“Hollywood Heights,” which premieres Monday on Nickelodeon, is an Americanization of the Mexican telenovela “Alcanzar una estrella” (Reach for a Star), and if it is not the first to be adapted for American television — there was “Ugly Betty,” based on the much-franchised Colombian “Yo soy Betty, la fea” — it’s the first to be made as a telenovela. Running week-nightly for 80 episodes, in the Nick at Nite block, it will be about five times as long as “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”
Nickelodeon has already dipped a toe into these waters, with the Canadian import “Degrassi,” shot soap style since 2010, and its own “House of Anubis” (based on a Dutch/Belgian series), which also runs as a daily serial. On the executive and creative levels, the network has loaded its new vehicle with drivers whose combined credits include what seems to be every major network soap opera of the last 50 years as well as 21st-century reality soaps such as “The Hills” and “The City.” Lead Brittany Underwood comes from “One Life to Live"; Carlos Ponce, who plays the former pop singer father of the pop singer her character worships (and is destined to meet), is a telenovela star.
Here, Underwood plays Loren Tate, a talented but reticent San Fernando Valley teenager who writes songs in her bedroom and literally dreams of Eddie Duran (Cody Longo), a hunky pop star with “more Twitter followers than Ashton Kutcher.”
“I love how my incredibly sensible, practical, straight-A student daughter turns into this crazy teen fan girl over some rock star,” says her groovy but lovelorn single mother, Nora (Jama Williamson), who is not beyond suggesting that the two of them ditch work and school and drive up to Santa Barbara for tacos. Rounding out Team Loren is Melissa (Ashley Holliday), bigger, louder and bolder, in the best-friend mold, who pushes Loren to grab for various brass rings.
If “Heights” is not particularly novel — it is, after all, based on a series two decades old — neither does it reek of must and mildew. Nor do the musical performances seem contrived, or rather they seem authentically contrived, staged as they would be staged by a performer like Eddie, who deals in thumping aspirational party anthems.
Appropriate to the venue, the show is also relatively chaste; what I’ve seen hasn’t pushed past enthusiastic kissing. (Nickelodeon describes it as a “family drama,” providing older-generational story lines to go with the younger.) “I’m not some kind of cheap slut who puts out for the first guy who buys her something sparkly,” says the girl who in the usual way of things would totally be a cheap slut putting out.
Although melodramatically eventful, soap operas such as this also have a luxury of space that makes them seem more naturalistic; indeed, the economics of the form demand long scenes, and conversations that a 22-episodes-per-season weekly series might dispense with in half a dozen lines of dialogue may be drawn out, as here, for pages. You spend more time even with the minor characters; the apparent villains grow less apparently villainous.
It is not impossible that, counting the four hours out of 80 I have already watched — and you might have as well, since they’re already available online — I will still miss 76 of them. But what I’ve seen, if not exactly appointment television for a person of my age and interests, is pretty appealing; by the standards of most other TV shows about teens and pop stars, it is well observed, well informed and (so far) plausible. (It may grow less so the closer Loren’s dreams come to coming true — but maybe not.)
And James Franco will be appearing in a future story arc, because ... because he’s James Franco. So I may be back.
When: 9 p.m. Monday through Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
Friday’s episode: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)