We watch... so you don't have to.

Fall '01: "Pasadena"

There was a time when I used to know one or two things. Not earth-shattering things, not the sort of stuff that greases the wheels for your Mensa application or gets universities to name lecture halls after your. But things -- little tidbits of data, a lot of trivia, one or two examples of practical knowledge or logical deduction. Just enough to go to parties and receptions and church socials and give the impression I've read a book or two.

I can name every World Series winner since 1946, for instance. And if you spot me a mulligan or two, I can probably go all the way back to 1903. I can draw the contiguous United States from memory. I can chat in a somewhat informed manner about recent advances in biotech. I know how to cook a duck.

Or, at least, I used to know all of that. Then I made the mistake of tuning in to watch Pasadena one evening. And all of those things I thought I knew -- everything I accepted as a known quantity, as an unassailable fact -- have scattered to the four corners of the earth. The World Series winners since when? The contiguous United what? Bio-who? You want me to do what with that duck?

Who are you? Why are you talking to me? My God -- where are my pants?

I'm a relatively educated man -- dumber than some, smarter than others -- but watching an hour of Pasadena proved to be beyond the scope of my cognitive powers. What happened on the episode I watched? Beats me. Any memorable lines or plot twists? All signs point to no. And just what is Pasadena about, anyway? About 60 minutes long, when you include the commercials.

But that's not what you were asking, was it?

Actually, Pasadena is about rich, powerful people who run a newspaper -- and as a fellow who's spent the last seven years of his professional life in the newspaper business, I can point out two adjectives that are wrong with that sentence. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald before it, Pasadena posits that the rich are different from you and me. Which is true, if you and I are willing to accept the premise that the rich are staggeringly dull.

From what I can gather from frantic phone calls to colleagues, fruitless Internet searches, and my startlingly illegible notes, Pasadena focuses on the Greeley family of the eponymous Southern California municipality. Old Man Greeley runs the newspaper, which he's about to turn over to his son-in-law instead of his wastrel son. Instead of forcing the son to count the cost of his profligate ways, the old man's slight only encourages him to add scheming and conniving to his to-do list, right after whore-mongering. There's another son who's a pill-popping, powder-sniffing goober and a daughter who's a no-talent artist of some sort. Meanwhile, the newspaper-inheriting son-in-law has been stepping out on his wife, played by Dana Delany -- no doubt hard at work on "My Baffling Career Decisions, Volume Two: The Post-'Tombstone' Years." Dana and her adulterous spouse have two teen-aged children -- a son, who's something of a load, and a daughter, who spends most of her time hanging out her eight-kinds-of-horny Lolita-esque classmate. The rest of time, the daughter hangs out with a mysterious mope of a kid named Henry who's come to Pasadena looking for his mother, who may or may not have some sort of connection to the Dana Delany character.

Got all that? You're one up on me then.

If Pasadena sounds like one of those rich-people-are-so-naughty prime-time soaps in the Dynasty or Dallas vein, give yourself only half-credit. Those shows were fun to watch, in a guilty pleasure sort of way. There's no pleasure in Pasadena, and not much in the way of guilt, either. It's just a forced march of tedium.

And that's simply baffling since Pasadena is created by Mike White, who wrote a very good movie called "Chuck and Buck" as well as a couple of Freaks and Geeks episodes. In the coverage leading up to Pasadena's premiere, White talked about sitting the prime-time soap genre on its ear by making his show creepy and dark and edgy.

Well, I'm on edge after watching Pasadena. But I don't think that's what the creative team had in mind.

Maybe we live in an era in which it's hard to shock anybody anymore. Maybe, when the best shows on TV in recent years have included domesticated mobsters and vampire-slaying coeds, one man's edgy is another man's Full House. Or maybe I'm just a dimwitted square. But Pasadena feels about as creepy and dark to me as "Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas" and that latter show at least combines muppets with holiday fun for the entire family.

Part of the problem, of course, is that I caught up with Pasadena three episodes into its run on Fox, instead of watching it steadfastly from the very first shot. Anytime you come in on a show mid-plot arc, there's bound to be some confusion, especially when there's 124 characters and two-thirds of them are named Greeley. But other shows -- Twin Peaks, say, or even X-Files -- have faced the same sort of constraints, and they didn't have much trouble attracting viewers who missed the debut episodes. The reason? They offered interesting characters, compelling stories and a coherent narrative -- Pasadena is 0-for-3 in that regard.

So if you've watched Pasadena from the get-go, you certainly don't need me to tell you whether the show is worth your while or not. Unless the endorsement of total strangers is important to you, you're capable of deciding if the show is worth a weekly hour of your time on your own. And if you haven't caught a minute of Pasadena yet, it doesn't make much sense to start now. It'll only make your head hurt.

While I can't make a recommendation one way or the other in regard to Pasadena, I feel like I won't be doing my job properly if I don't offer some sort definitive opinion, even if it's only about a tangentially related topic. So I'd like to spend the remainder of this review talking about my favorite restaurants in the greater Pasadena area.

In Old Town Pasadena, there's a cafe whose name escapes me at the moment that offers some of the finest Middle Eastern cuisine I've ever enjoyed. I went there once on a date with a lady who described herself as "90 percent vegetarian." I recommend the lamb because a) it's delicious and b) it gets a cheap rise out of your 90-percent vegetarian date when you explain that you find cute animals "particularly tasty."

The Steak 'N Stein is just up the 210 Freeway in Altadena (Memo to Fox: How's about a prime-time soap about crazy, scheming middle class people called "Altadena?" You've got my number). The Steak 'N Stein serves a mean prime rib and a baked potato the size of your head. The waitresses also dress like the St. Pauli Girl, which adds more to the dining experience than you might imagine.

Finally, there's Damon's, which is a long par-five away from Pasadena in Glendale. Damon's sports a South Pacific decor, a clientele comprised almost entirely of Korean War veterans and the best mai tais you will ever be privileged to imbibe.

You'll need about four of them if you plan on making it through an episode of Pasadena with your five wits intact.


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