A Little Death
Professor Bonatelle (Audra McDonald): Talking about sex in a classroom setting is a very volatile thing.
Professor Macklin (Matthew Modine): Sex, religion, politics, they’re all volatile subjects. That’s why they teach them in college.
Professor Bonatelle: In this day and age, we have to be very mindful about what we say and do.
—“I’m Gonna Love College (Pilot)”
Though I tried to give it a chance, my mind raced with questions (of the Why? and Huh? variety) throughout my hour with The Bedford Diaries, an occasionally funny, almost-kinda’ cute, absolutely doomed new soap from Tom Fontana, the man behind Homicide and Oz (go figure). I felt dirty even before the premiere had ended, and found myself wishing I was back with the WB college drama that got away, the much funnier, sexier, and more soulful Felicity.
Both series revolve around coeds in NYC, and both hinge on confessions. But where Felicity Porter’s initial audiotaped “letters” crystallized her identity (and created a tonal link to My So-Called Life), Bedford‘s video segments (the diaries are a video assignment for a sex seminar) are merely utilitarian. Viewers receive snippets as needed for exposition.
Many stories were in play in the pilot. The opening set the tone, with freshman Owen (Penn Badgley) racing off to class only to be stopped dead at the sight of a nude model in a classroom: college rocks. He arrived at his first class, Sexual Behavior and the Human Condition, just in time to be lumped in as one of the 12 “lucky” coeds selected for Professor Jake Macklin’s (Matthew Modine) popular seminar.
This was minute five or so, and already I was confused. Why would such a popular course be limited, when my alma mater’s much-discussed Human Sexuality course filled a full lecture hall with giggly and faux-mature students? Turned out the course is an easy A, if we’re to believe the prof’s claim that video diaries are the only homework. And, as he loaned each student a camera, one can understand needing to keep class sizes small.
But the bigger question remained spookily unanswered: just what criteria was Macklin using for selection? The class is a motley, if calculated, crew, including Owen’s older sister Sarah (Tiffany Dupont), who’s student government president, and former lovers Richard (Milo Ventimiglia) and Natalie (Corri English). Yes, these convenient connections are straight out of Screenwriting 101, but the suggestion that they were “selected” also brings to mind the castaways of Lost: did some specific aim bring this professor’s dozen together? (And while I’m asking, how long is this seminar, and what happens to the premise when the students move on? Do they all continue their diaries, or do we switch to a new batch of confessors to keep Matthew Modine employed?)
Alas, the series looks to be covering all the archetypal bases. Macklin is one of those goofily strident, idealist educators determined to wake kids up. Speaking to fellow prof Carla Bonatelle (Audra McDonald), he assessed the Bedford student body as kids who’ve always played by the rules. “They don’t know anything about themselves. They don’t know anything about life, what it is to bleed.”
Though the show seems to want us to believe Macklin, he might be the biggest naïf of the group. Natalie has bled, literally: part of a rash of suicides last year, she’s notorious on campus as the lone survivor. Dopey, horny Owen decides her instability is hot, but Richard is still smarting from it, since he had sex with Natalie right before she jumped off a building. “Intensity is overrated,” he told the camera by way of explaining his current abstinence.
There’s more: Richard is also a recovering alcoholic, now channeling his energy into editing the school paper. His exposé on a student-teacher affair led to sparks with Sarah, who thought she was the subject of the story until she realized the married prof has a pattern (or “romance addiction,” as the other girl charitably described it). In their habitual sparring, Ventimiglia and Dupont make their older, more articulate characters almost likable, and Bedford almost engaging—a weak argument could be made for a reworked series of narrower focus. But, as it exists, the show is too busy (there’s also a romantic, if easily tempted, frosh boy and a slutty virgin asking for love in all the wrong ways).
As if it weren’t bad enough that Owen finds Natalie’s one-time death wish intriguing, she herself paints her swan-dive as liberating. The “beauty of surviving suicide,” she told her camera diary, is that “the problems from your past become trivial.” Funny, what with the hospital stay and the occasional limp and the campus whispers, I’d have thought she just added grief to the initial problems that didn’t actually go away. Bedford‘s lead-in, the cartoonish, hyper-sexed One Tree Hill, is beloved by preteens, so they are likely the target here, and a character’s glorification of surviving suicide seems a public service misstep on par with the Dawson’s Creek episode showcasing Joey’s sassy banter and eventual connection with her mugger.
The WB briefly earned the show some buzz (and Fontana’s ire) by cutting a few racy scenes (two girls kissing, a reference to masturbation) from the broadcast (viewers had to find them online), yet the lame-duck network seems unconcerned about the impact of Natalie’s confession. She contributes the only truly volatile idea in Bedford Diaries, and I bet it’s not even on Macklin’s syllabus.