Set in a fictional Ivy League university, this new drama from “Degrassi: The Next Generation” producer Aaron Martin has all the requisite trappings of a teen soap with one major, nagging distraction — namely, most of its college “freshmen” look about 29. Slickly produced if too familiar and predictable, it’s one of those college-set projects where nobody is ever seen cracking a book — perfect, in that respect, for a generation squandering their Friday nights watching Nickelodeon’s teen-oriented cable service, which shares a channel position with the preschool-oriented Noggin.
Samantha (Charity Shea) is a poor orphaned girl with a killer smile from South Boston who has won a scholarship to prestigious Charles U. Almost before the first leaf falls, she’s paired with a rich-bitch roommate (Jennifer Miller) and making goo-goo eyes at the college’s new basketball star (Brandon Jay McLaren), sipping cold ones on the roof and prepping for romance.
As if to jump-start a narrative that’s already beginning to sag a little, Martin incorporates a dark twist that quickly establishes the characters’ morality (or lack thereof), forcing them to make clear choices while highlighting the prevailing caste system that proves high school is a state of mind. In a semi-existential riff, he also weaves in the star of a fictional teen TV soap (Athena Karkanis), who begins a flirtation with a bartender (Niall Matter) at the local velvet-ropes club, adding to the class distinction issues without baring any real teeth.
Indeed, other than introducing the characters and injecting a tinge of mystery surrounding Samantha’s past, the premiere doesn’t do much to differentiate “The Best Years” from any number of school-based serials that have preceded it, thus laying most of the weight on the cast to elevate the middling material. Aside from being attractive, however, they’re not uniformly up to it, and the age discrepancy (a little license is fine, but these kids are supposed to be 18) puts the performers more in the “Melrose Place” stage of life than “90210.”
Shot in Toronto, the program will make its debut following a new episode of “Degrassi” — a hit by the N’s standards. If this series wants to emulate even those modest Nielsen grades, however, “The Best Years” is going to have to do better in the storytelling department, and relatively soon.