Desperate Housewives meets Charmed was most likely exec producer Maggie Friedman’s pitch to ABC for this latest effort to bring an adaptation of John Updike’s supernatural melodrama to the screen. Previous attempts were made as far back as 1992, and again in 2002 with neither of which were picked up by a network. Perhaps with that in mind Friedman sought out the very best and hired pilot specialist David Nutter, a man with no small hand in launching such hi-concept series as Supernatural, Smallville, and Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles. A decent enough pilot it was too, offering up a playfully comic take on smalltown frustration and thirty-something female angst from the point of view of three deeply unfulfilled women.
Most people will likely know something of the story having caught the star-studded `80’s film adaptation that saw Jack Nicholson’s lothario demon outwitted and sent scurrying back to Hell courtesy of Michelle Pfiefer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher. While the players aren’t quite as eye-catching the characters remain much the same – three New England ladies wish upon a fountain together for the perfect man, get an inkling of magical power, and find themselves inexplicably drawn to a charming, enigmatic new arrival who may, or may not, be The Devil.
Paul Gross, the longtime uptight Mountie of Due South fame, takes the role of Darryl Van Horne, the wealthy, mysterious out-of-towner who comes to Eastwick beckoned by the mass throbbing of unfulfilled groins. All too aware he has some big shoes to fill Gross opts for camp over sinister, and while he has the requisite dark glint in the eye, he never rely belies the kind of vague threat needed to convey any real gravitas. But to his credit he never looks like he is doing a bad Jack Nicholson impression either.
The ladies are every bit as much fun, despite their characters being the starch in a boiled down broth of soap opera convention and femme drama cliche. Rebecca Romjin is Roxanne, a widowed bohemian with a crafts store and prophetic dreams, who has garnered herself the label of "town tramp" from keeping a boytoy in tow. Jamie Ray Newman is Kat, the nurturing, overly fertile doormat, shackled to her deadbeat husband by virtue of their five children and who can somehow summon the power of the elements. Lastly there is Lindsay Price who is stuck with the role of mousy local reporter Joanna who harbors an unrequited crush on a colleague and has developed the ability to make men do whatever she tells them to. Price is blatantly gorgeous and the lame attempt to disguise her good looks behind pinned-up hair and secretary specs mean many of her scenes resemble a dodgy porn movie where you keep looking to the door for the broadly mustached cable guy to make an entrance. In a nice nod to the movie, Veronica Cartwright, who has made something of a career out of the mad-old-hag role, plays an old school witch whose frazzled brain might hold the key to Darryl’s true identity.
One of the more contentious issues surrounding the Updike novel is that no one seems able to decide whether his portrayal of two-dimensional lonely hearts whose sense of self-worth is derived wholly from the men in their lives (or lack thereof) is straight up patronizing and misogynistic or merely a satire of such sexual politics, and no one is more confused as to which than Maggie Friedman whose writing is about as subtle as a piano in the face. Veering wildly from broad comedy and slapstick (see what happens to Kat’s husband when he gets on her last nerve) to jarring moments of darkness (the attempted rape scene in the pilot) she struggles to nail down a consistent tone. Musing on her ideal man the oversexed Roxanne requests that he have "A huge…appreciation of the arts," and when she declares in anger that she wants her daughter’s would-be attacker "strung up" and we cut to a shot of him in a gaffer tower surrounded by a jungle of low-hanging festivity lights you don’t need to be a clairvoyant New England spinster to guess what happens next. To be fair, the men in the show are not exactly rounded out either, and all seem to come in one of three distinct flavors – fascinating, exhilarating, or infuriating, but never any subtle combination of the three.
Sadly after a mere nine episodes steadily declining ratings have lead ABC to swing the axe. The remaining two episodes ordered by the network have been shelved with no plans to air them, Ugly Betty will take up the now vacant timeslot, and this one will not be back. I wonder if Roxanne saw that one coming?
Starring: Rebecca Romjin, Lindsay Price, Jamie Ray Newman, Paul Gross, Ashley Benson, Jack Huston, Veronica Cartwright, Sara Rue
Director: Maggie Friedman