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Seems like old, bland times: 'Reunion' goes into the past in a shallow way

Sometimes, my friends, we are seduced by dopey soaps. They don't ennoble us, or challenge us; but they do offer a brief respite from ''Law & Order," an ironic giggle or two, and new diva potential for drag queens everywhere. And suddenly, before we know it, we have ourselves an ugly little addiction problem. ''Dynasty," ''Knots Landing," ''Melrose Place," ''The OC," they've all held us in their thrall in recent decades.

''Reunion," Fox's new drama, may turn out to be this year's entry in the guilty-pleasure hall of fame. But I hope not. The series, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 25, isn't very good at all, even for a frothy nighttime serial. For one thing, it's built on boilerplate plot twists that are embarrassing in their sheer obviousness. When two teens career through town and one says, ''Ease off the gas there, Mr. Cruise," you just know the life-changing car crash is but moments away. And for another thing, the six characters are as blandly generic as those no-name sugar cookies you once decided not to buy.

If ''Reunion" does manage to suck in viewers, it will be thanks to a distinctive time gimmick that plays out like an inverse of ''24." While that show suspends a single day across a season, ''Reunion" will plow through two decades between now and May, with each episode leaping ahead one year. The folks in ''24" wear the same clothes all season long, but the ''Reunion" kids will rip through 20 years of fashion. Tonight's action is set in 1986, as the friends graduate from high school amid Cyndi Lauper songs and Madonna lingerie. Next week's hour will take place in 1987, and so on and so forth. By Thanksgiving, we assume, our sextet will have hopped on the grunge train to Seattle.

First and foremost, ''Reunion" wants to be a youth-market melodrama, the kind we're used to finding on the WB: Rich kid Craig (Sean Faris) is about to propose to girlfriend Samantha (Alexa Davalos), unaware she's pregnant by his best friend, Will (Will Estes). Meanwhile, Aaron (Dave Annable) has a crush on aspiring actress Jenna (Amanda Righetti), unaware that shy girl Carla (Chyler Leigh) is in love with him. Yep, the show revolves around two central love triangles, because one is just so square, so ''One Tree Hill."

But ''Reunion" also wants to be a murder mystery. Framing scenes set at a funeral in 2005 tell us that one of the pals will be ''brutally murdered in their prime by an unknown assailant." Which member of our brat pack of ''St. Elmo's Fire" knockoffs will die, and which one done it? Mathew St. Patrick, from ''Six Feet Under," has a peripheral role in the show's present tense as an NYPD cop who's investigating the crime and interviewing the prime suspects.

The acting in ''Reunion" is as shallow as the characters are written. The most annoying of the gang may be Annable's Aaron, since he is so obviously trying to be a clone of Seth Cohen, the breakout character from ''The OC." He wants to be a geeky good guy with a wry streak, but he's just a loser. Estes, who played J.J. on ''American Dreams," does his best to make the working-class Will into a noble buddy, but he just comes off like a dim bulb who always makes the stupid choice. And Faris, from ''life as we know it," delivers a slick rich boy out of central casting. Indeed, all the actors telegraph their characters, playing the one note they've been given -- Carla the Plain Jane, Jenna the needy slut -- over and over again.

I'm hoping that the writers will distinguish the characters as the years pass, and establish juicier plot threads. Because if they can't do dopey well, then they have no business dealing junk.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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