In you the wars and the flights accumulated.
From you the wings of the song birds rose.
You swallowed everything, like distance.
Like the sea, like time. In you everything sank!
— Pablo Neruda, “Song of Despair”
My head is a box full of nothing
And that’s the way I like it
— Ben Lee, “Catch My Disease”
Johnny (Taylor Handley, formerly of The O.C.)) thinks he has it rough. His dad’s an unhappy drunk, his mom’s out who knows where. Still, the kid is pretty and blond and focused, at the moment on his math homework. Dad sits on Johnny’s bed, suggesting that he “be creative” instead of lose himself in “numbers”: “I wanted to write poems like that Pablo guy,” mourns dad, half-joking. “I gave it up though, it was a little too pansy for me.” Johnny dismisses him. And with that, dad walks into the hallway and shoots himself.
It’s hardly a new idea, to leave a teenager fatherless as he begins a new TV series. Still, Hidden Palms does linger a bit on the clean white wall behind dead dad, to make sure you note the blood. The latest creative effort by Kevin Williamson, the eight-episode series has a particular and rather bracing interest in the strange and the violent, the kind of darkness that should rightly be bothering American children — even privileged American children — living now, during wartime, as they might worry about bad choices, lost ideals, and abandoned dreams. Indeed, after his dad’s death, Johnny’s troubles only become more perverse.
The most intriguing mess doesn’t actually show up until the second episode, but tonight’s premiere sets up with allusions to mysterious death, hard-felt remorse, and erotic mystery, not to mention alcoholism, bitterness, and selfish, knotted-up parents. Johnny finds all this and more in Palm Springs, where — “One year later” — he moves with his mom Karen (excellent Gail O’Grady) and her new husband Bob (D.W. Moffett). The sun is bright, the car is shiny, and their new home looks a lot like the other homes on their new street, with perfect lawns, expensive paint jobs, and windows that offer views into other people’s lives. Johnny is aptly angry, feeling Karen has made choices without him; she’s aptly frustrated, thinking that now, she can’t possibly do right by the child she feels she’s failed.
Given the fact that he’s been conjured by the man who made both Dawson’s Creek and Scream, it’s not surprising Johnny’s both chatty and dark. Karen and Bob make brief allusions to his lost license and stint at rehab, suggesting that he handled witnessing dad’s gory demise with some appropriate measure of upset and umbrage. Mom would rather forget it and “move on,” but as she observes on their arrival in the new neighborhood, the atmosphere is oppressive: “My god, the heat!” she swoons, “I can swallow the air. It has texture.”
Scant minutes later, Johnny meets the resident embodiments of such “texture,” his sly-grinning, odiously manipulative neighbor Cliff (Michael Cassidy) (who deems Palm Springs their playground: “It’s all retired grays, gays, and streets named after dead people. People come here to die”), and the doleful, gorgeous Greta (Amber Heard). Johnny first espies her gallivanting across the golf course near the new house: it’s nighttime, the sprinklers click on, and suddenly, he’s facing a baffling la-la-la-ing nymphet version of Michelle Williams, both more disturbed and (seemingly) less grim. You see the ill boding here, even if Johnny prefers to miss it. Worse, you’re aware of his soundtrack — which includes Coldplay, Ben Lee, and KT Tunstall, the sort of mournful, self-absorbed, and longing music that makes his pain seem attractively acute. Worse, The Club plays Fergie. Ouch.
In between songs, Greta and Cliff refer cryptically to now-dead Eddie, whose erstwhile bedroom is now Johnny’s. (Bob swears it was just a “mistake” that he took the house without informing Karen or Johnny of this detail or the next dropped shoe, that Eddie killed himself in that very room: really, Bob protests, he only meant well.) While Cliff suggests that Eddie, his onetime best friend (before Johnny, whom he adopts pretty much on sight), was Greta’s boyfriend. “She never liked me much,” he sniffs, just before he complains to his mother Tess (Sharon Lawrence) that he shouldn’t have to be doing make-work yard-work because, he nearly yawns, “José can do this, mom.” Yes you get it: Cliff is deplorable (and in case you miss it here, he kicks a dog later).
Johnny appreciates hanging with the ostensible cool kid, but he does have other “outlets,” including photography. You imagine this will lead to revelations, however inadvertent, down the road, but for now, the camera grants him access to Greta, who initially takes exception to his ogling her through his lens at The Club pool. Her revenge is clever, sort of, in that she absconds with the camera in order to load it with her own versions of herself, making faces, posing pertly or seductively. This is a girl who knows how to use herself, which doesn’t exactly explain her apparent and discomforting obligation to Cliff, or even her attraction to Johnny. “You’re extremely honest,” she declares, “I like that.”
Even if he is deemed desirable just because he is the “new kid,” as too-cute Michelle (Dana Davis) puts it, or because he’s nearby, as noted by his chemistry-experimenting next door neighbor Liza (Ellary Porterfield), Johnny is probably most attractive because of his patent vulnerability. The other kids try to get him drinking right away (during a party at The Club where the adults are busy getting wasted in their own area). But Johnny, being Dawsonish — observant, “creative,” ambitious in spite of himself — tends to hold back. He has incentives. For one, his rehab girlfriend Nikki (Tessa Thompson) arrives just in time to remark the perverse wealth and indolence of his new neighbors (“The sun,” she sighs, “it attracts all you crazy white people”), then promptly makes a saddish spectacle of herself (by near-unconsciousness followed by puking in a bucket, then laments, “It’s easier to drink, it’s better”). And for another, at his first local AA meeting, Johnny meets a watchful fairy godmother, Jesse Jo (Leslie Jordan). Whether in drag or no, Jesse Jo offers up all kinds of sage advice, including the expected (stay away from Cliff) and the wry (“Startin’ over’s a bitch”).
Plainly, Johnny is in need of steering: he misses the rain in Seattle, his dad generally, and whatever friends he might have had before he got sober. “I’m too young to be an alcoholic,” he complains to Jesse Jo. “That’s what kids my age do, drink.” Yeah, and, in Williamson’s universe, speak in witty aphorisms, resent their neurotic parents, and look terrific in swimsuits. In this version, they also grapple with death, addiction, and guilt. They’re too grown up and too young at the same time.