Less Love is More Love
Time of Your Life, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s first starring vehicle since leaving Party of Five, is, if nothing else, an interesting failure.
At first, it seemed like ideal spin-off material: Hewitt has a built-in likability, carried over from her stint as Sarah Merrin, Bailey’s fresh-faced, ever-perky girlfriend on PO5, and the new show’s attractive ensemble cast of twentysomethings all share the same apartment complex and/or local bar hangout, a la Melrose Place. The series’ premise also seemed promising: Sarah leaves for New York City in search of her biological father and independence. In short order, she moves in with Romy (Jennifer Garner), a struggling actress; meets Maguire (Jonathon Schaech), a failed but hunky musician; and finds a man she mistakes for her father to bail her out of financial trouble. With luck like this, who wouldn’t move to New York?
More to the point, why is Time of Your Life going down for the count? Problems apparently started early: just seven weeks before the show’s October 25 debut, FOX was demanding major rewrites. Reportedly, the show was too slow and touchy-feely, and its plots (when they didn’t interfere with Sarah’s tedious emoting) were too unrealistic. Now, both a critical and commercial failure, Time of Your Life seems to be suffering from the same disease which infected PO5 two seasons ago and Beverly Hills, 90210 from its inception: the characters are too preachy and the plots are too unrealistic.
Certainly one of the show’s biggest problems is its lack of believability. It magically finds Sarah a new and fabulous job each week, including stints as a bar-room singer and as dog-walker for a wealthy matriarch. Though Time of Your Life claims to be charting Sarah’s journey of self-discovery, it seems sidetracked by its parade of adoring Sarah suitors, moony-eyed and reduced to blandness in her presence. It reconstructs some traditional myths about New York City, making it look like a place of limitless possibilities for adventure, friendship, and above all, love. Hell, even the gorgeous, well-dressed, Latin hair salon shampoo boy (Diego Serrano) is straight.
None of these mythic possibilities resemble what goes on in today’s New York City. But Time of Your Life seems content with constructing an idealized community of struggling, soon-to-be-famous artists in Manhattan’s East Village, all of whom are articulate, sympathetic, and wise beyond their years. Of course, television doesn’t have to be realistic to be entertaining (or even good), but Time of Your Life insultingly simplistic. Its problem-of-the-week episodes neglect to deal with real problems in any real ways. Sarah’s initial adjustment to her new life, for instance, is resolved by the end of the second episode. Though she says she wants to go back home, she’s too darling and upbeat to display pangs of homesickness. Similarly, it appears that characters in Time of Your Life fall victim to a standard soap-operatic plot device: conveniently developing amnesia about anything that takes place prior to the series (or even the current episode). Even so, it’s hard to swallow the miraculous transformation of Sarah’s rich, would-be boyfriend, Chase, who changes overnight from an impossible snob to a suitably pleasant love-interest. Now that‘s the power of Love.
You might forgive such contrivances, if the show seemed secure in its generic self-identification. But Time of Your Life wants it both ways: it wants to be cute and quirky to showcase Hewitt’s charisma at the same time that it wants to be seriously melodramatic. Unfortunately, Time of Your Life doesn’t even work on the level of soap opera: its characters are painfully earnest and unsympathetic, and the romances are devoid of chemistry.
Take the recent Thanksgiving episode, for example: Sarah meets a sweet and harmless homeless guy who seems taken with her. Intrigued by his antics “conducting” traffic on a street corner, she does a little research and discovers he’s a former award-winning composer and all-around genius. In her best Donna Martin do-gooder impression, Sarah invites the man to Thanksgiving dinner at her new apartment.
Meanwhile, Sarah meets a sweet and harmless young mafioso who seems taken with her. After a failed attempt to further her singing career, he pursues Sarah as a girlfriend. Reluctant to offend him because she’s so very accommodating but also reluctant to join his entire, er, family for dinner, she appeases him with an pseudo-intimate gathering at her place.
Enter Chase, the sweet and harmless young businessman who’s been taken with her since she got drunk, tattooed her ass, and nearly slept with him while in despair over Bailey, who just broke up with her. Though Sarah refuses to go to dinner with him out of embarrassment, he shows up at her door with an impressive spread of vittles and a huge bouquet of flowers. Party of three becomes party of four.
But wait: there’s more! Maguire, the sweet and harmless musician who’s been taken with her since the season premiere, is even more rejected than usual. Because he’s recently lost his apartment, Sarah suggests that he crash at her place as a friend while Romy is away. Until now, he’s been too stubborn to take her up on her offer: he likes her too much, you see, to just be casual friends. But now, well, it is Thanksgiving… Guess who’s coming to dinner: a group of rag-tag gents all waiting in line for a little bit of Sarah’s holiday cheer! What do you think they’ll be dreaming of when they fight over the wishbone?
Sarah twitters about, nervous to be cooking her first Thanksgiving meal but still fetching in her belly-baring fuzzy wool sweater. Each of the men tries to keep Sarah for himself, though throughout it all, she remains blissfully (or willfully) ignorant of their intentions. That is, until Chase corners her in the bedroom for a smooch, the mafioso woos her in the kitchen, Maguire sulks, and the homeless genius wanders off. Horrified by what she assumes is her own lack of hospitality, Sarah tears off into the dark New York streets after the genius, calling after him and begging for him to come back. (One would think that Sarah might have encountered a homeless person before, during her 18 years in San Francisco, but perhaps this is her first interaction with a homeless genius, which might explain why she’s so determined to save him.)
