Sunday night is now officially Dysfunctional Family Night on ABC. At 9 p.m., a Palm Springs family of minor-league cons faces the possibility of going straight in "Scoundrels." An hour later, on "The Gates," a picture-perfect planned community roils with vampires, werewolves and witches.
Strangers in paradise indeed.
Although it's difficult to justify yet another showcase of the undead, of the two, I'd recommend "The Gates" because "Scoundrels" is just plain terrible.
This is due, in part, to the presence of Virginia Madsen as Cheryl, the matriarch of the West family who attempts to control her brood with the rather sketchy code of "no drugs, no violence." Madsen, still bathed in the critically endowed halo of "Sideways," creates a certain level of expectation. Unfortunately, her performance in the pilot is as clunky as Cheryl's platform sandals, which adds a layer of actual heartbreak to what could otherwise just be dismissed as bad summer TV.
Not that she is alone in her flat-footedness. "Scoundrels" is based on the long-running New Zealand series "Outrageous Fortune" and it has, apparently, lost something in transit. In this version, Cheryl is married to Wolf ( David James Elliott), the low-rent charm-boy con artist who makes their middle-ish class life possible. They have the regulation assortment of children including dippy blond daughter Heather (Leven Rambin), smarty-pants brunet daughter Hope ( Vanessa Marano, recently seen on "Dexter") and, of course, a Cain and Abel twin set — loser thief Cal and newly minted lawyer Logan, both played by Patrick John Flueger, who no doubt thought this was a good idea at the time.
Because executive producers Lyn Greene and Richard Levine (" Nip/Tuck)" want you to understand that Cheryl and Wolf are essentially good people, they also gave them a love-hate relationship with the local police and a hot sex life, both of which are equally painful to witness. I'm sure the writers have big plans to examine the hilarious pitfalls everyone encounters after Wolf goes to jail and Cheryl institutes a new "no crime" rule but it's not just difficult to care about what happens next, it's difficult to imagine caring.
"The Gates," on the other hand, starts off with an even greater number of well-worn characters and storylines, but writers Richard Hatem and Grant Scharbo infuse them with a lot more life and a surprisingly high incidence of poignancy.
The Monohan family is newly arrived from Chicago where Nick ( Frank Grillo) was a homicide detective with a zealous streak. Now he's chief of police at the Gates, a heavily fortressed community where wife Sarah ( Marisol Nichols) hopes he will learn to relax.
Not likely. As with every posh TV neighborhood from "Weeds" to " Desperate Housewives," dark deeds are afoot behind those green lawns and Italianate facades. As the show opens, a contractor narrowly avoids mowing down a young girl. Within minutes, the lovely mother, Claire Radcliff ( Rhona Mitra), has invited him into her home to apply a little first aid and fill her stainless steel kitchen sink with his life blood. Because, of course, she's a vampire.
Like so many of TV's kinder, gentler vamps, she and her husband Dylan (Luke Mably) are living, mostly, on legally obtained blood and trying to pass for human (in this case, a lotion with an SPF factor of, apparently 752, makes daylight hours possible). Claire is having a harder time than Dylan, who takes her to task for murdering the contractor — they have a daughter so they can't afford to go to jail — and her response is one of several moments that lift "The Gates" out of vamp porn. "It's not about the blood," she says. "It's about the carpools and the school committees and the dinner parties and the book clubs."
It's not about quelling savagery, then, it's about the boredom of the stay-at-home mom.
Amid some general narrative squishiness — a nefarious town planner, Nick's inner turmoil, a good witch/bad witch herbalist competition — other moments of promise emerge like ghost lights on the moor. Nick's son Charlie (Travis Caldwell) delivers a treatise on Flannery O'Connor (Flannery O'Connor!) that gets him noticed by Andie ( Skyler Samuels), to the irritation of her boyfriend, who turns out to be a werewolf. Whether she knows this or not is unclear, but she is obviously afraid of his anger, allowing the boyfriend's supernatural beastliness to stand in for broader issues of psychological and physical abuse.
Of course there are a plenty of overworked "True Blood" meets "Twilight" motifs, but it seems just possible that "The Gates" will return to the roots of supernatural fiction, in which the monsters are just extreme versions of humanity. It's no "Being Human," a much better show, which returns to BBC America on July 24, but it's worth watching just to see what, exactly, is going on behind those gates.