Eastwick - "Pilot"

Eastwick debuts at 10 p.m. EDT tonight on ABC.

I’m kind of a sucker for small town shows. I like the idea of losing myself once a week in a little hamlet where everyone cares for each other and the scenery is constantly picturesque. Even better is if the town is in some gorgeous corner of the country like New England. I’m also a general fan of shows with a lot of mystical hoo-hah in them. I like shows that toss in science fiction or fantasy elements out of nowhere, and I have a high tolerance for things like forced whimsy or aliens who stare poignantly at the camera. Also, I rather like John Updike, and I can tolerate a surprisingly high level of forced goofiness and soap opera convention.

So, yeah, I should have liked Eastwick a lot more than I did. Indeed, there were times throughout the episode when I could feel myself giving in to its high spirits (ha ha). It’s a small town show about witches (thank God they’re not vampires) who do not know their own power. At the same time, the ultimate incarnation of malevolence has moved into town and intersected with their lives in winningly predictable ways. The town’s setting is the sort of gentle New England hamlet that exists only on television, and even the establishing shots of the coastline aim for a sort of affected charm that almost works in spite of itself. If you were going to break this down into an equation, it would be Gilmore Girls, added to Charmed, divided by Desperate Housewives. Now, I didn’t like Charmed, and I quickly lost interest in Housewives, but I loved Gilmore Girls, and there’s enough of that in Eastwick that the series almost won me over.

The problems with Eastwick can probably be best summed up by breaking the major cast members exactly in half. For the most part, the supporting and bit players here are well-chosen. You’ve got Veronica Cartwright dropping in from the film version of Updike’s Witches of Eastwick as an old woman in tune with the weird nature of the universe named Bun (yes, really, Bun). Steven Hytner turns up as a boobs-obsessed newspaper editor. And America’s favorite funny best friend Sara Rue is here as yet another funny best friend who isn’t awesome enough to get the guy on her own, a part she’s always cast in but one that she always nails. Really, the only dud here is Jon Bernthal as one of the prospective witch’s husband, a drunken, unemployed guy who’s still kind of a good guy underneath it all but one with a very, very over-the-top Boston accent.

But in the four main players, you have some problems. Jaime Ray Newman (an actress who’s new to me) and Lindsay Price (who’s turned up in guest starring roles on everything from Kitchen Confidential to How I Met Your Mother) are really solid as the stressed out, overworked mom Kat and the shy newspaper reporter in need of a spark of confidence Joanna respectively. Newman, in particular, manages to pull off the tricky balancing act of over-stressed, slightly snippy and essentially winning that it takes to pull off yet another variation on a working mother up to her neck in kids (five, in this case). She even sells two moments when her words seem to become reality. Price has a lot of fun with the idea that her timid character has some amount of power over the men in her life, so long as she learns how to harness it properly, and she plays both halves of her character with an over-the-top zest that a goofy soap like this really requires.

Rebecca Romijn, however, is just trying too hard to fit in with the tone here as town gossip magnet (and possible psychic) Roxy. Romijn has had her moments in the past, but she keeps trying to break into TV as a goofy comedienne, and her stature as a ridiculously good-looking blonde woman keeps her from ever quite pulling it off. She was too aloof on Ugly Betty, and she never quite calmed down enough to make Pepper Dennis work. Here, she’s asked to play a lot of notes from witchcraft enabler to concerned mother to woman trying to resist the temptation of a guy she knows is bad for her, and she never quite manages the leap from one persona to the other. Since so much of the pilot is focused on her character, this proves problematic to establishing a tone.

The other problem is the usually wonderful Paul Gross as Darryl Van Horne, who may or may not be, y’know, the devil. Gross was terrific on the underseen Canadian series Slings and Arrows, and he does his best at selling an underwritten role here, but in the end, he’s just not so staggeringly charismatic that you buy that his mere presence in Eastwick causes the whole town to go nuts. Gross does affable charm very, very well, but he doesn’t quite project the element of sexual danger that Van Horne needs to really work as a character. The scenes featuring him aren’t bad, exactly (though it is funny to hear him try to keep his Canadian accent out of the proceedings), but they often seem as though he’s trying to save them solely by growling. It also doesn’t help that Jack Nicholson played the part in the film, and everyone seems to be trying to both pay homage to him and tiptoe around the fact that Gross is not him.

Despite all of this, there’s a lot to like about Eastwick. There aren’t a lot of small town shows on the air right now, and it’s nice to get lost in one for the hour of the pilot, even if the storytelling won’t strike anyone as especially innovative. The whole thing is attractively filmed by TV journeyman director David Nutter, and Maggie Friedman’s pilot script has a few funny lines, even if the show has a tendency to bury them under a big helping of wacky music or over-the-top delivery, as though to make sure we know that we’re watching something hilarious. And the concept at the heart of the show is so strong – three witches wreak havoc on their small town almost without knowing it – that I’m fairly certain this will eventually develop into something that expresses its genre well enough.

But the overall sense one gets is that this is a pretty fun little pilot that still is trying way, way too hard. At every turn, where the show could go for understated, it ladles on the cues meant to tell us how to feel about things. At any time where there could be some subtlety in the storytelling, the series heads, instead, for spelling everything out as concretely as possible. And the whole storyline feels oddly rushed. Late in the episode, Roxy has two scenes meant to establish some mystery bump right up against each other that might have worked better with more space between them to give us time to really let the revelation sink in. Similarly, Kat’s storyline zooms along so quickly that it almost seems as though she won’t have anywhere to go in future weeks, even if Newman is selling every barely motivated character shift as the episode goes along. That sense that the show is ditching the necessary character building moments in favor of getting to “the good stuff” pervades throughout. Need three women who are total strangers to become instantaneous friends? Just shrug your shoulders and say they get drunk together one night. There’s fun stuff in Eastwick, and I’m sure I’ll be back for a handful of additional episodes, but the show needs to get a handle on what it thinks it is.

Grade: C+

Stray observation:

  • Though I’ve never read the book and am basing all of my opinions of its storyline on the movie trailer I watched over and over as a kid, this series has convinced me Stephen King’s Needful Things might make a good series. Who’s with me?
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