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New on TV this season: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Part 3

I welcomed this summer with high hopes of writing a whole bunch. Well, maybe not a whole bunch, but I did plan at the very least to write about three TV shows I watched last season and do so before the new TV season started. Alas, it was not to be. The new TV season begins in earnest this week, and the kids of One Tree Hill already are back to the usual over-the-top-but-would-we-want-it-any-other-way hijinks: Brooke is arrested and her business closed mid wedding-planning-turned-fantasy-tryst with Julian; Nathan and Haley tell Jamie he is going to be a big brother only to find that they have no answer to his subsequent question, “So, how does that work?”; Alex turns her other-woman routine onto Chase and Mia, the world’s most boring couple; Clay and Quinn make out and go skinny dipping in their subconscious while bleeding out on the floor of his bedroom; no word on Psycho-attempted-murderer Katie. But before we get too sucked into another year of middling soapy melodrama, we should take a moment to appreciate one actually good show that that didn’t get a chance to stick around longer than a season.

So to finish off “New on TV this season: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” here’s The Ugly, the cancellation of 10 Things I Hate About You, even if it isn’t “this” season we’re talking about any more. To refresh, The Good (Glee) is here, The Bad (Life Unexpected) is here.

When the movie 10 Things I Hate About You came out, I was a little bit skeptical. The success of Clueless, which set Jane Austen’s Emma in a modern, Los Angeles high school, led to a number of similar updates of other classics. 10 Things, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, was one of the first to follow. Taming, for those not well versed in the Bard’s oeuvre, is the story of the beautiful and coveted Bianca, her headstrong and generally always angry, thus less coveted, sister Katerina, and their father’s plan to see the latter married, despite a lack of suitors, before the former, who attracts them all. Petruchio, wooed by Kate’s considerable dowry, does the “taming” of the title, eventually winning her hand in marriage and love using some rather unorthodox, pre-women’s movement methods. As this is happening, Lucentio woos and wins Bianca by pretending to be a music teacher, and Hortensio, who first convinces Petruchio to go after Kate planning to win Bianca himself, ends up with some other rich lady. But that’s neither here nor there.

It’s not an easy story to modernize. The movie did it this way: An over-protective father eager to keep his pretty and popular young daughter from dating (this is Bianca) allows her to do only as much as her older sister, an ornery non-conformist interested in her education and little else, certainly not boys, is willing to do (this is Kat). His plan is foiled when Cameron, the Lucentio of the story, and his best friend trick the resident self-involved douche into paying the school loner, Patrick (this story’s Petruchio), to take out big sis. It sounds like a flimsy premise because when you write it down like that it kind of is. A father who only lets one daughter go out if the other one does? Certainly a measure of willing suspension of disbelief is required. Still, the script is surprisingly sharp, and the stars—Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, David Krumholtz, and Larisa Oleynik—bring it home with surprising realism and humor. This was the first thing I ever saw with Ledger, who played Patrick, and, as in everything that came after, he makes what turns out to be solid material even better. Gordon-Leavitt, for his part as Cameron, sharpened the romantic lead skills that served him so well in the wonderful (500) Days of Summer. Stiles displayed a strength and charm that, unfortunately, maybe for lack of equally good roles, she hasn’t quite duplicated since.

But I digress, because I’m really here to talk about the show 10 Things I Hate About You, which I initially thought was an even worse idea than the movie. The show, we should be very clear, is based on the movie, not the play, and only borrows the premise of the movie (younger daughter can’t date until the older one does) and the characters as a jumping off point. Dad’s “rule” is referenced in the pilot, but rarely ever again. There is no scheme to pay Patrick to go out with Kat so that Cameron can go out with Bianca. Instead, Kat and Bianca are newly arrived at a new school in California, having just moved to town from Ohio. Cameron sees Bianca and is quickly infatuated with her, becoming her dorky best friend even as she schemes to befriend the most popular girl in school and join the cheerleading squad. Kat remains the anti-social brainiac, this time with an activism streak. Patrick is still the loner everyone is scared of, but he notices and is attracted to Kat of his own accord, not because Joey is tricked into paying him to do so. Joey, by the way, is transformed from predatory douche in the movie into airhead jock on the show. His girlfriend, Chastity, a throwaway character in the movie, becomes central to this story as head cheerleader, the girl Bianca longs to be, and Kat’s nemesis.

Though at times it seemed hard to pin down, the show was at its root a comedy, a send up of the teen genre, and an antidote to pretty much every high school show on TV. In interviews, creator Carter Covington said he liked the character of Kat so much in the movie, he essentially built the show to bring her to TV, seeing that there exist so few young female characters on TV as strong, textured and driven as she. (And it’s true. Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen of Gossip Girl are essentially characters from Dynasty who happen to live in 2010 New York, not 1980 Colorado.) According to Covington’s vision, then, Patrick doesn’t need the contrivances of the movie to want to be near Kat. Sure enough, as their relationship developed, it became the driver of the show. That’s thanks in part to the incredible chemistry between the show’s leads, Lindsey Shaw and Ethan Peck, a grandson of the great Gregory who inherited his marvelously talented grandfather’s deliciously deep voice and his glorious eyebrows. The rest of the cast was just as strong and managed to reinvent each role without taking away from the characters as we see them in the movie. Indeed, the show as a whole created its own niche and is thus difficult to compare with the movie. Both are enjoyable for different reasons.

So why didn’t it take? Ask ABC family, I guess, who didn’t do a whole lot of promotion and didn’t pair the show to air with anything else. Not many people watched it, I guess, but how many people watch anything else on ABC family? The dagger in the heart was that the end of the show was followed by the premiere of Pretty Little Liars, about girls trying to out mean girl each other while trying to figure out why a girl they thought was dead apparently isn’t. In other words, more female characters concerned with status and looks, exactly what Kat wasn’t. It’s really too bad, and even months after the show ended, it’s still hard for me to believe that it didn’t catch on. Kat and Patrick’s budding relationship was as interesting and real and healthy as any other on TV for characters of the same age. In what was possibly the best episode of the series, Kat makes Patrick get tested for STDs before having sex. Kat’s back and forth with her sister was also hilarious and at times touching in the way sisters can drive each other crazy one moment and need each other desperately the next. Even the supporting characters, from the school principal, to the security guard, to the guidance counselor (played by the hilarious Leslie Grossman) were good for a laugh once per episode.

So congratulations, Hollywood, for taking what seemed like a bad idea and making it work, then doing it again and making me addicted to it, then canceling it. Thanks a lot.

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