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Typically most college freshmen who leave the nest for the first time in their lives are searching for freedom and the polar opposite to their home life. And in doing so, they venture with their shower caddies, over-the-door mirrors, and shiny laptop computers in the pursuit of what they aspire to be their “best years.”
However, for the heroine of Aaron Martin’s original series making its way to DVD from E1 Entertainment—or more specifically actress Charity Shea’s Samantha Best—she’s heading for university in a fierce attempt to move away from the constant revolving door of too many unhappy foster homes. And instead of dreams of partying and all-nighters, Samantha hopes that the subsequent four years of her life will become “the best” indeed, upon arriving at a place she yearns to craft into her very own version of home in the show’s fictitious northeastern Ivy League setting of Charles University.
Having figuratively “graduated” after four successful years as the head writer on the critically acclaimed television series Degrassi: The Next Generation, Aaron Martin reveals in one of the behind the scenes extra features of this four-disc DVD set that he wanted to stay within the same age range where characters can make mistakes but not be considered evil since they're not adults yet, thus offering Martin a great storytelling aspect with which to work.
While, much like to Degrassi, The Best Years can be viewed as a high quality teen soap that airs on Canada’s nighttime teen network The N Channel (also available here in the states to select DirecTV or cable subscribers). However, to simply dismiss it as such would be a great and unfair oversight as he consistently elevates the show with compelling and contemporary plot lines, numerous mystery aspects, and stellar production values.
Cinematically influenced-- as he confesses on the DVD-- by the warm-toned and soft-lighting look and feel employed throughout Peter Weir's film Dead Poets Society to make it a truly beautiful show that immediately catches your eye and invites you into its northeastern setting, The Best Years boasts multiple film inspirations proudly as all 13 episodes are named after some remarkable films such as Vertigo, From Here to Eternity, All That Heaven Allows, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Five Easy Pieces.
Therefore, it's only fitting that within the core ensemble cast of characters, we’re introduced to the show’s comic relief in the form of the sweet-natured Canadian Noah (Randal Edwards playing a far more believable version of James Van Der Beek’s similar character on Dawson’s Creek) who—despite giving off an erroneous yet strong gay vibe to every girl he meets—has a passion for cinema that manages to make him more than just his beautiful film teacher’s pet.
Rounding out the group that lives in McDonald Hall, we meet the following characters: Samantha's Minnesota native, blonde haired wealthy soybean fortune “heiress” roommate Kathryn Klarner (Jennifer Miller); the clingy and troubled Type A Cynthia Song (Siu Ta); handsome basketball player Devon Sylver (Brandon Jay McLaren); the gorgeous former high school television star Dawn Vargaz (Athena Karkanis) who trades a Saved By The Bell-like show for the halls of Charles University to study serious acting; along with the obligatory mischievously sexy bad boy, Trent (Niall Matter).
Trent—a fourth year junior who incidentally comes from one of the wealthiest and most respected families in the area which he tries to hide with every new bed he hops into in a series of one-night stands—works at the local university bar Colony, which despite our cast being under the age of twenty-one they have no trouble infiltrating from the very first episode.
Although all of the characters have engrossing story-lines and I was most consistently taken in by Karkanis’ portrayal of Dawn (who sadly is one of three major members that won’t be written into the soon to air season two), it’s the young woman whose last name is referenced in the show’s title with whom Martin anchors the show as we’re presented with the increasingly feisty Sam.
Despite being the only girl from South Boston with absolutely no trace of an accent (the boys in Good Will Hunting would be appalled), Sam seamlessly moves from her troubled and humble origins after she receives a full-ride academic scholarship to Charles University from her equally mysterious benefactress, Dorothy O'Sullivan (Sherry Miller).
While it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's some kind of connection with O'Sullivan and Best--much to Martin's credit there's a lot more to her story than one would assume from the get-go and he throws endless hurdles in her path from the series’ startling opener which finds one character dead, Sam meeting her first of two major romantic interests in the form of the frequently shirtless Devon, not to mention the start of some pretty major turns of events in the lives of those who reside in her hall.
Endearing to the audience from the start and fiercely loyal to those who become Samantha’s friends—although admittedly her bossy, gruff, and somewhat unlikable tendency to “tell it like it is” at any given moment (in some pretty awkwardly written speeches Shea has to fumble through with authority by raising her voice and finding her inner diva) makes her at times one of the least enjoyable characters to watch—the show’s heart is in the right place. Likewise, Martin and Shea do their best work on Best when surrounding Sam with other characters to let the drama rip.
This is especially effective when he takes us in several unexpected directions and uses them as an opportunity to prove our first instincts wrong and impart a little subtle wisdom in the process by for example-- going against what could be an Asian stereotype of the quintessential academic overachiever to reveal the reason that pushes her to the edge and letting relatives appear out of the woodwork throughout the opening and completely compelling thirteen episode first season run.
And while it would be fairly simple to American audiences used to Felicity, Beverly Hills 90210, and Gossip Girl to just lump the show together with those, when Martin manages to weave in plot-lines involving bisexuality, HIV, abuse, suicide, and addiction, he does so in ways that feel entirely genuine as opposed to salacious most notably in one subplot involving one character’s decision to make an amateur adult video by never letting us forget we actually care about those we’re watching as if they were flesh and blood individuals rather than merely entertaining “types.”
Of course, The Best Years incorporates an obligatory love triangle, missed opportunities, overheard gossip taken out of context, and other familiar devices but I was surprisingly drawn in by the characters and scripts on a level that went far beyond those of typical teen dramas as there’s something instantly relatable and ageless about Martin’s work that routinely makes you ask yourself hard-hitting questions about how you would handle a situation. Moreover, his sophisticated soap managed to hook me from the start into absorbing all four discs in just three days.
Although unfortunately, I live in an area that doesn’t offer me the opportunity to watch The N Channel to catch up on the second season that should be just hitting the airwaves this month, however if this first set is any indication, you can bet that the stellar widescreen cinematography and Dolby Digital cinema quality surround sound captured in this box set will ensure that we’ll be more than satisfied when Martin brings the second helping of Best to DVD shelves.