BY the end of last week's series premiere of "The Best Years" (The N, 8:30 p.m. Fridays), a drama about freshman year at an elite Boston university, John (Vince Galea), the character with the most vivid screen presence, is dead, a victim of an alcohol-related accident. The death itself is almost comically quick, as is the response to it on the part of the show's three protagonists, who wrangle with whether to admit they witnessed the tragedy.
Ultimately, Devon (Brandon Jay McLaren), the smooth-talking basketball recruit, and Kathryn (Jennifer Miller), the conniving blond on the hunt for a "blue-blood" husband, decide that honesty isn't in their best interests. They shove the burden of integrity right onto the shoulders of Samantha (Charity Shea), a plucky young woman fresh out of foster care -- both of her parents are dead -- who's riding a full scholarship to the promise of a better tomorrow.
Coming forward about John's death puts Samantha's scholarship in jeopardy, a risk roommate Kathryn can't understand: "You will never be anything more than some poor pathetic orphan who pissed away her one big chance!" Of course Samantha doesn't lose her scholarship, but she does lose some dignity. Her subsequent rift with Kathryn leads to several absurd encounters of mutual undermining, followed by detente, followed once more by one-upmanship. Maturity was not part of the application process.
"The Best Years" is, at heart, the document of Samantha's struggle to not become a Mean Girl. Surrounded by privilege and the \o7louche\f7 behavior it triggers, she occasionally slips but is always certain to right herself or be righted by those around her. College is her redemption -- not for a life of bad behavior but for a life of hard luck. If she stumbles, it's as much an indictment of the system as it is of her -- maybe more so.
Unfortunately, that results in drama that's benign, if not banal. "The Best Years" is like a starter show on the old WB but without any of the genuine tension. It's not even as complicated as "Degrassi: The Next Generation," the well from which it springs. (The show's creator, Aaron Martin, was a head writer on "Degrassi"; that seminal series' regulars Lauren Collins and Cassie Steele will guest this season.) During the years of "Degrassi," which is still in production, its characters have grappled with a host of grown-up issues -- teenage pregnancy, disability, drug use and so on. For a drama about, and for, teenagers, it's unusually precocious.
By contrast, "The Best Years" is positively tame -- there's a surplus of underage drinking, naturally (even in the wake of John's death, everybody still goes to the city's hot bar, Colony, catnip to underage undergraduates of the grieving sort or otherwise), but there's no kissing until the third episode, an eon in college time. There's a socially awkward Asian girl, Cynthia, played by Siu Ta, who neatly tweaked stereotypes in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" but who seems caged by sincerity here, and there's a genial Canadian boy, Noah (Randal Edwards).
But even the most jaded characters are on best behavior: Dawn (Athena Karkanis), a dorm mate of Samantha, is a former child actor -- her character on the show-within-the-show, "Bel Air High," is named, aptronymically, Snaps Ortega. In the premiere episode, Dawn threatens to be a Lohan-esque lush but is soon swept up in the throes of serious acting as well as in playing straight girl to an older boy, Trent (Niall Matter), whom she'd like to rid of his player ways.
Instead, "The Best Years" shocks in smaller ways, with quick judgments and snap behavior, that register as disturbingly harsh in an environment that aspires to level-headedness. A business professor threatens to remove Samantha from his 101 class because she's been undereducated by the public schools in her rough Boston neighborhood and so will slow the rest of the class down. She fares no better with Kathryn, who dupes her into taking a shower laced with purple dye, discoloring her skin.
And Samantha, ostensibly saddled with gravitas thanks to her upbringing, is given to odd decision-making herself. To buy an expensive dress to wear to a sorority rush event, she pawns a ring that's her last connection to her late parents. Needless to say, when she scares up the money to reclaim it, it's gone. And needless to say after that, it's one of her friends who's bought it so as to save her from herself. The total time passed between concern and relief is maybe three minutes; it's hard to generate sympathy for someone the system is consistently protecting. But then, this is college -- why should she suffer?