Looking like something between a postapocalyptic episode of "Scooby-Doo" and a multiethnic teen version of the party mural from "Good Times," MTV’s "Downtown" has a distinct visual quality that captures the essence of its urban labyrinth of themes.
Its clean lines are filled in with flat colors reminiscent of things one might find inside a city dumpster, circa 1968. The bummed-out olives, plums and clashing baby blues bespeak both the retro fashion blindness of big city youth and a certain level of dark apathy — as if a dynamically changing world dipped its brush one too many times to get another bright hue.
The show’s late-summer premiere and the few episodes that have followed present a group of eight 20-somethings in New York City’s East Village — just hangin’, in the worst sense of the term. Alex, the soft-spoken guy, lets his serious side show like a high-rise waistband on a pair of Hilfiger boxers floating out of baggy jeans. Alex gets what he thinks is his own apartment, a dingy little pad that shakes unwillingly to the beat of booming dance music pushing up nightly from an obnoxiously trendy club downstairs. But nighttime noise is the least of Alex’s worries.
His polar opposite sister, Chaka, commands every scene with the loud flair of her physical outline and her flamboyant, dominating personality. She sees the words "crash pad" over the door of her brother’s apartment before he can get a full night’s sleep in his own space. But Alex’s insomnia and Chaka’s will to party give him incentive to work a late shift and avoid the noise. His lanky strobe-light-ready sister eventually takes over and throws him a housewarming party. But he can’t even get past the amateur bouncer at his own apartment door.
So much for adventures in postadolescent independence. Alex busts up the hipster festival, sending his sister and her blue wig bobbing off in frustration and anger. And that scenario does a fine job of setting up an entire season of sibling struggles offset by a bouquet of urban friends who look like something out of a Sketchers ad.
"Downtown" is more than party scenes and family trouble, or at least that’s the way the show was conceived. Much of its content and backdrop come from real-life interviews with young people on the streets of New York. A cool thought, but its neat puzzle of interlocking, color-coordinated characters could benefit from a Midwestern renegade to mix up their neat PC palate of premillennium personalities.
The core characters of the show — Alex, Chaka, Mecca, Jen, Serena, Goat, Fruity and Matt — are relatively sophisticated for their age, or anyone’s age, for that matter. Between shopping for tank tops and khakis, they show they’re hip to the world, even socially and politically conscious. They’re cerebral, but often in a lazy way. They’re willing to be in tune with life, but would prefer to read the graphic novel version. They earn their sophisticated city kids props, but their New York worldliness can’t seem to give the show what it needs to really take off.
That’s because in "Downtown" everything is serious while nothing is. Fruity is a high school senior who has devoted his life to being the center of attention, especially for young ladies. He’s sort of a male version of Chaka whose character is balanced by her best friend, Mecca, a pink-haired fount of understanding and tolerance who tends to bore and exasperate the people around her. Their street smarts and hard edges make her fine attributes seem like outdated luxuries. Nobody needs to be a great person in a show whose premise is based on people who have so much going on around them that they never really have the time or energy to "get real," let alone keep it there.
Of course, the group is rounded out by the other characters. Serena is Alex’s dysfunctional Goth fantasy who burns up all her dark energy raiding Morticia Addams’ closet, writing poetry, working at a comic shop and playing the zither. Alex’s best friend, Jen, has the personality of relaxed denim and an appearance to match. She spends most of her time complaining about relationships and dealing vintage clothes at the Lord of Hoard, a cluttered shop where she is employed.
Sometimes the whole authentic New York experience — the trends, club scenes and taken-for-granted sophistication — seems almost realized in these meandering characters and their gritty indifference to their own soap opera lives. But by gazing from other angles — focusing on the characters, for instance — the whole thing can easily turn into poser day at the Renaissance festival.
"Downtown" has its moments, with poignant and insightful snippets of dialogue popping up here and there among well-crafted banalities and painted-over clichés. It offers a break from the sweaty claymation of "Celebrity Death Match" and the one-dimensional world of "Daria."
But even in its most interesting, almost surreal moments, "Downtown" is caught in the unfortunate position of reflecting a reality that has overworked its spontaneity to the point of total, homogenous inertia, which is really kind of sad. After all, even being wise beyond one’s years should leave a person something to look forward to.
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