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'The Beautiful Life' thin on vision

The fashion drama is much like CW's other offerings: There are pretty young things, standard plots and pop music in the background.


For its new, Ashton Kutcher-produced world-of-modeling soap opera, "The Beautiful Life: TBL," CW has added an abbreviation of the title to the title itself -- as if to make it seem, somehow, that the show is already popular and being talked about, in shorthand. It's a kind of wishful thinking, as if I were to name myself "Robert Lloyd: Cool," in the hope that you might believe I am.

In any case, the series, which premieres tonight, is not so different from, or significantly worse -- or better -- than the network's other two season premieres, "Melrose Place" and "The Vampire Diaries," which also affix stock characters, played mostly by good-looking young folk, to standard plot lines sexed up with pop songs and different flavors of visual glamour. Because they do not aim particularly high, they pretty much hit what they aim at.

"TBL," to go with the hoped-for nomenclatural flow, imports to its catwalk milieu a host of tropes from the backstage dramas of yore. It opens with a well-staged set piece -- real-life designer Zac Posen's Fashion Week show -- where newcomer Raina Mayer (Sara Paxton) gets her Ruby Keeler moment after unraveling superstar Sonja Stone (Mischa Barton) returns from . . . somewhere . . . unable to fit into her dress. (Note that Barton, who seems something more than 23, looks exactly as underfed as every other girl on the show.)

Flashbulbs pop, petals float from above and the applauding crowd rises to its feet as Raina is anointed a New Thing. This is seemingly meant to be a moment of beauty and revelation, but Paxton looks strained and unhealthy; I wanted to buy her a meatloaf. If the "normal" young women of television have become, as a class, skeletons with breasts, these girls -- being models -- have been cast as thinner yet. It is an awful, undying trend yet authentic to the setting, I suppose, to judge by the fashion magazines that occasionally pass through my field of vision.

Raina, we learn, is hiding from her troublesome family by appearing in fashion shows and getting her picture in magazines. (Granted, she has dyed her hair blond, which is usually enough to fool a television character.) But she is as good a person as she is thin and is clearly destined to love farm-fresh Chris Andrews (Ben Hollingsworth), who we know is also good because he is from Iowa and defends a waitress against the smarmy city slicker who will then ask him, movie-style, "Ever do any modeling, Chris Andrews from Iowa?"

Chris and Raina meet cute -- they bump into each other, literally! -- at the agency run by Elle Macpherson, which represents all our main mannequins: Nico Tortorella, successful and superior; Corbin Bleu (from the "High School Musical" musicals), who really just wants to sing; and Ashley Madekwe, calculating and ambitious. The models all live together in a brownstone, like contestants in a reality show, but even less real. At night, everyone parties.

"You aren't like these people, are you?" Chris says to Raina.

"Look who's talking."

Indeed, their light is offset by much surrounding dark -- the cost of fame is high, children, and might involve kissing a person you do not like. But expect no serious examination of the fashion world here: Like an old C.B. DeMille biblical epic filled with blood and sex, "TBL" celebrates the very thing it seems to criticize. And that kind of show business never goes out of style.



'The Beautiful Life: TBL'

Where: KTLA

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and sex)

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