'The Heights' has the feel of MTV


"The Heights" is blue-collar, twentysomething, music television. And it's a series just aching with the same kind of hit potential that "Melrose Place" showed in its debut last month.

The Fox series, which premieres at 9 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45), is about eight working-class twentysomethings in a rock band somewhere in the Rust Belt. It's from Aaron Spelling's production company.

That's the same company that does "Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "2000 Malibu Road," which debuted Sunday and instantly became the highest-rated show in all of television for the week, and "The Roundtable," which arrives next month on NBC. All feature ensemble casts dominated by characters and actors in their twenties. "Melrose Place," "90210" and "Malibu Road" have all opened to awful reviews from the corps of mainly fortysomething newspaper and magazine critics and then rung up great Nielsen numbers, especially with young viewers.

There are major differences between twenty something TV and the kind of TV that baby boomers tend to judge other shows against. And "The Heights" highlights some of those differences.

Visually, the new crop of shows is more sophisticated. The style of "The Heights" is decidedly MTV with a quicker editing pace and lots of impressionistic imagery. The opening montage of railroad tracks, weedy lots, utility poles, boarded-up factories, loading docks and gray skies takes less than a minute to skillfully paint the canvas of life in a working-class neighborhood and suggest the feel of "Eddie and the Cruisers" or "The Commitments." (The gritty, urban, hello-from-New-Jersey postcard look of the show is captured by filming on location in Vancouver, B.C.)

But, verbally, these shows are not like "Murphy Brown" or "Cheers." They are simply not as literary. Repartee, sexual banter and topical humor -- the stuff of say, "Murphy Brown" producer Diane English -- is not what they are about. Dialogue plays a secondary role to music and pictures. Like MTV -- and, in fact, much of the very best TV -- the emotion comes from music and pictures, not words.

It helps to remember that as you watch and hear characters deliver lines, such as "My music is not a color thing; it's a people thing." It also helps to remember that these are working-class kids who never went to college; they are not supposed to be articulate the way, say, Hawkeye Pierce was on "M*A*S*H."

But they're articulate in their own way. Dizzy (Ken Garito), the group's drummer, is told by his girlfriend, Jodie (Tasia Valenza), that she's pregnant. Part of his response: "We go to high school. We graduate. We get jobs. Where do we go? Where the hell are you supposed to go in this day and age?" He's working on the same sentiment sounded by Eric Burdon, lo, those many years ago in "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."

Overall, the series has a way to go. The characters need considerable rounding. Right now, they can be described one- or two-dimensionally in a phrase. In addition to Dizzy, the "Italian-kid" drummer with the pregnant girlfriend, there's: J. T. (Shawn Thompson), the sexy male lead singer; Alex (James Walter), the sensitive and troubled poet and songwriter; Stan (Alex Desert), the cool bass player; Hope (Charlotte Ross), the rich-girl rhythm guitarist; Lenny (Zachary Throne), the cerebral keyboard player; and Rita (Cheryl Pollack), the sax player with the sexy eyes and great heart.

They also need to work on the music. Don't sit down to watch "The Heights" tonight expecting to be rocked right to your bones as you were when you saw the feature film, "The Commitments." The music here does not have that kind of soul-searing underpinning. In fact, it sounds kind of drippy at first, except for the great tunes on the jukebox at the pool hall where the band members meet and their final number, "Talk to an Angel." (The producers said all the music in tonight's show is actually performed by the actors who are all musicians -- though some "sweetening" with studio musicians was added.)

The final song, which is already playing as a music video in movie theaters, starts to catch fire and suggests how hot this show can be if it ultimately finds the right musical sound. Look for the last two minutes of tonight's show -- the band playing "Talk to an Angel" -- to wind up as a music video on MTV.

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