Alas, the genius is also a nut-job and so he’s numb to Sarah’s charms: when she finally catches up with him, he leaves her crying in the street. But never fear. It’s Maguire to the rescue! Having dragged himself out of his funk and out of the apartment, Maguire professes to love Sarah’s generous spirit. And so the episode ends in an inevitable kiss.
There’s a lot wrong with the Thanksgiving episode, not the least of which is the inane, almost sit-com-ish plot. But the episode is also emblematic of Time of Your Life‘s more general shortcomings. The writers apparently think that like Sarah’s suitors we’ll put up with anything she does, no matter how absurd or misguided, just because she’s so darn cute. Even when Chase provides the voice of reason, telling Sarah she’s crazy for letting a strange homeless man into her apartment, his complaint is laughed off by the other dinner guests, who think he’s too stuffy and uptight. But really, the show is making Sarah an object of ridicule and easy dismissal. Though it initially appears to be about her search for autonomy in the Big Apple, it’s really about something much more shallow: her ability to make men love her on both coasts. She is anything but independent, replacing Bailey with Maguire and relying on a group of total strangers and flakes for her emotional support.
This support comes in the form of forgettable, one-dimensional characters (the rich snob, the good girl roommate, the ex-junkie), most of whom are given an appropriate trauma to make them at least theoretically interesting. As Sarah’s intended beau, Maguire is perhaps the blandest of the group, and Schaech plays him with a kind of detached gloominess. Sadly, his purely physical interracial relationship with barmaid Joss (Gina Ravera) was dropped after the first few episodes, presumably to make Maguire more palatable for goody-goody Sarah. Neither moralistic about sexuality nor overtly explained, the subplot was one of the series’ only risky elements.
But the most inexplicable character is Sarah’s zany landlady Cecilia (Pauley Perette), who simply pops her head in every now and then for supposed comic relief. And then there’s Romy, the shows real tragedy; destined to be swallowed up by her own pucker-faced cuteness, she is even more annoyingly naive about the ways of the world than Sarah. Unfortunately, actress Jennifer Gavin keeps resurfacing every fall in the season’s newest flop (including the producers’ own Significant Others from 1997), so were likely to see her again… though not for long.
Surprisingly, the show’s most annoying attribute is Hewitt herself. In limited doses on PO5, she was charming and even lovable as the squeaky-clean foil to Bailey the alcoholic and Julia the abused girlfriend. But in Time of Your Life, Hewitt seems saccharine and too aware of her own adorability. Perhaps it’s her recent overexposure in Neutrogena commercials and teen films, but Hewitt simply doesn’t seem like movie star, or even TV leading lady material: as the show’s centerpiece, she has crossed the line from charming to cloying. Maybe supporting roles are more her style.
Or maybe, rather than carrying and developing a weekly series, she’s better suited for generic movie parts. At least, her recent big screen efforts have been appropriately slight, and she was acceptable (if not entirely memorable) in all of them. In particular, she seemed right for the surprisingly agreeable Can’t Hardly Wait, playing the popular girl with a heart of gold. Like Sandra Bullock or even Meg Ryan before her, she seems an amiable romantic comedy heroine, though both Bullock and Ryan have considerably more range and better comic timing than Hewitt. And did I mention that she sings on almost every episode of Time of Your Life? Let’s pray she doesn’t tackle Joan of Arc any time soon.
So what should Hewitt do next when Time of Your Life is inevitably canceled? Here’s one viewer’s unsolicited career advice for Miss Hewitt:
Lay low: After your much-publicized break-up with MTV VJ, Carson Daly, your face has been everywhere, on album and magazine covers, on commercials. (You’re even the rumored inspiration for LFO’s “Girl on TV” and main squeeze for LFO’s Rich Cronin). But seeing as the publicity blitz surrounding Time of Your Life failed to generate a hit, you’d be smart to hide out for a bit to recover, or you could go from media darling to media dud.
Make an exercise video: After all, it was a Barbie aerobics video that started your career, so why not go back to your roots? You certainly have the enthusiasm to lead a corral of couch potatoes in lunges and squats, and it didn’t hurt Jenni Garth’s career or pocketbook. Alternatively, why not try that other kind of video, baring more than just your fabulous abs. Finding your inner bad girl might help combat your super-nice image.
Get some therapy: Speech therapy, that is. Sometime around your second season on PO5, you started to adopt Neve Campbell’s affected speech patterns and mannerisms. You may think that the halting, start-and-stop delivery, or pausing to think and squawk a bit, is thoughtful acting, but it really just looks constipated.
Keep it light: Let’s face it: you’re no thespian. Don’t cling desperately to your sinking credibility and try to become a Serious Actress. Sitcoms and romantic farces are more your speed. And if you must sing, take your inspiration from Britney’s teen pop anthems, not her syrupy ballads.
Go home: Swallow your pride and go back to PO5. Sure, the show’s plots are just as lame as Time of Your Life‘s, but maybe you could hook up with Griffin! You know, stripper by day, college student by night. And Daphne could befriend you (until she discovers the horrible truth). Even Claudia could feel betrayed, since she’s been carrying a torch for Griffin since she was in overalls. And then you might batter his ex-wife Julia with a copy of her own memoir. It’s high time for another major tragedy on PO5, and no one chokes back the tears like you do. Sounds like a three-hankie episode to me…
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Susan Brown teaches writing and media studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art and George Mason University. Her reviews have appeared in Washington DC’s original arts-news magazine, The Review, The Mount Vernon Gazette, and the Sun Gazette, and her poetry has appeared widely in literary journals. She is currently at work on a satirical memoir about her experiences as a writer and academic schlepping videos at Blockbuster.