Two weeks after the end of a crippling writers strike over the spoils of the much vaunted "new media," here is "Quarterlife" to prove that no matter who's getting paid what for it, the new media looks suspiciously like the old.
For one thing, it's been created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the venerable duo that brought us "My So-Called Life," "Once and Again" and, of course, "thirtysomething." Their new show, which premieres tonight on NBC, launched last year on , with much gasping and pontificating among industry watchers who wondered whether this was how writers would finally shake off the shackles of the networks and Change Television Forever. Hourlong episodes were broken into six eight-minute installments for the attention-span-impaired computerati -- five episodes have aired thus far -- and the website in the show, quarterlife.com, is an actual website where you can watch the show and become part of the quarterlife (those whose age hovers around 25) community.
But a human baby born in space is still a human, and in tone and content "Quarterlife" is traditional television. Ironically, it may in fact be the most relentlessly traditional, nay, even nostalgic show to ever air on television. Down to the Shetland sweater vests (are these really popular again???), scenes of pillow-hugging slackerhood and the now (oh, when will it end?) requisite female narrator.
Carrie Bradshaw, Meredith Grey, meet Dylan (Bitsie Tulloch), "Quarterlife's" voice-over and main character. She's a struggling writer, working as an editorial assistant by day and blogging about her many thoughts and many friends by night. They (the friends) include the loving but neurotic Debra (Michelle Lombardo), her handsome but loutish boyfriend Danny (David Walton), his filmmaker friend Jed (Scott Michael Foster), the nerdy and pale Andy (Kevin Christy), the lusciously troubled Lisa (Maite Schwartz) and Eric (Mike Faiola), a bearded idealist who believes "young people" (words he actually uses) can save the world, if only by selling solar panels door to door.
They all couple and un-couple as young people will, cant, recant, decant and have deep, often drunken, philosophical discussions about the inevitability of compromise, the nature of responsibility and why life is so much more difficult than they ever thought it would be.
Fast-paced if a bit dimly lit -- watching on a computer, it is at times difficult to make out the figures much less the faces -- "Quarterlife" sings a song of itself. There is much exchanging of fond barbs, many glances of love and longing, not a few tears and all the wondrous wearisome narcissism of youth.
Watching it on a television set is a relief anyway -- those eight-minute increments were a novelty but that quickly gave way to irritation, if only because full credits roll at the end of each mini-sode, and how many times can a thinking person be expected to read the names Zwick and Herskovitz without wanting to throw her laptop across the room? (Not many.)
Yet even with the visual distraction of watching Dylan blog -- the camera cuts between her talking to her computer and then the computer screen image of her talking to us -- "Quarterlife" plays more like a rerun than the sort of groundbreaking, trend-setting show the team is known for. The cast and characters are appealing enough, in a cozy, all-white, genetically engineered sort of way (Tulloch looks eerily like the love child of Winona Ryder and Ellen Pompeo), and the dialogue is by turns earnest and blase -- a few of her friends are cheesed off when they realize Dylan is blogging about them, but not too cheesed off and not for very long -- with far too many "and now we banter" subheads to it.
All Internet midwifery aside, "Quarterlife" screams "network" down to its PG rating. There are problems -- Jed's father has a stroke, Lisa drinks a bit more than is good for her -- but no one's smoking crystal, weed or even clove cigarettes. Dylan has dabbled in bisexuality, but is quick to point out that this is all behind her now (in fact, she makes it sound like being attracted to women is a self-esteem issue, which, if you think about it, manages to insult just about everyone in the world).
It really is the most vanilla group of twentysomethings in captivity, a faraway kingdom of young people dreamed up by folks who haven't been twenty-anything for a very long time.
Zwick and Herskovitz do capture the sweet self-absorption of youth -- love is never truer, dreams never dearer and life never as complicated as it is when you are 24 -- it's just that it all feels so familiar when we were so hoping for something new and exciting. Modern youth filtered through a middle-aged sensibility. "Reality Bites" meets "Friends," "thirtysomething" meets a time machine -- you could devote a whole review to such roots of derivations, which would be unnecessary because it all boils down to three words: "St. Elmo's Fire." The Ally Sheedy-Judd Nelson perfect couple who aren't so perfect? Debra and Danny. Andrew McCarthy's struggling writer pining for his best friend's girl? That would be a Dylan-Jed combo. Lisa fills in for Demi Moore's insecure pretty girl and Eric does true-talking duty as a modern Rob Lowe. Without the flame-throwing or the "Man in Motion" soundtrack.
Fittingly enough, Eric Stoltz -- who, though not part of the "Elmo's" cast, was a Brat Pack satellite -- directed two of "Quarterlife's" early episodes. I can only hope they take it a step further -- invite Lowe to guest star as a washed-up filmmaker or bestselling (and sold out) novelist or Sheedy as a working mother who really knows from complicated. That would at least lend the show a little irony, a little sass, something that might get it, you know, blogged about.
When: 10 to 11 tonight; 9 to 10 p.m. regular time Sunday.
Rating: TV-14 DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue).