Every once in a while, TV critics thirsting for something new and different seem to descend upon a chosen TV series like wildebeests around a watering hole. Two years ago, it was "Twin Peaks." Last season, "Northern Exposure" caught on. This summer, the sexy CBS series "Grapevine" has stirred up unusual interest.
When "Grapevine" premiered on Monday night two weeks ago, critics treated the sophisticated romantic anthology like a child prodigy with naughty personal habits. Although they shamed "Grapevine" for its obsession with sex and hot bodies, they praised the intelligent conversation and dizzying, talking-heads format, which packs twice as much dialogue as most half-hour series.
" 'Grapevine' is rock-the-boat television more likely to leave you moonstruck than seasick--fresh and brash and giddy, and almost like being in love," wrote Tom Shales of the Washington Post.
"It's a fun sitcom, a transcendental experience, even indescribable. Actually I'm lost for words," Marvin Kitman of Newsday wrote.
So what has critics tongue-tied?
"I think the show stirs an erotic response in a lot of viewers," said creator and executive producer David Frankel, 33, who came up with the idea for "Grapevine" while having dinner at a restaurant with some friends, who were all gossiping about a couple that wasn't present.
"It doesn't depict anything particularly erotic," Frankel said. "But because of its intimacy and the directness of the language and the voyeuristic quality of the story lines, people get turned on. And I think it's surprising to see something on network television that turns you on."
It's too early to tell whether "Grapevine" is turning viewers on the way it is critics. In the choice 9:30 time period behind "Murphy Brown," "Grapevine" made the Top 10 in its first week, but the ratings dipped about 10% for the second installment.
Here's the show's set-up: Three young, strikingly beautiful friends living in Miami--a cruise-line executive (Lynn Clark), an upscale restaurateur (Jonathan Penner) and a caddish TV sportscaster (Steven Eckholdt)--provide the framework for a host of equally stunning guest stars to dance in and out of.
Each week, the guest stars take center stage, acting out lustful stories of lost virginity, extramarital affairs, love with an older woman. The stories are told in rapid-fire sound bites, with characters ranging from friends to neighbors to family members facing the camera giving their version of an event, as light, jazzy music plays in the background.
"She dieted for a year," the cruise-line executive said in the first episode, referring to the evening's subject, a former fat girl who had slimmed down to a fox. "I don't know how she stayed motivated."
Cut to the fox: "I wanted to lose my virginity."
And so it goes. Those cascading snippets of gossip are intercut with brief dramatic scenes, played out by the cast, to illustrate the narrative. Overall, the 22-minute "Grapevine" episodes feature between 30 and 35 different scenes, compared to less than a dozen on other sitcoms.
The staccato style employed by Frankel--who was also behind the irreverent CBS sitcom "Doctor, Doctor"--was heavily influenced by music videos, TV commercials and nightly newscasts. "That's just the way that most of the best of television is presented to the viewer today--very fast, short, sexy, vivid shots and scenes," Frankel said.
The sum effect is something like watching an MTV video with words instead of music. Or a wildlife documentary on speed where the subject is the unnatural mating behavior of American yuppies.
"I'm just fascinated by people's lives, and how people fall in love, and why relationships work and don't work," said Frankel, who set and filmed his series in Miami because his girlfriend lives there. "I think there's a bit of voyeur in all of us. I think we all love to overhear conversations at the next table in a restaurant, or read someone's diary if it's left open, or listen to somebody's phone messages if they play it back in front of us.
"There's something illicit and titillating and also informative about that."
"Grapevine" does test the limits of network standards with what has been described as "in-your-face dialogue," more likely to be found on cable than network television. "It's obviously a show that has pushed the envelope a number of times, but we don't think it's ever punctured the envelope," said Steve Warner, CBS vice president of program planning.
CBS generally has a "hands-off" policy with producers, Warner said, which has resulted in such innovative hit series as "Northern Exposure," "Evening Shade" and "Murphy Brown." "David had a vision for this show," Warner said. "It's a vision that when we bought the show we accepted."
The network did, however, step in on a few occasions to prevent the scripted use of such words as "masturbation" and "nipples," and to trim the length of some steamier scenes.