Jane By Design debuts tonight on ABC Family at 9 p.m. Eastern.
No critic likes to admit that they sometimes grade certain shows on a curve, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a soft spot for ABC Family series. I know they’re not high art – with the exception being The Middleman, which was genius – but for the most part, they’re not trying to be. The truth of the matter is that the network has carved itself a niche, producing light entertainment that easily-pleased teenagers enjoy and many of their parents embrace as good guilty-pleasure fun. Admittedly, their hour-longs may take place in a vaguely rose-colored world that only slightly resembles reality, but as a rule, if you adopt the right mindset (hint: it usually involves upping up your suspension of disbelief a bit), you’ll find that there are a lot worse ways to spend sixty minutes than watching an episode of an ABC Family series.
With that said, however, they’ve generally offered up material that’s a bit easier to love than Jane by Design, which inspires lots of comparisons – Ugly Betty and The Devil Wears Prada are the two most notable, with possibly a hint of Pretty in Pink – but has precious little identity of its own.
The pilot begins with a voiceover from our would-be heroine, Jane Quimby, played by Erica Dasher, who you may remember – though you probably won’t – from her work in the 2009 web series The Lake. First we see a glimpse of Jane dressed to the nines and strolling through the streets of the big city, followed immediately thereafter by a shot of her pulling up to her high school in a crappy old car. “Career girl in high fashion or dateless high school zero?” asks Jane. “You be the judge.”
Sitting in the passenger seat is Jane’s best friend Billy Nutter (Nicholas Roux), who looks to be an unholy genetic fusing between Aaron Paul and French Stewart. It isn’t immediately clear if he’s her gay best friend or not, but since a later scene at a party confirms that, in fact, he’s actually straight, it’s pretty much a given that he’ll eventually realize that he has feelings for her. Maybe in the season finale. For now, though, we’re just supposed to accept that they’re friends, they’re both social misfits, and of the two of them, she’s more interested in crawling her way up the ladder of popularity. This is why I cited Pretty in Pink as a point of reference a few paragraphs back, but I’d argue that you can also see it in the fact that Jane’s home life features an MIA mother and a parental figure – in this case her older brother, Ben, played by David Rogers – who’s struggling to find work.
In an effort to expand her future career possibilities while possibly also upping her hipness quotient, Jane decides to pursue an internship with the Donovan Decker fashion house, but due to a plot-convenient office mishap, she ends up being offered a position as the executive assistant to the firm’s resident style guru, Gray Chandler Murray, played by Andie MacDowell, the poor thing. (What, like every single critic isn’t going to mention that she’s unabashedly cribbing from Meryl Streep’s performance as Miranda Priestly in Prada?) Although Jane is just on the verge of clarifying the mistake that’s been made, she finds it remarkably easy to hold her tongue when Gray drops the bombshell that the starting annual salary for this part-time position is $32K. After learning that her brother is desperately behind in their bill-paying, Jane decides to seek Billy’s assistance in forging the appropriate documents to get her in the door and start work at Donovan Decker.
Jane by Design quickly settles into the formula that we will undoubtedly see continue in subsequent episodes, with Jane struggling to separate her high-school life from the big-city business world even as they unabashedly parallel each other. At school, she battles against the bitchy Lulu (Megan Tandy), who’s regularly having secret liaisons with Billy. At work, she battles against the bitchy India (India de Beaufort), who’s regularly trying to abscond with Gray’s glory. At school, the hunky Nick (Matthew Atkinson) is beginning to notice her. At work, debonair Brit Jeremy Jones (Rowly Dennis) has begun to fancy her.
How can you take a show seriously when it dares to offer a musical montage as Jane tries on various outfits during a stopover at Gray’s place? The answer is that you can’t and shouldn’t. Jane by Design is sewn from bargain-basement material, constantly borrowing without offering the least bit of originality. Maybe they’ll make more out of the premise as the season progresses, but at the moment it’s coasting on the charm of its lead. While Dasher is as cute as they come and certainly easy enough to watch, there’s too many other viewing alternatives to keep viewers coming back strictly for her.