TORONTO - After an extended hiatus, the college drama "The Best Years" returns to the dial Monday with new cast members and a lighter tone.
The teen soap - which is shot in Toronto and Guelph, Ont., - suffered some unfavourable reviews in its first season, which featured some over-the-top melodrama. But it promises a funnier, sexier romp this year as its orphan heroine Samantha Best navigates her way through Charles University.
The show's star, Charity Shea, says there's a marked difference in approach to the new batch of shows, which will air on E! and pick up with the young characters entering their sophomore year.
"The producers felt that the first season, it was great, but they wanted to kind of change it up a little bit and hit a broader audience," says Shea, whose character grew up in foster care but lands at the prestigious Charles University thanks to a scholarship and rich aunt.
"So they did ... stuff that really actually does happen in college, do you know what I mean? You're not really going to find suicide or someone molested someone's daughter, stuff like that. You're going to find typical issues - it's really all about studying, friendship and it goes back into Samantha's family."
It's been almost two years since the show first hit the air with a parade of calamities that included a deadly accident within 24 hours of Sam's arrival at school, a shower prank that left Sam's skin dyed purple and a classmate's suicide attempt.
This time around, Sam returns to school nine months after leaving for a two-week winter break. Old friends Noah and Kat are still around, but there are a bunch of new kids in the group: Noah's got a pre-med girlfriend, Robyn, and a hot new roommate named Del who considers himself the ultimate ladies' man.
"Hopefully I bring some comedy and some spice to the chemistry of the show," says 23-year-old Michael Xavier, who plays Del.
"There's a little bit of a different tone, it's edgier in some ways and a little bit more relaxed in others. It's lighter it's funnier, I think. We have new cast members so we're bringing different tones to the show."
Randal Edwards, who plays Noah, says his sweet but awkward character finds a new confidence this year.
"First semester, he was just kind of a kid away from home for the first time and everything was new - responsibility, girls, all these things that were thrown at him," says Edwards, whose alter ego nevertheless managed to romance a married professor last season.
"Now he's kind of homed in on who he is and what he wants to do.... He's a filmmaker now and because he's so concentrated on that, I think he's maybe losing focus on some other things in his life. He's growing in certain ways but kind of letting some other things slide."
Adding drama is Sam's spoiled and rebellious cousin, Alicia, (played by "Degrassi"'s Lauren Collins) who ends up being her new roommate. And with last season's suitors Trent and Devon no longer in the picture, there are a couple of new love interests for Sam.
All the changes make it easy for new viewers to join in now - the first episode starts with a tight synopsis of last season, and catches up with Sam as she winds down her adventures traipsing through Latin America.
A broken heart brings her back to Charles U, where she finds herself in the awkward academic category of "froshmore" - stuck between her frosh and sophomore years. Despite her shortcomings, the 24-year-old Shea insists that the beleaguered Sam is a real and relevant role model for young audiences.
"She makes mistakes but she means well and she has a good heart and she always tries to help people," Shea says from her home in Los Angeles. "She tries to make the best out of every situation, but she's flawed. She makes mistakes and people can relate to that, even I can relate to that."
"The Best Years" airs on E! on Monday.
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