Investigation Discovery’s one-hour “Heartbreakers” (10 tonight) doesn’t rise to “Sharknado” levels of good badness – “Heartbreakers” is not nearly as entertaining – but the series makes an effort.
It’s basically another ID show that mixes dramatic re-creations of crimes with talking head interviews with people who were there and the occasional bit of TV news footage.
What makes “Heartbreakers” different is that instead of hiring anonymous actors to play real-life crime victims and perpetrators, the show uses washed-up celebs from the ‘80s and ‘90s and then gloms on the occasional bit of dialogue that nods at their famous roles.
Celebs appearing in the show’s first season include Kevin Sorbo (“Hercules”), Jack Wagner (“Melrose Place”), Judd Nelson (“The Breakfast Club”), Jamie Luner (“Savannah”) and Nicole Eggert (“Baywatch”).
In tonight’s series premiere, “Shot Through the Heart,” Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady on “The Brady Bunch”), Tracey Gold (“Growing Pains”) and Antonio Sabato Jr. (“General Hospital,” “Melrose Place”) are the featured players in the 1983-84 story of love gone wrong in an East Texas high school.
Principal Hurley Fontenot (Mr. Knight) begins an affair with his secretary, Laura Nugent (Ms. Gold), which gets interrupted when a new football coach (Mr. Sabato) arrives at the school. Eventually, one of them ends up dead but “Heartbreakers” doesn’t telegraph the identity of the killer or victim. The show is more “who’s gonna do it” (and “who’s gonna die”) than it is whodunit.
Along the way there’s evidence of the toll aging takes, even on a star’s body; terrible acting and cliched dialogue (industrious viewers might create a Bingo scorecard using “the heart wants what it wants,” “you don’t own me” and “don’t tell me what to do”).
Mr. Knight actually performs the best of the bunch, bringing to mind a low-rent version of Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards” character thanks to Mr. Knight’s Texas accent and occasional direct-address to the camera.
But “Heartbreakers” is at its cheesy best when it alludes to the stars’ past roles.
“Show me that smile again,” Mr. Sabato’s character says to Ms. Gold, quoting from the “Growing Pains” theme song.
“Sometimes when you play ball in the house, things wind up broken,” Mr. Knight says, an allusion to a “Brady Bunch” episode.
Whether the stars of “Heartbreakers” understand they’re participating in a cheese-fest is debatable. At the TV critics summer press tour last month, some cast members seemed to appreciate the show’s tone; others sounded a little defensive.
“I mean, you can call it campy, but it’s a true story,” said Nicole Eggert of her episode, “Tainted Love,” about a wealthy businessman who meets a single mom on a flight from Orlando to Los Angeles. “It was a wild ride. And to see the pictures and to see footage of the real people, it’s really touching.”
Ms. Gold said the material had to be viewed by the actors with a realistic sensibility.
“It is real life and it is real people, and you don’t want to approach it as a joke,” Ms. Gold said. “Obviously there’s a camp element to it, but I think that will come through on its own. But if you approach it straightforward, then I think it plays way better.”
ID executives clearly understand what they’ve created with “Heartbreakers.”
“We're always looking for new and interesting ways to tell these great stories,” said ID executive producer Pamela Deutsch. “It's pretty obvious that nostalgia factors a big part in ‘Heartbreakers.’ And what we did is we looked at really iconic Hollywood actors from the era … the golden age of the prime-time soap. And we kind of went from there. We cast stories sort of that decade, and we looked to cast some of the folks you see today who really epitomize that era.”
Mr. Knight said he appreciated the opportunity to play against type and he didn’t blame the show’s cliched dialogue for bringing the cheese.
“I can't say that the writing actually exaggerated it. I think I did,” he said. “The plot, which is a real plot, is outlandish. … The ridiculousness of his life and what he went through as we rewrote it lent itself to what you see.”
Mr. Sorbo seemed to have the healthiest attitude about acting with mediocre material, relating a story he once heard about British actor Michael Caine.
“I saw him in an interview years ago, and somebody said, ‘You're Sir Michael Caine. Why would you do “Jaws 3-D”? Have you ever seen it?’" Mr. Sorbo recalled. “And he goes, ‘No, but I saw the house it bought me in Spain.’"
A version of this column first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.