'Famous in Love': TV Review

Nary a surprise, twist or fresh character in sight.
4/18/2017

Bella Thorne makes only the tiniest move up from Disney Channel princess in this weirdly quaint Hollywood romance from the creator of 'Pretty Little Liars.'

I don't think Freeform's Famous in Love is meant to be a gripping, realistic depiction of the highs and lows of finding fame in Hollywood, gaining the world but losing your soul and whatnot.

I mean, it's not that, but that's also not its intent.

Based on the book by Rebecca Serle and adapted by I. Marlene King, Famous in Love seems to be meant as a fairy tale about an ordinary young woman who suddenly gets everything she wants and discovers that stardom may not be everything she ever dreamed of, but the glitz and glamour and particularly romance are worth a couple of bumps in the road.

Maybe the desire was to make the series — a star vehicle for former teen starlet and social media supernova Bella Thorne — into something a little old-fashioned and to run against the trend that says everything has to be increasingly gritty, increasingly adult and increasingly self-aware and self-conscious.

However, did anybody involved want Famous in Love to come across as so very quaint?

Consistently, through the five episodes I watched out of the 10-episode first season, my reaction was along the lines of, "Oh, it's so cute that they think that's a problem" or "Awww, I bet they think that was surprising." Leaving aside briefly that the target demographic for Famous in Love is probably not exactly "me," it's still hard to fathom how a show developed by the creator of Pretty Little Liars could be so unable to deliver any enticing twists or turns or could lack even the most kid-friendly hints of edginess.

Thorne, beloved by "the kids," plays Paige Townsen, a young college student whose most distinctive trait is repeatedly telling people her last name is spelled without a "d." At the urging of her friend Cassie (Geogie Flores), who harbors a deep, dark secret that is hilariously lacking in deepness and darkness, Paige goes out for an audition for Locked, an adaptation of a popular YA literary series that is simultaneously wildly popular, critically revered and, based on what we see of it, entirely ridiculous. The consensus at the studio is that the cattle call is just a formality and a star (Niki Koss' Alexis) will get the part. But when star Rainer Devon (Carter Jenkins) sees Paige, he's instantly agog and her audition leads everybody, including Rainer's producer mom Nina (Perrey Reeves), to agree that she is the only person who can play the lead.

The pilot is structured around a "one year later" framing device telling us that Paige will soon become hounded by the paparazzi and that fame will become, at least a little, a nightmare. That framing device doesn't return in the four other episodes I had the patience to watch. Instead of returning to the presaged nightmare of notoriety, Famous in Love generates its drama through crises like whether or not Paige will be able to act and also finish her econ midterm essay, since her professor dad thinks that education is important and following her dreams is not. I call that the Reverse Yentl.

The set-up for Famous in Love is, as people who watch too much TV know, virtually identical to the new E! drama The Arrangement, only without the definitely-not-Scientology twist that actually makes The Arrangement memorable and distinctive. Both shows rely on that hoary Hollywood cliché of the unknown ingenue who lucks into an audition and then is just too good to deny. One of the reasons The Arrangement works as comparatively well as it does is that Christine Evangelista pulls off that audition scene and is nearly good enough for you to go, "Yeah, I can pretend this person is getting pulled off the street and into the spotlight." Thorne, sadly, does not.

The actress is not awful on Famous in Love, but she's thoroughly miscast or misused because the show never forgets for a second that she's Bella Thorne, Disney Channel icon. Paige is supposed to be normal and unassuming, but Thorne plays "normal" in exactly the way you'd expect from somebody who has herself been famous since she was pre-pubescent. She makes normalcy into a series of stutters and tics, and she's accompanied in her exaggerated obliviousness by Flores and Charlie DePew, as Paige and Cassie's third roommate, a writer with six-pack abs and a screenplay that, based on what we hear of it, is entirely ridiculous. These are three people who live in Hollywood, quote entertainment news reporting obsessively and yet walk into restaurants like slack-jawed hayseeds astounded that prices are so high. The scope of their "Gee willikers!" naivety is absurd and the learning curve for the three rubes is impossibly steep, as they remain as collectively doe-eyed by the fifth episode as they were in the first.

And transformation is supposed to be everything in this story. How does Paige go from the chipper hick of the early episodes to the jaded star of the framing device? It means a lot of callusing will come in the episodes I haven't watched. There's also no room for transformation when Thorne isn't even playing girl-next-door on that disingenuous She's All That level. She's striking from the first frame to the last, so it's beyond insulting that the show has already delivered at least three scenes in which Paige tries on a fancy outfit and folks are agog at how stunning she turns out to be. We get it. She looks like Bella Thorne. I'd joke that "Key Lighting for Bella Thorne" should get opening credits billing, but each and every star is being overlit so that you concentrate on their cheekbones rather than their performances, which are universally negligible, but the overlighting also left me constantly aware of what I'm sure was a mammoth pancake-makeup budget.

Look, these are the things I fixate on when nothing in the story is gripping me.

Locked is built up as this huge franchise with a $200 million budget, but Famous in Love lacks the budget itself to justify anybody being impressed by its scale, and when you have your main character stunned to discover that movies with CG characters sometimes use tennis balls as stand-ins, I'm not going to respect your main character for long. Everybody's gushing about the rareified air these stars and this movie move in, but the big celebrity cameos are the Dolan Twins and tWitch from So You Think You Can Dance, personalities so big the characters onscreen have to keep saying their names over and over again to remind viewers they should be impressed. (If it's possible, the college side of Paige's life is even sillier and harder to take seriously than the Hollywood side.)

It's all just so quaint.

If nothing else, Famous In Love is designed to be a transitional role for Thorne, but with Freeform in identity flux, the gap between this and the actress' Disney roots isn't as great as she'd probably like. Famous in Love maybe has a target audience a few years older than Hannah Montana — to reference a non-Thorne Disney Channel show about a woman struggling to balance ordinary life with fame — but it's not much more than that. And that target audience sure isn't me, so let your craving for a flatly acted, chemistry-lite Tinseltown Cinderella be your own guide.

Cast: Bella Thorne, Carter Jenkins, Keith Powers, Charlie DePew, Niki Koss, Perrey Reeves, Pepi Sonuga
Creator: I. Marlene King, from the book by Rebecca Serle
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT, with the entire series available on demand immediately afterwards (Freeform) 

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