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The Beautiful Life - "Pilot"

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When The CW, your network for women who increasingly resemble barn owls, sent out its pilots, it only sent out a little less than a half hour’s worth of footage from The Beautiful Life. Like a good sport, I waited around for them to air the full thing tonight before writing the show up, on the off chance that there was something in the extra minutes of footage that would drastically improve my opinion. Was there? Not really. I probably could have just written my review based off of the 20-some minutes I’d seen and called it a day, but then there would have been about 30% more of me just ranting about how stupid the title of the show is. Why on Earth did they feel the need to affix TBL to the end of the title? It makes no sense!

The Beautiful Life: TBL (grrrrr …) is a show about models and how they do things in a vacuous fashion and live in the finest parts of New York City. Also, I don’t know if you knew this, but models all live together in the same apartment building as well. And the way to become a model is to just be spotted by a ruthlessly predatory gay agent who wants you to be his man candy while you’re visiting the big city with your family from Iowa. Everyone will summarily introduce you as being “from Iowa” as well. (Actually, since Ashton Kutcher, who’s involved with the show, was a model from Iowa, maybe this is the true story of his life.) Finally, if you’re going to have “your moment,” a modeling strut so transcendent that it spurs the crowd at Fashion Week into a standing ovation, make sure not to do it when Mischa Barton is anywhere near you.

The biggest problem with The Beautiful Life is also its greatest strength. Female lead Sara Paxton is really pretty good as the model who’s everybody’s friend and is just trying to stay a nice girl while she’s having “her moment.” (Another thing I’m unclear on: Do models really get standing ovations?) She knows everybody in the building, she helps out “from Iowa” with learning the ropes, and she’s got a father who will apparently kick the ass of any man who comes on to her (she’s only 16 after all!). As Raina, Paxton is completely and utterly believable as the girl next door type she’s asked to play and is probably the best performer on any of the new CW shows this year (this sounds like damning with faint praise, but I did genuinely like Paxton).

The problem is that the whole thing just becomes ludicrous when Paxton plays Raina the model. Paxton’s tremendously beautiful, but she’s the wrong kind of beautiful to be a model, and she looks really goofy trying to do a strut down the catwalk. If the whole show is based around the idea that Raina is the next big thing in modeling AND everybody’s super best pal, it needs to work on both sides of that equation. Paxton nails the latter, but the former proves out of her reach still. Fortunately, modeling being a weak choice to build a workplace drama around, there’s little actual modeling in the pilot.

The rest of the characters are serviceable enough. Elle Macpherson is fine as Claudia, den mother to the models at the agency, and Ben Hollingsworth is all right as “from Iowa,” whose actual name is Chris, though the portrayal of his family as the worst hicksplosion this side of Hillary Swank’s family in Million Dollar Baby. Dad stiffs a waitress on a tip and wears a farmer shirt the whole time he hangs out in New York City. The rest of the models are all pretty enough, but they kind of blend together into an undistinguished mishmash of youth. Presumably, these characters will be deepened as the series rolls on, but in the pilot, they’re pretty much just there for us to look at. And since the operative motto of The CW should be “Vaguely Fun to Look At!” that will have to be enough.

But then, oh then, there is Mischa Barton as the evil and unexpectedly back from a long absence Sonja, who returns to Fashion Week, only to realize that her spotlight has been stolen by Raina, who basks in the adoration of the crowd once reserved for Sonja. Barton is not, let’s say, the world’s most capable actress, but she’s got something in her dead, dead eyes that allows her to pull off those moments when she erupts in fury at odd and awkward moments, the same kind of skill that other primetime soap queens like Joan Collins and Heather Locklear had. Those two eventually embraced their camp potential in a way that Barton has yet to, but there’s a scene where she starts breaking stuff against a wall when she gets a mysterious note that suggests she has potential to get there at some point in the future.

But liking The Beautiful Life is going to come down almost entirely to whether or not you’re predisposed to like something like this. If you enjoy borderline campy shows that try too hard to come up with soapy complications for beautiful people, you’ll probably like this quite a bit. It’s certainly a damn sight better than The CW’s remake of Melrose Place, which never quite nails the ratio of trying to be bad to being bad without really thinking about it. Paxton’s a fun presence, and the rest of the cast is all right. A lot of this is similarly going to come down to whether or not you think watching a weekly drama about the trials and tribulations of models is going to be something you’ll enjoy. I highly doubt that that’s for me, so I’m tuned out after this. But there are certainly people that’s going to work for, and maybe they’ll find something in this that I really just couldn’t.

Grade: C-

Stray observations:

  • As to the question of whether or not the full pilot improved over the presentation cut sent out to critics, well, I would have given that a D. So, yeah, it improved just a little bit. Not enough to make me recommend it or anything, but a step in the right direction, I guess.
  • That final scene where Raina and Chris seem like they’re going to sleep together and then she tells him he can sleep on the floor was trying so hard to be sexy that it really only managed to pull off vacant. I encourage the show its soapy twists, and pairing off the leads in the pilot isn’t a half bad idea, but the series seems eternally caught between trying to do something personal and soulful and trying to do something silly, and that’s what dooms it the most in the end.
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