In Summerland, Aaron Spelling’s latest highgloss drama, an ambitious thirtysomething fashion executive inherits three kids after the sudden death of her sister. By curious coincidence, Gary Marshall’s movie Raising Helen (the current Kate Hudson vehicle) boasts a similar fashionista-forced-to-raise-orphans story line. Not that Spelling and Marshall necessarily offer the best vantage point for a glimpse into our nation’s collective consciousness, but it’s intriguing that two productions should come along at the same time based on the premise of yanking the rug out from under glamorous career women and forcing them to buckle down to motherhood.
Just as Baby Boom emerged out of ’80s anxieties about women in power suits charging into the workplace and allowing their ovaries to shrivel up, Summerland and Raising Helen play on more contemporary concerns about women who revel in the freedom of extended adolescence and refuse to stop putting themselves first. Summerland opens with Ava (Lori Loughlin) frolicking in the ocean behind her beach house. A free-spirited creature, she liberates herself from all commitments before the first commercial by quitting her job (apparently her boss sexually harassed her once too often). On impulse, Ava and her roommate, Susannah (Merrin Dungey), decide to fly to Paris that very night to start their own fashion house—but the plan is shattered by the news that Ava has become an instant mom. In both Summerland and Raising Helen, there are other people willing to take on the guardian role. But the now dead sisters have chosen their responsibility-averse siblings—either as a gesture of faith (motherhood will help them grow up) or as a posthumous act of revenge (let’s see how chic she looks carpooling!).
Ava nearly faints when she hears the news. “I’m just the fun aunt from California!”—the person who takes her niece to fashion shows against her mother’s wishes, not the one who enforces curfew and cooks up breakfast every morning. As the ever sage Susannah counsels, “What they need right now is a grown-up.” Ava whimpers predictably, “So do I!” Soon enough, she realizes it’s time to trade fun and mobility for the more muted pleasures of maternal self-sacrifice. When her niece refuses to come along to a crucial business meeting, Ava stays behind with the girl, potentially blowing a big deal. Most of what passes for comedy in Summerland arises from Ava’s attempts to shoehorn together conflicting lifestyles, as when her fitting model gives the kids an eyeful by wandering into the kitchen in her underwear. Meanwhile, the kids provide an endless stream of homespun dramatic clichés: The littlest nephew wants to join his parents in heaven, while the big one instantly gets his heart broken by a cute surf instructor.
By attempting to cover every angle, the creators of Summerland have created a mutant televisual beast that summons the ghosts of Baywatch, Full House (in which Loughlin starred as John Stamos’s wife), Sex and the City, and Friends. I mention Friends because, instead of hauling the kids off to suburban exile, Ava remains in her communal beach house with her roommates, which include her ex-boyfriend and a playboy surfer dude. All of them, of course, turn out to be great with orphans. Who says women can’t have it all?
While Summerland sets a parent trap for Ava, a new series called Good Girls Don’t allows its two young heroines to wallow and flail in sexual freedom. Originally titled My Best Friend Is a Big Fat Slut, this loopy new show on Oxygen (the other women’s network) has been billed as “Laverne and Shirley set in a new millennium”—which would be a perfectly reasonable comparison if Laverne and Shirley had regularly shtupped Lenny, Squiggy, and any other guy who wandered into their field of vision. Made by the producers of That ’70s Show, it has no laugh track and a very lo-fi, off-kilter sensibility, something of a relief after the polished Summerland.
Good Girls pivots around Jane (Joy Gohring) and Marjorie (Bree Turner), two friends constantly testing the limits of acceptable behavior. Is it OK to sleep with your friends and neighbors? How about creeps and junkies? Marjorie is the prissier one, constantly trying to rein in Jane, the aforementioned big fat (barely chubby, really) slut. Jane will seemingly do anything to get laid, even pretending she’s got a bun in the oven to snag a guy with a preggo fetish. She may look like a giggly blonde bimbo, but Jane is also campy, sly, and unpredictable. That pretty much sums up the charms of the series itself: It revels in sitcom clichés but then veers off into weird, uncharted TV territory. Trying to restore Jane’s self-esteem after she’s been dumped, Marjorie encourages her to say an affirmation. “I have a big, white, lumpy ass—and I love it!” burbles Jane. “And someone else will too,” Marjorie earnestly coos. “Yeah,” says Jane, “like black men!” Cue next scene: Jane and Marjorie in a nightclub, hunting for booty-loving black men who can appreciate Jane’s lumpy ass.
Good Girls aims to be edgy. It grabs at vulgarity with both hands, doing outrageous and obnoxious things just for the hell of it. Considering how brazen the rest of television is these days, though, I’m not sure audiences will be overly impressed by these concerted efforts to squeeze humor out of farts and perversion. The obsession with sex could get old quickly—even the women of Sex in the City had other interests. Like, you know, shoes.
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