The heroine of The Nine Lives of Chloe King has sharp claws, supersensitive ears, and an eerie ability to empathize with someone's innermost, unspoken thoughts.
Based on a series of novels by Liz Braswell, The Nine Lives of Chloe King (ABC Family, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET) continues its network's fine tradition of demolishing the distinction between adolescent wish fulfillment and adult fantasy about teen life. In the course of catching up on ABC Family's latest crop of low-calorie fluff online, I was subjected to as many ads for insurance as for prescription zit cream, and Chloe King is built to appeal to persons in the market for each product. It is a show about a high-school superheroine—a Catwoman without the camp or the S&M gear—and it enables longtime fans of the subgenre to watch with pride as their children digest its venerable tropes for only the fourth or fifth time.
Our setting is San Francisco, a city well-suited for feline adventures, what with its Hitchcockian towers to race up and plunge from, its Bullitt-y topography made for racing and chasing. With her dad having split a decade ago, our heroine lives with her mother, who either works as an architect or derives strange pleasures from sliding rolled blueprints into cardboard tubes at the breakfast hour. Chloe, who is celebrating her 16th birthday as the action gets under way, demonstrates brightness and humor but, in the way of all such pre-transformation supercharacters, is alleged to be a bit of a dork.
The producers do not try to underscore this dorkiness by giving the girl (played with much good humor and many fine roundhouse kicks by Skyler Samuels) poindexterous spectacles or calamitous dress sense. Indeed, her after-school job is at a happening boutique, and she glows with a milkmaid complexion and with hair like that of a figure from a pre-Raphaelite painting who has discovered a great new curl-relaxing conditioner. Either lazy with this particular kind of cliché-application or else just fed up with them, the show creators float a couple of low-key clues and allow us to assume that the interior reality of any high-school student who is not doing something aggressively cool at a given moment is to feel like an abject outsider.
Naturally, she is an outsider in the coolest way possible. Wan scenes between the heroine and her mother indicate that departed Dad rescued infant Chloe from an orphanage in the Ukraine. Lovingly overcooked scenes featuring the heroine and her new sidekicks explain that Chloe not only belongs to a race of cat people ("the Mai") but is indeed the top cat ("the Uniter") and thus has nine lives, the first of which comes in handy when one of the baddies ("the Order") shoves her from the top of Coit Tower.
Here come the superpowers. Initially, Chloe simply demonstrates some uncommon acrobatic ability, as when leaping out of the path of one of San Francisco's self-righteously inconsiderate bicyclists. Then an encounter with a mugger demonstrates that her fingernails can erupt into face-ripping talons, which must present a unique challenge to her manicurist. Soon, she is darting across rooftops, eavesdropping via supersensitive ears, and exploring a new talent for empathy, the last of these being particularly unnerving to a teenager.
One consequence of Chloe's newly emerged identity is that any sexual physical contact with a human—even just a French kiss, never mind the contemporary depravities that her elders may rue having missed out on—can be fatal to the Homo sapiens. Thus does the Twilight model of enforced chastity turn inside out. And bummer. I'm hoping to set the girl up with the hero of the revamped Teen Wolf (such a nice young lupine) so that they can settle down and marry and grace cable TV with some regrets. Or at least enjoy a string of superpowered booty calls.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph from The Nine Lives of Chloe King by Adam Rose © 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.