Speak of the Devil
ABC, Wednesday, 10 PM
Teleplay: Maggie Friedman
From a screenplay by Michael Crisotofer
Directed by David Nutter
Ten minutes into the pilot for this new ABC series, the thought going through my head was, “Someone at ABC thought this was better than Pushing Daisies?” Because it so isn’t. Based on the John Updike novel, The Witches of Eastwick, this tale of three almost accidental witches in a small New England town has already been adapted six times before, including two stage versions, a musical, the 1987 Jack Nicholson film, and two previous failed pilots. Apparently either audiences cannot get enough of this story, or the manuscript casts an inescapable spell on network executives. If at first they don’t succeed (or even if they do), they try, try, try, try, try again.
The premise of the story is that three women living in the Yankee village of Eastwick, who have nothing otherwise in common, wake up one day to find that they have acquired magical powers. The mechanism for this differs from one adaptation to another; in this version, they each find a worn Walking Liberty half dollar. To make a wish, each one throws her coin into the town fountain, which just happens to be decorated with a statue of three witches who allegedly were burned at the stake by Puritans long ago. Oh, and just for good measure, it’s Founders Day, complete with parades, booths, and costumed locals celebrating their local history (and the fact that the Puritans hanged witches, rather than burning them, doesn’t seem to faze these yokels at all). We are introduced to our three protagonists, Roxanne (Rebecca Romjin, X-Men), Kat (Jaime Ray Newman, Eureka), and Joanna (Lindsay Price, Lipstick Jungle). Like Charlie’s Angels, they cover the hair spectrum: redhead, blonde, brunette. The only one who stands out from the suburban white-bread background of this fairy tale is Rebecca Romjin’s Roxie, an arts-and-crafts type who dresses like a bohemian and talks like a sailor. Kat the nurse has several children and a bad husband, but otherwise is pretty standard issue Mom. Joanna the reporter dresses like a clichéd idea of a librarian and peppers her speech with awkward references to her vibrator, vomiting, and other unpleasant topics. How cute, yes?
For reasons not explained in the pilot, the mysterious Darryl Van Horn (Paul Gross, Due South) comes to town, buying up everything in sight and trying to seduce the ladies. To each one he appears as the answer to her fountain wish. To each one he appears to be offering her her heart’s desire. None of them quite believe him, and Roxy calls him annoying. Indeed, if Darryl is supposed to be the Devil, then he is unquestionably the most colorless devil in the history of evil. When one thinks of, for example, David Warner’s inspired turn as the Evil Genius in Time Bandits, or John Glover’s subtle and charming Devil inBrimstone, or even Jack Nicholson in the movie The Witches of Eastwick, it’s something of a come-down to see Gross blandly walking through this role. Once, and only once, he shows a spark of something that might be animation–when Daryl rescues Roxy’s daughter from date rape. One would think that would be something the devil would encourage, but I guess we’re not really going to see a Prince of Evil in this series. Maybe a Prince of Mischief, or a Duke of Hijinks, but nothing more sinister, clearly.
The weird thing about the adaptations of Updike’s book that I have seen is the fundamental re-alignment of power in the story. In the book, Updike treats the three witches with condescension and humor, poking fun at their dreams and aspirations. The originals were bored, thrill-seeking housewives who came across as unsavory and unsophisticated. The protagonists in this TV show are oppressed but likable women seeking “their power”, whatever that phrase may mean today. Roxie wants respect, Kat wants someone to take care of her for a change, and Joanna wants to be more self-assertive. In the pilot, each one gets what she wants–at a price, of course. Roxie is now plagued with prophetic dreams, Kat’s husband is divorcing her, and Joanna is learning that making a man fall in love with you is not as fulfilling if he does it on his own.
I’ll call this one Sex and the City meets Charmed, without the urban sophistication of the former or the self-mockery of the latter. If you like Desperate Housewives with a bit of the paranormal thrown in, you should like this. I don’t, because I don’t see female power as something that grows out of a cauldron. Evoking witchcraft as a female tool brings back unwelcome echoes of not too distant times, when women were characterized as backward, ignorant and superstitious. We are not so far removed from those days that I am comfortable with a show which seems to say that the only way a woman can get what she wants is to be devious about it, and to call on the help of a white man–even if he is the devil.
This being network television, there isn’t going to be anywhere near the amount of evil, death and sex the book contained, nor will it have the snap and verve of actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher. As a tamed down, light version of the story, I suppose it will work, but honestly, I don’t know what stories they think they can tell week after week before they start repeating themselves. David Nutter’s work is always top notch, and the production values are first rate. Rebecca Romjin, in particular, should be sending bouquets to her costumer for those lovely gypsy outfits. Of all the characters, her Roxie is the only one I didn’t find shallow and unbelievable.
However, it debuted to modestly acceptable numbers, 3.0/8 share from 8.5 million viewers. This being the pilot, these numbers tell us only that viewers were intrigued enough to tune in; the real proof of the cauldron will be next week, when we find out if any of them came back.