The CW didn’t have much success with its reboot of Melrose Place, which tried to recreate a winning combination of absurdly good-looking people getting involved in hilariously melodramatic situations while pretending to hold down ordinary occupations in a sun-drenched corner of the real world. The L.A. Complex, which premièred in Canada before making the leap to the United States and the network that Chuck Bass and Sam and Dean Winchester call home, has a setup that’s partway between a parody of Melrose Place and a reality check. The central characters all live in a seedy motel complex, and all of them are absurdly good-looking aspiring actors, comedians, dancers, musicians—in short, the kind of people one imagines dreaming of working on a show like Melrose Place.
The luckiest is Connor (Jonathan Patrick Moore), a nice-guy hunk who has landed the lead role in a new TV series, a Grey’s Anatomy-type hospital sudser. “Luck” is the operative word, because Connor got the job strictly on the basis of his looks. He doesn’t know that, of course, and that’s not how the people who hired him would put it, but even Connor becomes suspicious when the show goes into production and he sees the blood drain from the director’s face once the young actor starts delivering his lines. TV is full of people who, on the basis of their genetic inheritance, have suddenly found themselves bumped way above their competence level, so it’s about time we had a TV hero with that very problem who dares us to feel his pain.
Connor is Australian, which makes him unusual in the Los Angeles entertainment industry. To judge from this show, most of the people there are Canadian. The ingenue, Abby (played by Cassie Steele, whose music career in her native land and her role in Degrassi: The Next Generation practically make her the real-world equivalent of Robin Scherbatsky), snuck over here from the Great White North and has trouble keeping herself in odd jobs between acting gigs because she is, as she herself puts it—no doubt to Lou Dobbs’ confusion—“an illegal alien.” When we first see the character, she’s on the phone, talking to her boyfriend in Toronto, telling him about how great things are going while she’s breaking into her former landlord’s apartment so she can collect the belongings that he has confiscated in lieu of unpaid rent.
Through a complicated chain of circumstances, this homeless, penniless, soon-to-be-boyfriendless baby bird is scooped up and delivered to the motel complex by Nick (Joe Dinicol), a fumbling stand-up comedian whose romantic history consists of having inspired one girl after another to say, “Wait, what are you doing?” as he moves in for a kiss. Naturally, Nick immediately develops a crush on Abby, and he earns his place in the Hopeless Nerds’ Hall of Fame by almost as immediately introducing her to Connor. Before you know it, Abby and Connor are up on the roof, getting to know each other better, and after a romantic dawn spent watching the sun come up and trading assurances that each has recently been tested for STDs, Abby is off to another audition. Every minute spent in Los Angeles is a learning experience for Abby, and this is the day she learns why you shouldn’t take the morning-after pill shortly before being asked by your “favorite director” to dazzle him with your slow, searching, piano-driven rendition of “Takin’ Care Of Business.” “There’s an old saying in show business,” the director tells her gently. “When there’s vomit on the piano, it’s time to stop the audition.”
Part of the good news about The L.A. Complex is that, though a few ringers do slip through, most of what’s funny about the show is funny on purpose. And though there’s a well-worn quality to many of the characters and the predicaments they find themselves in, there are enough solidly observed elements to make the show feel fresh. For instance, Nick isn’t the usual braying, oblivious jackass that TV shows usually serve up when an unfunny comedian is needed. He’s an intelligent guy who’s very funny in conversation. (Explaining why he owes a favor to another resident of the complex, Tariq, he says that Tariq got him backstage passes to see Lupe Fiasco so he could impress a girl; it worked so well that the girl wound up having sex with Lupe Fiasco “while I was trying to figure out where backstage was.”) But he doesn’t know yet how to transfer his natural gifts and point of view to what he does onstage, so he’s embarrassing himself at open-mic nights doing elaborately worked-out absurdist bits that aren’t funny and make no sense. In one of the high points of the first episode, he does his act in front of a crowd that includes Paul F. Tompkins and Mary Lynn Rajskub, playing themselves as smart-ass vipers. (When Nick tells Rajskub that he tells everybody how much he loves her routine about dating Rush Limbaugh, she says indignantly, “That’s a Mary Lynn Rajskub story!” and pretends to be Sarah Silverman.)
Part of what’s refreshing about the show is how, even while siding with the new kids in town, it puts a human face on the established order. Tompkins and Rajskub aren’t presented as the kind of gorgons who used to pop up in backstage musicals (and whose descendants are still doing watered-down versions of their old act in something like Smash), meanies who are stamping on the fingers of the talented new kids trying to follow them up the ladder. They’re professionals who care about the state of their craft; as bad as Nick is when they see him perform, they have every right to be horrified at the thought that this little piss-take thinks he deserves to be in the same business as them. Tariq (Benjamin Charles Watson), who works as an all-purpose assistant for a rap mogul named Dynasty (Dayo Ade) has a firmer grip on his own talent, but his earliest attempts to jump the turnstile are almost as off-putting. Urging his boss to listen to his beats, he says, “You hired me because I’m good,” and is told, “We chose you at random from a stack of packages.” He compounds the felony by getting Dynasty to agree to listen to one of his tracks, only to have the great man turn it off in disgust when it opens with an overfamiliar sample. “Two seconds later,” insists Tariq, “I do something really good.” “Well,” says Dynasty, “maybe that’s where you should have started the track, ’cause all I heard was the derivative part.” Hard to find the false premise in that argument.
The show’s standout performance comes from Jewel Staite, playing a character who bridges the worlds of the newbies and the old-timers. She’s Raquel, an actress who once starred in a TV series that now has a rabid cult following but that was just another cancelled ratings disappointment in its day, and is now staring down the barrel at her 30th birthday with a career that’s been stalled for 10 years. Eventually, her agency drops her, citing her failure to work, which is partly due to her having taken their advice to pass up a series of tacky offers that they felt would be “bad for the brand.” Shocked and angry, the best she can do for a parting shot is, “You know what? I would’ve tore up Sharktopus! A lot of people watch those things.” Staite is irresistible; even when her character lets her bitterness get the better of her, the cold, sarcastic lines are like ice cubes that sparkle when the sweet, carbonated fizz of her voice pours over them, and she does double takes without even moving her head. (Her eyes ricochet around in her face as if trying to find the right person she can ask, “Can you believe the crazy shit I just said!?”)
At the risk of indulging in Candian stereotypes, The L.A. Complex has a sane, humane attitude toward the scene it takes in that’s rare in American TV shows about show business—never mind ones on The CW. And even when the writing slips, the actors are sometimes able to shore it back up. The second episode introduces Andra Fuller as a rap star who’s outgrown his thug-life past but can’t figure out how to keep his career going without referring back to it. At first, the character seems like a cliche, but Fuller manages to draw you in so that you may be willing to believe that it’s the rapper himself who’s acting like a cliché to keep the world outside from getting a look at his more sensitive places. The L.A. Complex doesn’t always ring true, but it’s frequently fun.