The most shallow family on TV lives in “Pasadena.” Fox’s soap opera-mystery hybrid is full of backstabbers, liars and fakes … and everyone looks like a catalog model. Doing their best to make the Ewings and Carringtons proud, the people residing here spend their days throwing parties, cheating on spouses and stealing from one another. But since “Dallas” and “Dynasty” set the gold standard for primetime, wealth-fueled dysfunction — 20 years ago — this successor’s upper-class warfare doesn’t measure up.
Created by “Chuck & Buck” director Mike White, “Pasadena” has a uniquely creative mind behind it, and White’s warped sense of storytelling only sporadically pays off. The debut, directed by Diane Keaton (also an exec producer), hits the right notes when it avoids cliches and zeroes in on the “whodunit” question that makes this slightly different from the usual profile of boring billionaires. Like last season’s “Titans,” however, the money-means-power theme is too prevalent, so the project comes off as a parody of hits from the 1980s; the idea of snooty jerks screwing around isn’t what it used to be.
Show centers around Lily McAllister (Alison Lohman), a precocious teen who witnesses a stranger’s suicide at her mansion one night while babysitting her younger brother. At first, everyone disassociates themselves from the man — identified as Philip Parker — but it’s soon evident that he definitely has something to do with their past.
Lily’s decision to pursue his history, with the help of hunky classmate Henry (Alan Simpson), doesn’t sit well with her parents. Mom Catherine (Dana Delany) refuses to talk about anything negative and just wants to focus on home improvements, while dad Will (Martin Donovan) is a bit more sensitive to Lily’s interest but too busy sleeping around to care.
The McAllisters’ communication problems should come as no surprise. Catherine is a Greeley, a muted, waspy clan that has run L.A.’s major newspaper (the fictitious Los Angeles Sun) for decades and whose investments in downtown real estate have translated into fame and fortune.
Patriarch George (Philip Baker Hall) presides over Catherine’s flighty sister (Natasha Gregson Wagner) and two brothers on opposite ends of the social spectrum. Robert (Mark Valley) is a cutthroat business man who revels in cruelty, while Nate (Balthazar Getty) is the black sheep, the younger sibling who can’t hold a job and whose addiction to drugs has forced everyone to “cut him off.” While everybody is busy hating everybody else, Lily’s resolve to uncover the secrets of the corpse is strengthened.
Following the hows and whys of the death is a substantive and intriguing way to make “Pasadena” more meaningful than its flock of predecessors. White, who wrote the debut’s teleplay, and Keaton are on to something with the combination of creepiness and suburban wealth. It’s a fusion of “Flamingo Road,” “American Beauty” and “The X-Files.”
But it’s the “rich” factor that causes the problems, narratively speaking. The Armani mentality, complete with tantrums, maids and overt jealousy, makes for nothing more than a glossy B serial full of impropriety and nastiness. It feels old-hat and forced.
Lohman does a solid job with her role as series protag, while Donovan is well cast as a detached father whose domestic boredom leads him into serious trouble (though he does seem a bit young for the part). On the flip side, Delany looks oddly out of place; the two-time Emmy winner (“China Beach”) doesn’t quite fit in as the matriarch cursed with mental instability. None of the supporting players stands out as a terrific baddie.
Tech credits are sharp, led by Tatiana Riegel’s methodical and patient editing and Roy H. Wagner’s glossy lensing.