video for “Let’s Go To The Mall,” Marshall observes, “This is the ’90s. Why does it look like 1986?”
Robin, sheepish about the whole thing already, shrugs and explains, “The ’80s didn’t come to Canada ’til, like, ’93.”
There’s a similar time warp aesthetic at work with “The L.A. Complex,” which is about a group of young Hollywood wannabes (most of them Canadian transplants) living in the same rundown apartment building. It’s clearly set in the present and yet it feels very much like the first season of the original “Melrose Place,” or, at most recent, like an earnest WB drama from around the turn of the century. It’s a primetime soap, but one that’s genuinely more interested in what the characters want to do for a living than in who they’re sleeping with. (Though there’s still a good deal of that.) Next to the likes of “Gossip Girl” or the “90210” remake, it feels almost quaint.
And yet maybe it’s my late ’90s/early ’00s nostalgia(*), or my half-Canadian roots, or just affection for “Firefly” alum Jewel Staite, who has the most potentially interesting role, but I watched more episodes of “The L.A. Complex” than I have of a number of actual CW shows. I was sent three episodes, and I watched all three – and wouldn’t be shocked to find myself watching the other three when they air – where a lot of the CW’s output draws a “Yeah, not for me” reaction by the end of the first hour.
(*) I did, after all, watch a good deal of the frustrating “Life Unexpected” almost entirely because it felt like an unaired WB show some CW executive found in a closet.
“The L.A. Complex” was created by Martin Gero, a Canadian writer who’s mainly worked on American shows that were produced north of the border, like “Stargate: Atlantis” (which co-starred Staite for a while). He’s able to pepper a lot of familiar showbiz clichés with just enough genuine insider knowledge to keep things interesting.
Staite’s character, for instance, is still being recognized for a short-lived teen drama she starred in a decade earlier, mainly because she hasn’t worked much since. She lives in the same building as these hungry, fresher twentysomethings, and she tries a lot of moves to stay relevant – though she doesn’t have a drinking problem, she goes to AA meetings to network – but at barely 30, she seems over-the-hill. When she hears that the creators of her old show have a pilot order from the CW (unintentionally meta!), she gets excited, but she’s only a couple of years away from playing a mom on a CW show, and then a few more past that before she turns into the building’s superintendent, a former wannabe who likes to quote Shakespeare, boasting “I once did a production of ‘The Tempest’ with Adam Arkin.”
There’s also a terrific scene in tonight’s debut episode where Nick (Joe Dinicol), a nerdy stand-up comedian, bombs at a club because his material is beyond generic (“Everyone here does laundry, right?”). Walking out of the club, he runs into comics Mary Lynn Rajskub and Paul F. Tompkins, both playing themselves. It seems like it’s going to be the familiar moment where the seasoned veterans give the uncertain rookie a crucial piece of advice that changes everything. Instead, they take turns roasting the kid, assuming he’s worthless as anything but a target for their jokes. (“It kind of reminded me of prop comedy, but with no props.”)
Your mileage will vary based on your interest in inside showbiz stories (and the ratings track record for that on this side of the border isn’t good), but there were enough small moments like that, or clever turns of phrase – aspiring actress Abby (“DeGrassi” alum Cassie Steele), our nominal point of view character, admits that, “Technically, I’m as much of a ninja as I am an actress” – to overcome some of the stock characters and situations, and the more CW-friendly material(**) about who’s bed everyone ends up in.
(**) The series primarily aired up north on Much Music, which has more relaxed content standards than the CW, so there are occasional moments where dialogue has to be bleeped.
To go back to the original “Melrose Place,” that’s a show that started out in a very similar emotional place: a bunch of young, attractive, enthusiastic people all trying to make it in the big city, occasionally stopping to barbecue by the pool. And that version of the show was on the verge of cancellation by FOX when the producers asked for one more chance and went hardcore soap, bringing in Heather Locklear as the older villain.
“The L.A. Complex” did well enough in Canada that another season has been ordered. I have no idea what the bar for success would be for this relationship with the CW to continue past the first six episodes, and/or whether CW execs would be able to exert any influence on Gero if it does. But if it does, and if they do, I could see them pulling Gero into a room and saying, “Less about the process of becoming a good stand-up comedian, and more about who he’s sleeping with, please. And that Jewel Staite character seems kind of bad already; can you have her go full-on Locklear in the next batch?”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Though all six episodes have aired in Canada already, the spoiler policy on the blog deals with the American airdates, so anyone who watched the show up north should avoid discussing any plot specifics in their comments. Thank you.