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Television Reviews : TV: New Season / New Shows

The Ins and Outs of 'Popular'; Travis Deserves Better 'Work'

September 29, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

In "Popular," another WB series about high schoolers, actors who look like they're in their 20s play 16-year-olds with adult mouths, taking on teen angst and insecurity.

Opening line from one of them: "Have you ever stood naked in front of a mirror and looked at yourself?"

Does this resonate with you? If so, you will be instantly drawn to this split-personality series that speaks with two voices: one thoughtful and intelligent, the louder one glib and derivative.

Tonight's other series premiere, the routine sitcom "Work With Me" on CBS, has a single voice that's unfunny.

"Popular" completes its two-part debut in its regular hour time slot Thursday night, playing largely like a stylized "Clueless" wannabe ("Navy blue is so last year") whose indulgent teens are grouped into two rival cliques. The "ins" are epitomized by Brooke (Leslie Bibb), a cheerleader buckling under the mantle of her pristine beauty and popularity, the "outs" by self-deprecating Sam (Carly Pope), a benign rebel who dreams of a nose piercing and romance with her smarmy journalism teacher (Chad Lowe).

Meanwhile, there's the mall.

Although designed to be mostly light and zippy, this series is memorable only when dealing honestly with serious issues. They include Sam's friend Lily (Tamara Mello) resisting frogdissection in biology ("I don't think it's moral, and it goes against what I believe in"). And even more so the devastating impact on another friend, Carmen (Sara Rue), after she shines at junior varsity cheerleading tryouts--a niftily executed musicale--only to be cruelly blackballed by spineless Brooke and her nasty Svengali, Nicole (Tammy Lynn Michaels), because of Carmen's hefty size.

Such moments are relatively fleeting, however, as "Popular" bogs down in the Sam/Brooke rivalry and some silly business about Brooke's super-jock boyfriend, Josh (Bryce Johnson), getting pulled like taffy between the school's football and drama coaches.

Moving right along, the female biology and male drama teachers are gratuitously butch and effeminate, respectively; Josh and Brooke have a bad experience in bed; and these 16-year-olds sound like they were tutored by their "Dawson's Creek" counterparts ("And so another season of social fascism begins") en route to Thursday night's farce of an ending.

All of it so . . . last year.

*

"Work With Me" is so . . . forgettable, nothing really to like or dislike about mundane marrieds Julie and Jordan Better in a debut that offers no compelling reason to tune in again.

Nancy Travis is Julie, Kevin Pollak is Jordan--a lawyerly couple forced (by the series concept) to merge their separate practices after he quits his posh firm when passed over for a partnership.

Their professional union in Julie's low-budget offices immediately snags on trivia when Jordan is relegated to the conference-snack room and jealousy rears its predictable head. Julie has this hunky male client, you see, and Jordan is pretty darned sure some funny business is going on. If so, it would be the only thing "funny" about this half hour.

Which is a shame for Travis, who continues to be a big talent in search of a series that rises above mediocrity. This one surely isn't it.

* "Work With Me" airs tonight at 8:30 on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).

* "Popular" airs tonight at 9 on WB. The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).

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