GRAFT a “Big Chill"-like premise onto a stiff yet sudsy soap opera and you still have a stiff yet sudsy soap opera. “Reunion,” which begins in the summer of ’86 (Wham! is huge, that’s how long ago 1986 is), introduces us to a close-knit group of graduating high school friends in suburban Bedford, N.Y., enjoying one last summer fling before embarking on the rest of their lives.
The new Fox series is curiously far from the nonstop, teenage bacchanal that is MTV’s reality hit “Laguna Beach,” not to mention Fox’s own “The O.C.” (where the creator has proclaimed to Inside TV magazine that it’s official -- Ryan and Marissa will have sex this season). “Reunion,” by contrast, comes from the more earnest world of early Matt Dillon movies, a place steeped in critical moral decisions that have consequences; the show also cranes toward being a mystery while proving, as VH1 already has, that we love the ‘80s.
Craig (Sean Faris) is the privileged boy in pink polo shirt, heading to Brown. Will (Will Estes), Craig’s best friend, is a landscaper’s son. Samantha (Alexa Davalos) is Craig’s girl, although she’s got a forbidden-love thing going with Will and is in fact pregnant with his child. Jenna (Amanda Righetti) dresses like Madonna circa “Like a Virgin”; before heading to New York City to become an actress, she’ll melt into the arms of sensitive-funny-brainy-guy Aaron (Dave Annable), who’s long harbored feelings for her, much to the dismay of Carla (Chyler Leigh), the good-girl pharmacist’s daughter who’s carrying a torch for Aaron.
Everybody still on board? Because “Reunion,” which Fox is debuting tonight at 9 after the season debut of “The O.C.,” has an additional hook. The show actually begins in the present day, at the funeral of one of our clique members. This makes it a teen drama in retrospect. We don’t know which one has died or how (some stilted language conceals the deceased’s gender), but we do know a detective (“Six Feet Under’s” Mathew St. Patrick) is investigating, and Carla is no longer so wholesome. Twenty years hence, she’s got an “Alias” / “La Femme Nikita” look going.
Each episode of “Reunion” will take place in a subsequent year-in-the-lives of our protagonists. Twenty years in one season alone. It’s a good thing too -- you’d hate to be stuck in ’86 with these kids and their music and their references to “St. Elmo’s Fire.” That movie remains a kind of embarrassing touchstone for Gen Xers; “Reunion” doesn’t make us feel any less squirmy about it.
In the pilot, Craig, the preppy, crashes his Porsche into a truck while drunk, killing the driver, but he avoids the consequences, thanks to reliable Will, whose life ends up getting detoured. But then, you guessed it -- everyone’s life was destined to change that summer.
Jenna, for instance, learned that “ ‘I love you’ could be spoken after sex as well,” Carla, the show’s putative protagonist, tells us in a cloyingly aphoristic voice-over. “And Will, I guess you could say that Will found himself farthest from where he thought he’d be, yet somehow much closer to the thing he wanted most.”
“Reunion” leaves you a little wrapped up in the intrigue despite yourself; it has the mystery death hook going for it, if nothing else. And yet, the song playing during the end-of-pilot narration is “Broken Wing” by Mister Mister, which could push some past their tolerance level for earnest ‘80s mawkishness. Of course, the ‘90s are just around the corner. I’ve heard it’s the age of irony.
When: 9 to 10 tonight
Ratings: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)
Mathew St. Patrick...Detective Majorino
Executive producers Jon Harmon Feldman, Steve Pearlman, Andrew Plotkin. Director (pilot) Jon Amiel. Writer Jon Harmon Feldman.