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TELEVISION REVIEW

Teen angst and tales from dark side

Taylor Handley and Amber Heard play lovers with mysterious pasts in the CW's "Hidden Palms." (justin lubin/the cw)

How do we know that Cliff, the dashing ne' e r-do-well neighbor on the new CW teen drama "Hidden Palms," is bad to the bone? Not just Pacey-on-"Dawson's Creek" bad, but possible-psycho-killer bad? In tonight's premiere, at 8 on Channel 56, Cliff kicks a dog. A poor little pug with a scrunched-up face crosses Cliff's path and meets cute with Cliff's foot.

Another pair meet cute on "Hidden Palms," from "Dawson's Creek" creator Kevin Williamson, but with less violence. Johnny is our rebel-hero without a cause who's fresh out of rehab and new in town; Greta is the mystery girl who has the weight of the world on her shoulders, right beside her Scarlett Johansson-esque face. Johnny and Greta first encounter each other on a Palm Springs golf course, where they wordlessly dance among the sprinklers, a pair of tragic beauties in the evening light. It's love at first sight, kinda sorta maybe, but they'll need to overcome a series-ful of obstacles before hooking up.

Yes, here we go again, another invitation to a glum party in which teenagers look like jeans models but act and talk like adults. What made "The O.C." different was its self-aware humor, as the character of Seth Cohen delivered a chorus of ironic asides. "Hidden Palms," set in a plastic world of wealth and excess similar to "The O.C.," doesn't court lightness so much as enigma. It seduces with hints of a glamorous crime among the rich involving the death of the kid who used to live in Johnny's new home. Clearly Greta and Cliff know secrets about this sinister back story, but Johnny will need to discover the truth while trying to stay sober.

The dark tone of "Hidden Palms" is established in tonight's opening scene, when Johnny is seen as a clean-cut young man who looks up from his homework to see his drunk father kill himself. The series then jumps ahead a year, as Johnny, his mother, and his new stepfather move from Seattle to Palm Springs to start fresh. Johnny is now a disaffected young man in recovery with tousled hair and an Army camouflage shirt. He has become a full-fledged teen-angst TV hero, although he's still boyish enough to have Oedipal anxieties about his mother and stepfather. Also, he's a virgin: "The first time is inevitable, which makes it predictable, which makes it boring," he explains to Greta. If he were a girl choosing virginity, it would be teen-soap business as usual; but in its effort to be slightly twisted, "Hidden Palms" gives us a boy still holding fast to a bit of innocence.

"Hidden Palms" would be more engaging and addictive if the acting were more distinctive. The best I can say about the show is that it's better than summer reality TV, and better than "One Tree Hill." Johnny is played with bland modesty by Taylor Handley, best remembered as Oliver the nutcase from "The O.C." Michael Cassidy, who was also on "The O.C." as Seth's competitor for Summer, makes Cliff into a slick, generic heel. Amber Heard is all hollow come-on and aloofness as Greta. The biggest breath of fresh air is from one of the older members of the cast, Sharon Lawrence, who plays Cliff's mother with welcome humor. She's a plastic-surgery addict -- not an original concept, but an entertaining one, as she stresses over the shape of her nose. Lawrence is joined in the cast by fellow "NYPD Blue" alum Gail O'Grady, who is a lot less juicy as Johnny's mom. She may or may not be a gold digger. Let's hope she is, for O'Grady's sake.

Since "Dawson's Creek," Williamson has created two failed soap series, "Wasteland" and "Glory Days," both models of sincere melodrama about people under 30. This time around, though, Williamson has jettisoned much of his more heartfelt, coming-of-age approach to TV in order to explore the less cozy murder-mystery genre. The roots of "Hidden Palms" are more bound up with those of "Reunion" and "Pasadena," two short-lived series involving teens and murders, than with the innocent romantic strains of "Dawson's Creek." Ultimately, "Hidden Palms" is a whodunit, although it fails to convince us we should care enough to wait for the answer.

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

'Related'

Hidden Palms

Starring: Taylor Handley, Gail O'Grady, Tessa Thompson, D.W. Moffett, Sharon Lawrence, Amber Heard, Michael Cassidy, Ellary Porterfield

On: The CW, Channel 56

Time: Tonight, 8-9

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