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Angst-filled 'Diaries' is sophomoric, not sexy

You've got to hand it to ''The Bedford Diaries." While other TV youth melodramas pretend to be about family, money, alcohol, hairstyles, and hot tubs, this new WB series about New York college students taking a sex seminar cuts to the chase. Openly preoccupied with the sexuality of its young minds and young bodies, it's ''Felicity" with condoms and massage oil in her knapsack.

Not that the show, premiering tonight at 9 on Channel 56, is obscene in any way. Though the WB edited scenes to avoid fines like the ones the FCC ludicrously levied against many channels for airing an episode of ''Without a Trace" that involved a teen orgy, ''The Bedford Diaries" is not particularly explicit or titillating. The script focuses more on the emotional ups and downs of the classmates as they sleep with one another, sleep with teachers, want to sleep with one another, and want to sleep with teachers. All last week's FCC controversy did was bring attention to the new series.

Otherwise ''The Bedford Diaries" might have passed by relatively unnoticed, as just another go at a young TV demographic. It's surprisingly sophomoric considering the reputations of the men behind it, filmmaker Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana of ''Oz" and ''Homicide: Life on the Street." The show takes the characters' angst and obsessions much too seriously, elevating their histrionics to soap-operatic levels when it should be flirting with satire.

The students in Sexual Behavior and the Human Condition aren't given depth by the writers, so their tangled queries about love and sex aren't compelling. No matter how honest and upfront these kids are, they're still pretty bland. As instructed by professor Jake Macklin (Matthew Modine), they keep video diaries about their feelings, leading to grainy segments that are as fascinating as the confessionals on ''The Real World," which is to say, not very. As the lives of the classmates and teachers become intertwined -- bratty Richard (Milo Ventimiglia) even trysts with the professor's ex-wife -- the diaries become even sudsier and more tragique. Naturally, the students are unnervingly comfortable baring their souls on camera.

Freshman Owen (Penn Badgley) and his overachieving older sister, Sarah (Tiffany Dupont), are part of the class. He may have a crush on the unstable Natalie (Corri English), who attempted suicide by jumping off a roof: ''There is something very hot about that kind of crazy," he tells his diary. Meanwhile, Sarah is struggling with memories of an affair with a teacher, one that could be outed in the campus paper by Richard, who happens to be the paper's editor.

While Modine and Audra McDonald (as a professor) are the heavyweights in the cast, they're not much more than token adults on hand to provide a little something for the parents in the TV audience. Tonight's oddest scene also plays like a nod to older viewers, as the students reenact a 1972 campus riot. Alas, it comes off like a spirited sports rally. Indeed, Bedford University looks and feels more like one of TV's conventional fantasy colleges than an edgy New York institution. Fontana and Levinson have set ''The Bedford Diaries" in the kind of Manhattan that, like the show itself, doesn't seem to be as far from ''Dawson's Creek" as it should.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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