Summerland

[21 March 2005]

By Samantha Bornemann

Full Beach House

Ava: You want me to choose, don’t you? Between you, Susannah, Jay, and Johnny.
Simon: The thing is, uh, Ava, I kinda thought you already had, when you asked me to marry you.
—“Pick Nik”

Johnny: Bradin, Ava wants this. She wants you guys to be a family—you guys and Simon. She told us that.
Bradin: Oh, and that’s all that matters? What Aunt Ava wants?
—“Pick Nik”

Summerland and Everwood share the same timeslot: while the latter is on break, the former is its midseason replacement. But while both series work from the same premise—parents die, leaving their kids to previously self-absorbed guardians—in practice, they’re as disparate as cardboard and flesh and blood. Nearly three seasons into Everwood, the death of Julia Brown continues to haunt her family. By contrast, Summerland orphaned the Westerly kids to set up a wacky living situation. It’s Full House repopulated with fewer comedians and more buff bods.

You might argue that star and co-creator Lori Loughlin is only working with what she knows. The former Aunt Becky repositions herself as Aunt Ava, a struggling fashion designer who left rural Kansas for California when she was 17 and now lives on the beach with three friends: business partner Susannah (Merrin Dungey, again wasted as the sassy black voice of reason), former lover Johnny (Shawn Christian, dark-haired and goofy in the Stamos mold), and Jay (Ryan Kwanten), a Zen-spouting, surf-loving Aussie transplant. Theirs was a life of tail- and dream-chasing (Ava says, “In my next life I’m gonna come back as somebody who always knows where her checkbook is”), until Ava’s sister and brother-in-law died while sandbagging a flooded river. The housemates flew to Kansas for the funeral and returned (much to their surprise) with three kids in tow.

Thereafter, it was tag-team parenting to the rescue. Thirteen-year-old Nikki (Kay Panabaker, Angel‘s girl in the white room) clashed, then bonded with Susannah, while 16-year-old Bradin (Jesse McCartney) took up surfing with Jay and Jay’s on-and-off girlfriend, Erika (Taylor Cole), and nine-year-old Derrick (Nicholas J. Benson) turned to Johnny for fatherly guidance.

Their aunt, on the other hand, fretted. Could she really handle raising these three kids? Was she the worst guardian in the world? Would she ever be able to make a single decision at all? For the answers to all these questions, Ava looked—incessantly—to her friends. As portrayed by Loughlin, Ava most resembles a very stoned deer in the headlights. While she’s at ease with the comedic bits, the series’ penchant for filtery close-ups ostensibly lingering on the unspoken emotion of her new life do the actress no favors. When the storytelling gets serious or maudlin (and this happens at minimum once an episode), the focus on Ava’s indecision makes her more annoying than sympathetic.

Now, however, she has managed to make one big, misguided decision. Convinced that Johnny would never be ready for a long-term commitment, Ava agreed to marry Dr. Simon O’Keefe (Jay Harrington, in recovery from NBC’s Coupling), the principal at Nikki’s school. And he’s fine. Uptight but kind, well-meaning, just the sort of stable influence Ava thinks she needs to install in her niece and nephews’ lives. But if the kids get an official surrogate father, what does that mean for the rest of the pitch-in parents living on the premises?

For the series it means more sets, more guest stars and more stories outside the beachhouse. Kicked out by Ava (“You’re not dependable, Johnny. You never have been and you never will be”), Johnny now crashes at the new restaurant he’s fixing up. Free of Loughlin’s frozen gaze, Christian now has to contend—briefly—with the quiet-loud-quiet-loud line readings of Carmen Electra, guest-starring as his hot, angry, not-so-silent partner in the restaurant. Jay is still learning—he spouts babble about the child becoming the teacher—through his mentorship of Bradin and wrestling with his on-and-off affair with Erika. Meanwhile, Susannah’s plans to leave for a fast-track job in New York fell through when her employer was charged with fraud. But hers wasn’t a real storyline: the action was largely off-screen, the drama largely Ava’s (her friend was abandoning her, boo-hoo). Several episodes into the second season, Summerland has yet to find much for Dungey to do.

The series counts Aaron Spelling and E. Duke Vincent as executive producers, and, like their nauseating Seventh Heaven, I>Summerland is a family show. This means all the kids get their own storylines, and while they aren’t as stilted and laughable as the Camdens, neither are they as talented as the kids Greg Berlanti found for Everwood and Jack & Bobby. Bradin falls for the wrong girls, dabbles with drugs and alcohol, and goes to great lengths to impress the surf team, while type-A Nikki struggles to fit in at her status-conscious new school, first coaxing Cameron (Zac Efron) to run for office, then stepping into the campaign herself. Derrick is most preoccupied with his home life. Caught fighting at school after a classmate mocked him for having no dad to participate in a father-son event, his teacher calls every number on the contact list: Ava, Simon, and the tag team all show up to save the day.

But Derrick wants a family, not a posse, to raise him. While he might get the (second) dad he’s hoping for, odds are good it won’t be Simon. The ballad of Johnny and Ava is clearly destined to stretch on for the duration of the series. This particular bout of TV UST (unresolved sexual tension) strikingly resembles that of Dawson‘s Pacey and Joey. Johnny obviously adores Ava, but buys into her suspicion that he’s unworthy, or unreliable, and she, like the frustrating Ms. Potter before her, mistrusts an attraction she can’t be 100% certain won’t make a fool out of her. To convince us that Ava is worth pining for, Christian is doing all the heavy lifting. Just as a near-village has signed on to raise the Westerly kids, it will take a sizable cast to breathe life into Loughlin’s treacly drama.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/summerland-2005/