High-school students often feel like prisoners anyway, so there’s something inherently clever about the premise for “Tower Prep,” a series that points the way toward a best-case scenario of what Cartoon Network’s live-action profile (as oxymoronic as that sounds) might be. Similar to but smarter than prior arrival “Unnatural History,” the show harbors enough mystery to invite further visits, and even with minimal production values ought to possess some appeal beyond just kids to older siblings and parents, provided they can be lured behind the gates.
Not that this will mean much to the target audience, but there’s certainly a touch of “The Prisoner” in the concept, which emanates from Paul Dini, a veteran animation producer who brings that much-needed sensibility to the show. Several “The X-Files” alums are also part of the production team.
Ian (Drew Van Acker) is a tough kid, sympathetically introduced successfully defending a friend from a bully. Still, the fracas gets him booted out of his school, irritating his parents.
After a fleeting online-gaming encounter with a mysterious presence named “Whisper,” Ian awakens to find himself at Tower Prep, a high school for youths with unique attributes whose location remains unknown.
Disoriented, he endures hazing from his snotty roommates (think the nasty dorm at Hogwarts) and is counseled to fit in by the Headmaster (a creepy Ted Whitall) before falling in with a trio of gifted outcasts who also yearn to escape — the trick being they have no idea what lurks beyond the prison-like walls.
Their “powers” are decidedly low-octane, but interesting, with Ian possessing what’s referred to as “preflex” — an ability to anticipate things just before they happen, which can come in handy during a fight. His new pal Gabe (Ryan Pinkston) possesses inordinate powers of persuasion, which in theory would earn him the superhero name Lawyer-Man.
In short, Dini has gulped down a hodge-podge of elements — everything from “Harry Potter” to “X-Men” — and burped them out in a crisp, serialized package, complete with cryptic notes and narrow escapes, that niftily taps into the anxiety of adolescence. OK, so the glowing-eyed guards look like something out of the old “Land of the Lost.” The show proves one needn’t be awash in splashy effects if the premise is compelling enough.
It’s too early to declare victory just yet, of course, but “Tower Prep” appears to have the right lesson plan for the task at hand. And based simply on the needs of a network still getting its feet wet in a new genre, the show passes its first test with flying colors.