The nighttime soap, generally speaking, is the chewing gum on the TV candy shelf. You get a few good, flavorful chews, and taste that hyper-sweet chemical fruit tang from your mouth up to your cheekbones. It’s good and your mouth is happy. And then, too quickly, it becomes a dead thing hanging around on your side and hind teeth, a jaw workout with no life left in its sad, sticky, crushed soul.
“Revenge” is the classic example. The first season, from episode 1 on, was a surge of flavor. The Hamptons melodrama was way over-the-top and entertaining as a result, and Madeleine Stowe’s commanding performance helped a lot. It was classic “guilty pleasure” viewing. But now, in season 2, the story line strains, and the one-dimensionality of the characters is too obvious to ignore. Only a few soaps with that lightning-in-a-bottle mix of characters and plots — I’m thinking of the likes of “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” and “Melrose Place” — actually manage to remain creative, intriguing, and amusing for longer than a season.
Which brings me to “Deception,” the new NBC soap that, like “Revenge,” revolves around a murder in a wealthy family and features a heroine who comes from deep in that family’s past. Before the end of the awful pilot episode, Monday night at 10 on Channel 7, I’d already gotten that chewing-for-chewing’s-sake feeling. The hour offers no promise of even a temporary burst of enjoyment for a few weeks; it’s just an unspooling of murder-mystery clichés, scene-to-scene logic problems, and characters who are bland and far from intriguing. I was as engaged as I might be watching a really slow game of Clue.
Meagan Good stars as Joanna Locasto, a cop who was childhood friends with young Long Island socialite Vivian Bowers. When Vivian turns up dead in a New York hotel room, Joanna’s ex-lover, FBI agent Will Moreno (Laz Alonso), persuades her to go undercover to help figure out who killed her old friend. Joanna agrees, reluctantly, and soon she is skulking around the Bowers’s mansion wearing a wire, rifling through drawers, and reestablishing old friendships and tensions. Vivian’s father, Robert (Victor Garber), is particularly glad to see her again, and he invites her to live and work with the family for a while. One of Vivian’s brothers, Julian (Wes Brown), is welcoming; he and Joanna were lovers in the old days, and he wants to get back together. The other brother, Edward (Tate Donovan), is suspicious of Joanna’s return.
All of the characters are types, not least of all Vivian’s cynical stepmother, Sofia (Katherine LaNasa), who never seems to be without her beloved glass of booze. But what’s worse is that the atmosphere is glum and sincere, without any of the gusto for soap opera conventions that distinguished “Revenge.” These types of shows need to have infectious fun as they introduce all the old saws — the hidden agendas of Vivian’s siblings, for example, or the corruption at the Bowers’s pharmaceutical company that may have played a role in Vivian’s murder. The writers, fashion consultants, and camera people need to give it all some juice. There’s no juice in “Deception,” just the plodding unfolding of plotline.
Even the actors seem grudging as they play their predictable parts. They never succeed in creating a sense of ensemble, enabling us to feel how these characters have known one another for decades. They all seem like strangers, strangers in a strange, and not very inviting or fascinating, land.