'Hidden Palms' Explores Death Beneath the Desert Sun


Kevin Williamson likes the desert resort community of Palm Springs, Calif. He goes there to write, and he's hoping to buy a house. With any luck, he won't get one where a kid who lived there recently and mysteriously died.

But that's just the dilemma the "Dawson's Creek" creator and his fellow executive producer, Scott Winant ("Huff," "My So-Called Life"), created for the main character in their new drama, "Hidden Palms," premiering Wednesday, May 30, on The CW.

"I wanted to do a quirky, cross-generational, sort of 'lift up the green grass of Palm Springs and see what's lying underneath' kind of show, with a dark sensibility," Williamson says, calling in from the city in question (where the pilot was shot, with subsequent episodes shot on locations and soundstages in Avondale, Ariz.).

Taylor Handley ("The O.C.") stars as Johnny Miller, who was a happy, well-adjusted high-school athlete until the terrible night one year ago when his father committed suicide in front of him. Fresh out of rehab for the drugs and alcohol he used to deal with his pain, Miller arrives in Palm Springs, where his mother, Karen (Gail O'Grady, "NYPD Blue"), has moved with her new husband, Bob (D.W. Moffett), to start over.

Reeling from his mother's quick remarriage, his struggle for sobriety and his sudden move, Johnny depends on his camera to help him view the world. That view gets stranger when he meets his charming but disturbing neighbor, high-school junior Cliff (Michael Cassidy, "The O.C."). He reveals that his best friend, Eddie, who slept in Johnny's room, died under strange circumstances not long ago.

Johnny then encounters the enigmatic, secretive Greta (Amber Heard), a self-sufficient, motherless teen who was close to Eddie -- and has a strained relationship with Cliff. Another high-schooler in the neighborhood is the bright but awkward Liza (Ellary Porterfield), who conducts explosive science experiments in her parents' garage but still manages to keep an eye on everything that goes on.

Luckily for Johnny, he finds a new AA sponsor in Jessie Jo (Leslie Jordan), a drag queen who is also about the most sensible person in Johnny's orbit.

Also starring are Sharon Lawrence ("NYPD Blue") as Tess, Cliff's ex-beauty-queen mother; and Tessa Thompson ("Veronica Mars") as Nikki, a troubled Los Angeles party girl who met Johnny in rehab.

"I thought it was the best pilot I'd read in two or three years," Handley says. "What drew me to the character is he was the antihero hero. He had a lot of baggage. I think that helps define the character.

"He was really put together, as you can see in the opening scene -- hair slicked back, polo shirt. After witnessing something like his father's suicide, you just go, 'What the hell?' I can't even imagine. How does a 16-year-old deal with a situation like that? Drugs and alcohol. They depress a lot of the emotions of fear and hate and anger, so you don't have to think about it."

"The suicide causes Johnny to spiral," Winant says. "We wanted a flawed character who was on the rebound."

"This show really is about the mystery of growing up, the mystery of the murder," Williamson says. "One of the things that Johnny has to figure out is, 'Why in front of me?' -- that exact question. 'Why did he have to do it in front of me? Why did I have to be the last person he saw?' "

Also troubled is Greta, who pouts and tosses her hair and runs through golf-course sprinklers at night. But this outward image of a free spirit hides a lot of pain.

"Greta, ever since her mother died, has had a difficult time forming bonds, especially with men," Heard says, "like with her absent father. Huge abandonment issues. It makes Greta reluctant to engage in any real contact with another person. She's safer by herself, and she doesn't need anybody."

Johnny's arrival dredges up questions and secrets about Eddie's death, and Williamson promises viewers who watch the first run of episodes on The CW won't be left with all unanswered questions at the end.

"I would say, in terms of who killed Eddie, yes, it will be revealed," Williamson says. "But -- and there's a big but -- we keep it going. The last episode does satisfy in the sense that it's all revealed, but it's also positioned in a character situation so that it could continue."

He also promises fun for those who tune in. "I hope that people sample it and give it a try and stick with it. It's good summer fun. We wrap it up in eight in terms of mystery, but we certainly open up the door to more.

"This one's like a summer paperback. I love a good page turner."

He also hopes that "Hidden Palms" is a showcase for Palm Springs, which has evolved from a swanky winter resort to a year-round tourist destination and home to retirees, singles and families.

"There are these big, huge homes everywhere," he says, "intermixed with all the swank midcentury architecture from that '50s, '60s, '70s Dean Martin era. It's very swank and cool and Sinatra-like. There's Bob Hope Drive, Dinah Shore Drive -- everything's named after somebody. I always loved the feel of it, the vibe, the flat desert and the palm trees. You know what I love about it -- it's fake.

"What I mean by that is that it's a man-made oasis. It's in the middle of the desert. Someone rolled out this big carpet of grass and grew palm trees. Anytime you create a tropical oasis like that, it attracts a very interesting group of people. It's a very interesting mix, yet it still has this small-town vibe."

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