Having made his name with “Dawson’s Creek” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” Kevin Williamson finds a new setting for teen melodrama but strums a familiar tune. Reuniting Taylor Handley and Michael Cassidy from “The OC” in another upscale California zip code, Palm Springs, the producer whips up a souffle of teen angst, mystery, precocious kids and clueless parents, crafting an hour that breaks zero new ground, recycling the formula that powered past high-school soaps. It’s all in the execution, ultimately, and even with an accomplished cast, four episodes in, it’s at best a dry heat.
Understandably, Johnny (Handley) has issues and reason to be surly. After seeing dad blow his own head off before the credits roll, he’s gone through a stint in rehab and been whisked off to Palm Springs — where the heat, he’s told, drives people crazy — by mom (Gail O’Grady) and her new husband (D.W. Moffett).
In no time flat, Johnny begins meeting his local peers, each of them introduced in define-the-character exchanges — the highlight being the lovely Greta (Amber Heard), who flounces around a golf course in the moonlight (sprinklers on, of course) wearing a willowy dress resembling Dracula’s wives. Ditto for the preppy and dangerous Cliff (Cassidy), whose mom (Sharon Lawrence) is a high-spirited tramp; and brainy Liza (Ellary Porterfield), the across-the-street girl who conducts experiments with chemical compounds when she isn’t gazing longingly at Johnny.
Mirroring Williamson’s oeuvre (think of this as “Dawson’s Dune”), the kids are preternaturally articulate and the adults — who generally look about 12 years older than their offspring — are sex-crazed, self-absorbed and willing to let their children lecture them without ever once bringing up who pays the car insurance around here.
The snappy dialogue and rat-a-tat exchanges amount to a kind of speed dating — a shortcut, in essence, allowing Williamson and director Scott Winant (“thirtysomething”) to rapidly establish characters. Fortunately, the mystery plot does thicken in the subsequent hours, as Johnny begins to receive creepy instant messages containing vague warnings.
To the producers’ credit, this storyline advances fairly rapidly; it’s just not that engaging or surprising. Nor does it help appreciably when another beauty with rehab credentials, Nikki (Tessa Thompson), shows up after the premiere, creating a sketchily drawn Johnny-Nikki-Greta triangle that, with Cliff thrown in, might become a trapezoid.
Pity the talented adults saddled with one-dimensional roles and all the worst dialogue (another Williamson trademark), but the obvious goal here is to tap into the teen contingent — from their tortured relationships to brooding musical montages to the trippy, Dali-esque opening-credit sequence.
Pushing the show until after the season doesn’t look like a vote of confidence, but the limited summer competition might be an unexpected blessing.
The heat, after all, can drive people to do crazy things — like watching a warmed-over teen soap.