From a business perspective, “Hollywood Heights” could hardly seem timelier. With daytime serials fast disappearing from the major networks, Nickelodeon has adapted a Spanish telenovela and will strip the 80 episodes weeknights through October — tailored to its demo with a musical component and teen-tempting leads. It’s in the execution, alas, where the formula breaks down, less for being bad than uneventful, with breathy kissing about as intense as the opening installments get. For a show with a pop undercurrent that proclaims itself “sizzling,” “Heights” is pretty tepid and lacks a hit song’s most basic element: A catchy hook.
Soaps are traditionally defined by their villains, and in the first two hours “Heights” doesn’t really develop much of one. Instead, the series kicks off with parallel plots involving Loren (Brittany Underwood), a fresh-faced teenager with a mad crush on pop star Eddie (Cody Longo), whose own seemingly idyllic life actually has signs of trouble in paradise.
The premiere (which, smartly, Nick at Nite will repeat every night for a week) centers on Loren landing tickets to see Eddie perform, with the help of her friend Melissa (Ashley Holliday). Melissa’s protective mom is played by Meredith Salenger, a one-time teen star herself, apparently to make baby boomers feel that much older.
Exec producer Jill Farren Phelps (“General Hospital”) and head writer Josh Griffith (“The Young and the Restless”) both have daytime pedigrees, but “Heights” appears handcuffed by its too-narrow range, which applies as much to the characters and subplots (Eddie lost his mom; the loyalties of his girlfriend, played by Melissa Ordway, are suspect) as to its blandly generic songs.
Even with Eddie and Loren on what’s described as a “Star is Born”-type collision course — with her career, by virtue of winning a contest, destined to take off while his cools — neither is engaging enough beyond the obvious surface qualities to trigger much rooting interest.
“She can’t talk to you like that!” Melissa protests at one point on Loren’s behalf. But alas, dialogue-wise, she does, and they do.
Give Nickelodeon, Televisa and Sony credit for taking the plunge into a genre that requires considerable faith, especially since MyNetworkTV’s primetime telenovela experiment laid a big egg; nevertheless, it’s difficult to retain even a youthful audience’s attention with material that doesn’t rise (or sink) past the sudsy situations of old after-school specials.
Still, James Franco is slated to appear in an upcoming arc of episodes, which will surely be promotable, and the show does have 16 weeks to find its groove.
That said, TV programs get one chance to make a first impression, and “Hollywood Heights” comes out flat in a manner that, far from Loren’s contortions to see Eddie, isn’t worth breaking curfew to see.