''Pepper Dennis" sounds like a fancy dish, a nouvelle something-or-other that tastes like exquisite nothingness -- with pepper.
But ''Pepper Dennis" is actually a piece of bland television that leaves no aftertaste, piquant or otherwise. While there's nothing cringingly awful about this new WB series -- see Fox's ''Unan1mous" for that -- it nonetheless succumbs to one of the great TV sins: mediocrity. A vehicle for Rebecca Romijn, it's a shamelessly derivative dramedy about an Ally McBeal who gets all ''His Girl Friday" and tries to live out ''Grey's Anatomy" at a Chicago TV station.
''Pepper Dennis," which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 56, is among the reasons we use the word ''lite" in reference to pop culture. The show is meant to be an easy romantic comedy and an easy romantic drama, and as a result it's not enough of either. It just about floats away on its pointless cuteness. The now-popular dramedy genre was fleshed out by writer-producer David E. Kelley as a tool to provoke and to ridicule and to move. But here dramedy is a way to dodge anything real, to be a fangless soap opera set in a world where a news anchor and a reporter have love spats on the air.
Romijn's Pepper is presented as the prototypical woman who can't seem to have it all. A pressing issue -- back in 1980. A TV reporter obsessed with becoming the next WEIE anchor, she feels she must put her love life on hold to focus on her career. Her sassy best friend and makeup artist, Kimmy (Lindsay Price), reminds her, ''You can't schedule something like love." But she chooses to worship Walter Cronkite, whose photo hangs in her apartment, and she settles for a life of one-night stands at ''the bar" -- the place where all TV characters now go after work.
But one of her trysts turns out to be with the new anchor, Charlie Babcock (Josh Hopkins). Not only is this twist obvious from a mile away, it was lifted from ''Grey's Anatomy." Charlie is Pepper's McDreamy, and tonight's episode points the way to a tedious series of back-and-forths that find one pursuing the other and vice versa.
''Grey's Anatomy" doesn't ever try to make us think Meredith Grey and the other female interns won't make it because they're women; it's too loaded with strong characters and wry attitude for that theme. But ''Pepper Dennis" sets up Pepper and Charlie as symbols of unfair office politics, not in order to explore the issue but simply to make us sympathize with Pepper. Did Charlie get the job Pepper deserved because he's a man and their gum-chewing boss is sexist? The show steadfastly evades the ramifications of its own setup regarding sexual politics.
''Pepper Dennis" is burdened by Brooke Burns as Pepper's newly separated sister, who undermines Pepper but loves her, too. A shallow blend of coy and dumb, she'd make more sense playing the bratty villain in a soap such as ''Melrose Place." And her chemistry with Romijn is plastic. There are many reasons ''Pepper Dennis" probably won't make it onto the fall schedule for the CW, the network to be formed out of the WB and UPN, and the lack of a strong supporting ensemble is one.
Only Romijn emerges from this fluff with any distinction, as she brings enough gusto to make her Pepper appealing. She is required to perform physical comedy -- beautiful woman falls in mud puddle, beautiful woman gets stuck on doorknob -- and she manages not to look awkward in the process. On a tiresome series, not looking awkward is something of a feat.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.