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Television review: 'Tower Prep' on Cartoon Network

Teenagers with special abilities find themselves in a mysterious boarding school in this live-action series that generates a good bit of energy.

October 19, 2010|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

You who have been waiting for a teenage version of "The Prisoner" set inside a private high school, your wait is now ended. "Tower Prep," which premieres in the rather grown-up time slot of Tuesday at 8 p.m. — it goes up against "NCIS" and "No Ordinary Family" — is that show.

It's the second straight-ahead live-action series for Cartoon Network and works as a kind of companion to "Unnatural History," the network's first straight-ahead live-action series, a kind of teenage Indiana Jones adventure set inside a private high school. (The "Unnatural History" pilot re-airs directly before the "Tower Prep" premiere.) Created by Paul Dini, whose credits include several "Batman" cartoon series, a healthy pile of DC comics and " Lost," on whose first season he served as story editor, "Tower Prep" is at the very least, right away, 100 times more fun than AMC's 2009 reimagining of "The Prisoner," and also 100 times less pretentious.

Ian Archer (Drew Van Acker) is our hero, tall and good-looking and buff, with precognitive reflexes that mean it is impossible to lay a glove on him. As we open, he is sent home from school (regular school) for defending a bullied nerd. Later, up in his room, he's hailed online by a mysterious female voice, hears a strange buzzing and wakes up in a mysterious boarding school, where rules are made not to be broken, the adults are identified only by what they do or teach — Headmaster, Coach, History, Math — and the kids seem to represent the same mix of cliques and hall-filling extras as in any other high school drama or comedy.

In the due course of the opening hour, Ian — whose dossier might as easily describe Patrick McGoohan's Prisoner ("attributes: intelligence, loyalty, courage; flaws: stubbornness and a quick temper … leadership potential, [but] subject prefers to go his own way") — will complete a Scooby Gang of fellow dissenters. Like Ian, says new friend Gabe ( Ryan Pinkston), "we can all do something really weird in an awesome way." CJ (Elise Gatien) can read body language like a book; Suki (Dyana Liu) can imitate anyone perfectly; and Gabe can "talk his way out of anything." (This is not exactly the Xavier Institute for X-Men.) Considering the complementary hotness of Van Acker and Gatien, or even the matched heights of Liu and Pinkston, there may be romance ahead, but it is unlikely to be anything the 11-year-old-boys in the audience can't handle.

Whether they and their fellow students are there because they're discipline problems — the school's motto is Excellentia Per Obsequium, or Excellence Through Obedience — or because, with their "unique potential," they're being fitted for some larger purpose, evil or good, is not immediately clear. Nor was I completely certain whether our hero has been transported to a physical remote location or whether he is still back in his room, dead to the world and plugged into some pedagogical shared virtual reality. (One question is answered: "Your parents know where you are," Headmaster tells Ian.) Whichever, there is a big wall around the school grounds, lasers sweeping the front lawn at night and headlight-eyed drones patrolling the forest, whose coniferous thickness says "Filmed in Canada."

This is a modest production that nevertheless generates a good bit of energy and benefits from sympathetic casting, decent dialogue and keeping things ambiguous. It should resonate with any child, or former child, who has ever been told, "We're only doing this for your own good," or felt himself to be a lonely weirdo caught between the unquestioning herd and the bullying elites. Which is to say, me, you, and just about everybody.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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