Just when you thought Aaron Spelling’s reign was finally over—no more Dynasty or Beverly Hills, 90210, not even any more Titans—along comes Pasadena. While not technically related to Spelling, this new prime-time soap, like its precursors, is all about the rich and beautiful and excessive. The difference here is that, instead of catfights between adolescent Brenda and Kelly, we’re treated to psychotically funny tantrums thrown by adults.
In short, Pasadena is darker and smarter than what came before. Its ironic take on its own genre is clear in the opening credits sequence: a peaceful, soothing piano plays while the camera pans over classy shots of the show’s principal characters, who are anything but classy. Take Will McAllister (Martin Donovan). In A&E’s version of The Great Gatsby, Donovan portrays Daisy’s mate, the wildly materialistic Tom Buchanan. In the first episode of Pasadena, Will’s 15-year-old daughter, Lily Greeley McAllister (Alison Lohman) is in that English class necessary for graduation from all movie-and-TV high schools: Literary Plot Parallels 101. And go figure: her class discusses Tom and Daisy’s recklessness in The Great Gatsby. Hmm. Could the writers be alluding to Will and his wife Catherine’s (Dana Delaney) recklessness?
From the moment that Will and Catherine are introduced, it’s apparent that their relationship is “tense” (no soap opera marriage would be complete without “tension”). Catherine is a tragic head-case who does her best to pretend that her world is anything but imperfect, despite the fact that she has a philandering husband and a sinister secret (a supposed stranger long ago committed suicide in her home). She calmly feigns ignorance, dismissing any and all confrontations as one would dismiss a bothersome fly. Delaney has Catherine down to a wealthy, WASPy science. At times, with her pert haircut and stylish suits, Catherine recalls Jackie Kennedy, who also had to deal with a philandering husband all while the world watched. Oh, the irony!
Lily is Pasadena‘s moral center and the show’s narrator. She is aided in her search for truth by fellow teenager Henry Bellow (Alan Simpson), who is on his own quest: he’s searching for his supposedly dead mother, whom he believes to be still among the living. This makes Lily’s narration limited, since she doesn’t know much about the goings-on in her family, past and present. Still, Lily believes that she can and should bring some awful truths to light.
While Lily is supposed to be the show’s honorable core, the McAllisters’ temporary housekeeper, Pilar (Lupe Ontiveros), is the voice of the audience, offering up commentary on her employers. Whereas most soap opera housekeepers are relegated to “seen and not heard” status, Pilar is unapologetically feisty. She takes pleasure in busting the McAllisters’ obnoxious pubescent son, Mason (Chris Marquette) when she finds his stash of porn magazines. With a barely contained smirk, Pilar slams down the stack of magazines in front of Will as the family eats breakfast.
Pilar is also in on some of Pasadena‘s darkly funny jokes. When she becomes mysteriously ill and cannot keep her lunch down (or breakfast or dinner, for that matter; she vomits all over Lily’s designer jeans), Catherine reluctantly takes her to the hospital. Along the way, Catherine stops off at a restaurant where she knows her husband’s former mistress, Jayleen (Christina Moore), will be, leaving Pilar slouched in the car in agony, while she takes a bat and smashes the windshield of Jayleen’s car. Her work done, Catherine sassily walks back to her car, while poor Pilar huddles in fear and mutters in Spanish, “Está loca esta mujer.” Our thoughts exactly.
Pasadena is a refreshing change from the usual prime-time soap fare. It puts a ridiculously rich family on exhibition, making fun of everyone involved. Now the show is on hiatus, not a good sign. It simply hasn’t grabbed the ratings that the network is looking for, despite its Dark Angel lead-in. Hopefully, when (if) it returns, FOX will promote Pasadena properly, exposing it to an audience who might enjoy the screwy dysfunctions of the Greeley-McAllister family. It definitely deserves at least that much attention.