boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
TELEVISION REVIEW

'October Road' needs some twists in its well-worn path

Bryan Greenberg returns to his hometown, and Laura Prepon, in "October Road. " (GUY D'ALEMA)

"October Road" opens on a photo of Kurt Cobain , but don't expect to find much rock 'n' roll in this humdrum prodigal-son soap opera. I kept waiting for the unexpected beat, the surprising plot riff, the inverted cliche , but they never came. The ABC drama, which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 5, just plodded predictably down the middle of the road, uninspired, witless, tired.

In some ways, "October Road" is like "Ed," only without the oddball rhythms or the sly, sunny presence of Tom Cavanagh . A man goes home again -- to a postcard-quaint town, a few early pals, and a woman with whom he has unfinished business. Nick (Bryan Greenberg ) left girlfriend Hannah (Laura Prepon ) in 1997, promising he'd be back from Europe in six weeks. Ten years later, he still hasn't shown his face in town, and, worse, he has written a bestselling novel with unflattering portrayals of his friends.

In short, he's a cowardly narcissist, although at times it's not clear to what extent the show's executive producers, writer Scott Rosenberg and director Gary Fleder , are aware of that. Nick decides to leave New York and move back in with his widower father (a vague Tom Berenger ), to start tying up loose ends. Typically, his motivation is self-centered: He has writer's block. He thinks that resolving his past will enable him to move forward with a new novel. But maybe he'll grow up, too, and maybe he can win back the girl, although Hannah is still furious at him and, of course, dating his nemesis, Ray "Big Cat" Cataldo (Warren Christie ).

Greenberg, one of the actors in HBO's semi-reality series "Unscripted," plays Nick with a tormented sincerity that rivals Dawson in the early years of "Dawson's Creek." By the second episode of "October Road," when the cant of emo-lite on the soundtrack is interrupted for Jackson Browne's "The Pretender," the volume of Nick's world-weary earnestness is a little too loud. When he later tries to get a teaching job by singing "Where Is Love" from "Oliver!" on the lawn outside the dean's bedroom in the middle of the night, his emotional telegraphing is just deafening.

Naturally, Nick left behind a few quirky working-class buddies, one of whom, Eddie (Geoff Stults , looking disconcertingly like Peter Krause), is particularly hurt by the way he was portrayed in Nick's novel. Nick still plays air guitar to Thin Lizzy and Boston with the guys, but he is most focused on Hannah, now the single mother of a 9-year-old -- hint, hint -- boy named Sam (Slade Pearce ).

Nick has his suspicions about Sam, and he pursues them with nary a concern for the well-being of the kid. This being one of those perfectly Hallmark New England towns that only exist on TV, Sam is precocious, of course, and cloyingly so because, as Hannah explains, he prefers "wise beyond his years" to "precocious."

Prepon emerges from the rampant self-involvement and mediocrity with the most dignity. She blows Greenberg away in their dramatic scenes. She always seemed too grown-up for "That '70s Show," and she fits into a more adult context nicely. If anything in "October Road" survives, I hope it's her.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES