Prime-time soap 'Pasadena' deserves another look

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Television criticism is the only form of arts criticism where reviews are routinely written based solely on the first chapter of a story.

  
Dana Delany, right, plays Catherine, the privileged, socialite mother to Lily (Alison Lohman) on "Pasadena," a short-lived Fox series now airing on SOAPnet.
'Pasadena'
When: 7 p.m. (repeats at 10 p.m.) Saturday on SOAPnet
Starring: Dana Delany.

Sometimes, TV critics get to see more than the first episode before writing their reviews, but not often. The reason is simple: TV shows are in production until shortly before they air.

I long ago made peace with this state of affairs, even if it sometimes leaves me with egg on my face when a bad pilot leads to a terrific series ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") or when a disappointing series follows an excellent pilot ("Carnivale"). One way to combat that is for critics to allow their critical gaze to return to a show after writing that first review. One person can't do that with every TV show, but it helps to confirm or write off first impressions.

It's with that backdrop that I relished the opportunity to review "Pasadena" after seeing all 13 hours.

My initial review of "Pasadena" ran in the Post-Gazette on Sept. 28, 2001, the night the show premiered on Fox. The series ran for four episodes and was yanked, never to appear again until cable's SOAPnet picks it up beginning Saturday.

My first impression of this drama with riotous bits of dark comedy was positive, but I also remember becoming more intrigued the more episodes I saw.

Dana Delany stars in "Pasadena" as Catherine McAllister, daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher (Philip Baker Hall). But it's her daughter, Lily (Alison Lohman), from whose point of view the story is told.

Lily and schoolmate/boyfriend Henry (Alan Simpson) investigate the murder of her mother's childhood friend, Meredith Weller, after a man commits suicide in the McAllister mansion.

Catherine's brothers, drug-taking Nate (Balthazar Getty) and hothead Robert (Mark Valley), appear to be prime suspects in Weller's killing, but with a family as cold and twisted as this one, no one can be ruled out. (One disappointment: Though the first 13 episodes wrap up the murder mystery, they don't get back to the first scene in the pilot, a one-year-later flash-forward that shows Lily being chased down a staircase by reporters after the family's secrets become public.)

"The greatest sin, Lily, is resignation," says Lily's grandmother, Lillian (Barbara Babcock). "Happiness, satisfaction, that's for the middle class. For our family, we must live impossible lives, and so we do."

"Pasadena" is filled with stand-out performances, most notably Martin Donovan as Catherine's sinful but stable husband and Natasha Gregson Wagner as Catherine's spoiled, princess-y younger sister.

"Joan of Arcadia" fans will be surprised to see a young Christopher Marquette, Adam on "Joan," as Lily's younger brother, Mason.

Mark Valley, who went on to star in "Keen Eddie" and now has a do-nothing role on "Boston Legal," had his best TV acting job as "Pasadena's" privileged schemer. After dumping a girlfriend, Valley's Robert tries to soften the blow, saying with sincerity, "But if you ever want to have sex sometime, my door is always open."

When I first watched "Pasadena," I was perplexed why an actress as talented as Delany ("China Beach") would take such a passive role. In the pilot, her Catherine comes off as a frustrated homemaker. But in later episodes the role gets much stronger, as Catherine is revealed to be an extremely damaged individual.

In a phone interview last week, Delany told me she took the role based on the strength of creator Mike White's writing. She didn't know just how fragile her character would turn out to be until after filming the pilot, and she credits then-Fox Entertainment chief Sandy Grushow with pointing to Catherine's furniture-tossing fit in that first show for making her character more than -- pardon the expression -- a desperate housewife.

"Mike writes women really well ... and what I love about his writing is it has such heart and so many layers to it," she said. "You can see ['Pasadena'] as a black comedy or see it as really tragic. A lot of soaps on television now don't have that layer of tragedy to them. But you're really feeling for [this family]."

Catherine tries to seduce her daughter's teenage boyfriend, and later sets her sights on a married minister, who acknowledges he's a sinner.

"Really?" Catherine says, oozing sensuality as she goes in for the seductive kill. "Sinned lately?"

"Pasadena" is dark, twisted fun.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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