South Beach

[25 January 2006]

By Mary Colgan


“South Beach will eat you alive,” hotel owner Elizabeth (Vanessa Williams) warns Arielle (Odette Yustman). Determined to beat the odds, the naïve model from Brooklyn steps onto the catwalk, “fierce” and slo-mo in her exquisite dress. Like The O.C.‘s Ryan, however, she can’t quite leave her underclass roots behind. Before she makes it offstage, ex-boyfriend Matt (Marcus Coloma) gets into a gun fight with a Cuban gangster’s mutinous bodyguard.

Executive produced by J-Lo, the inconsequential South Beach focuses on the experiences of Arielle, Matt, and Matt’s party-boy best friend Vincent (Chris J. Johnson). The boys drive down to Miami in the first episode (“I Always Tell the Truth Even When I Lie”), Vincent in search of opportunity (“What am I gonna do, work for my uncle’s restaurant the rest of my life?”), Matt because he’s hung up on Ari (plus, his loser dad gambled away his college money).

Clearly out of place in their primary-colored t-shirts (everyone else wears bikinis and light-colored suits, à la Miami Vice), Matt and Vincent must quickly prove their worth. At Nocturnal, Elizabeth’s hotel and nightclub, Matt yanks an agitated customer off of her, slamming the bigger man against a wall. “Where’d you learn to handle yourself like that?” Elizabeth wonders. “Brooklyn,” Matt says with a shrug. She gives him a job: “Matt, I hired you to put out the fires. Slide down the pole.”

As South Beach is a witless O.C. copy, it follows that Matt’s tendency to get into scuffles is a product of his poverty, creating friction with the mama’s boys who disdain him. “We don’t want your Brooklyn BS down here,” says Elizabeth’s son and Ari’s new boyfriend Alex (Lee Thompson Young).

But Vincent is the real troublemaker. Within days of his arrival in South Beach, he attracts the attention of shady, Santeria-practicing Robert Fuentes (Giancarlo Esposito) when he rats out the man’s bodyguard (Ray Hernandez) for scheming to betray him. Fuentes tosses the bodyguard’s corpse off his yacht and offers Vincent a job fetching sandwiches and allergy medicine. “A step up for you!” Matt teases, though his own job is equally ridiculous.

Little do they know they’re now in competition, as Fuentes, a minority owner in Elizabeth’s business, wants to take over. This conflict is the show’s most engaging element, if only because it means more screen time for Williams and Esposito. Despite their goofy dialogue, steely-eyed Elizabeth solicits sympathy in the third episode, “I Want What’s Coming to Me,” when she expresses her fear of losing the hotel: “This is my security; it’s who I am. I made myself.”

The 20-somethings are as yet unmade, looking for lines to cross or toe. Matt declines to wear the suits Elizabeth provides; Ari refuses to disrobe at a photo shoot: “This is how you get to the top. You can only sleep your way to the middle,” her friend Brianna (Adrianne Palicki) warns. Vincent seems more amenable to using his clothes (or lack of them) to get what he wants, exchanging his t-shirts for button-downs that flutter prettily in the breeze. The quintessential wacky sidekick, Vincent dives into the South Beach scene, literally: upon arrival, he instantly strips and beelines into the ocean.

While Matt and Ari hang onto their ideals, Vincent agrees with Brianna that the only way to succeed is to go for broke. “South Beach has the most beautiful coat-check girls in the world,” Brianna says of the many failed models. The newbies’ quests to “find themselves” are as unremarkable as their dialogue. “What’s that supposed to mean?” everyone asks everyone else. “Breaking up with you was the biggest mistake I ever made,” claims more than one jilted lover.

As such observations suggest, they also frequently engage in soapy exploits. A strung-out model (Melissa Keller) tries to steal Alex from Ari. The same troublesome model steals a rapper’s (Pitbull) prized possession, a medallion containing the bullet that nearly killed him (“The police have bigger things to worry about than some rapper’s bling,” Elizabeth points out). A dirty cop (Steven Bauer) blackmails Elizabeth into letting him use her club to drink and cavort with underage girls for free. Despite the seeming scandal and sensationalism, these events end up being bland and unmemorable.

To glue everything together, the show provides many sweeping shots of glorious blue water and dripping, bikini-clad girls lifted out of the waves by their bulging-armed boyfriends. If nothing else, seeing the shining expanse of the ocean is a calming break from the incessant calamity. Three hours into this show (including the two-hour premiere), it already seems to have run its course. Despite the many hard bodies on display, South Beach is flabby.

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