ATLANTA — The actress Anna Jacoby-Heron looks at her costar and on-screen twin Kathryn Prescott, who returns her intense gaze.
“Next time you see me I’ll be a different person,” Jacoby-Heron says as the two stand in the parking lot of a suburban high school in oppressive July heat.
“You already are,” Prescott replies with a heartfelt seriousness as the TV cameras roll.
The scene, from the new TV series “Finding Carter,” has the feel of any number of up-market dramas you might find on a broadcast or pay-cable channel.
The network behind it, though, is anything but expected. It’s MTV, place of a hundred reality shows and the outsized personalities to match. In fact, when the network premieres “Carter” on Tuesday, it will be attempting only its fourth hourlong drama in the last decade and its first family drama in at least two decades.
Nor is it the kind of scripted series you might imagine. At a time when most teen-aimed hourlongs series contain a witch, werewolf or other genre flourish, MTV is betting that the next big thing can come via the old big thing: traditional family drama. “Finding Carter” tells a story about the titular teenage girl (Prescott, best known from British provocateur favorite “Skins”) who’s reunited with her biological family after learning the single mom who raised her — and whom she adores — kidnapped her as a toddler. We’re a long way from the Jersey Shore.
“Finding Carter” has a high concept and some heightened moments. This is, after all, the millennial-oriented MTV. But as created by Emily Silver (“Bones”) and executive produced by the TV veteran and former journalist Terri Minsky, it fundamentally asks the questions drama has been posing for decades: Why do we love the people we do, what obligations do our blood ties create and how much can or should our identities be shaped by our environment?
“I think I’m coming at this as old-school as you can,” said Minsky, who has written on shows such as “Sex and the City” and also serves as the “Carter” show runner. “I don’t have a dystopian society; I don’t have a sister vampire werewolf thing. Not that that’s easy. But this show has the advantage of thinking everyday teenagers are werewolves and shapeshifters in their own right.”
This retro push (with some slick 21st century production values, natch) comes courtesy of Susanne Daniels, the drama guru formerly of Lifetime and the CW. Since being hired as MTV’s president of programming 18 months ago, Daniels has sought to raise the level of scripted programming at the reality-heavy network. In part she’s trying to replicate past CW / WB successes such as “Gilmore Girls” and “Dawson’s Creek,” smart fictional stories in which the challenges are universal and the teenagers are at least as sharp as the adults.
One of her first bets — and arguably her biggest — is “Carter,” a concept she bought from Silver and then hired Minsky to shepherd when the former was tied up with “Bones” commitments.
“I like this show thematically for so many reasons,” Daniels said. “As teens and adolescents, you see the world as a series of firsts. This is a great look at that through a different lens. It’s what happens when you’re already dealing with all of that and then your world turns upside down.’”
She added, “I hope it’s a new chapter for MTV.”
Airing in the summer, when teen viewership tends to be higher, and at a manageable 12 episodes, “Carter” features plenty of plot twists and turns. It’s unclear early on, for instance, why the kidnapper (Milena Govich) snatched Carter in the first place, or what relationship she has with Carter’s parents, Elizabeth and David (Cynthia Watros and Alexis Denisof), who appear to know her.
But many of the central mysteries lie not with plot but with character. Minsky said she wanted to play with contrasts — the kidnapper and the biological mother, for instance, whom she saw almost as opposing archetypes from a Disney epic. Watros’ character, Elizabeth, has a particularly brooding quality. She works as a detective and for years had personally shouldered the burden of finding her daughter.
Meanwhile, the free-spirited Carter and Jacoby-Heron’s character, a goody-two-shoes named Taylor, are themselves opposites and have to decide how much of the other to emulate or reject. The stakes are raised because of the circumstance — Taylor bore the weight of expectation as the daughter left behind, while Carter never even knew she had a sibling — but the contrast will resonate for anyone who grew up in a multi-child home.
“There are shows about teenagers where people run around in high heels all the time, and those can be fun,” Prescott said in her trailer after a long day of shooting, slipping from her character’s suburban American accent into her natural British one. “This feels a lot more real because it deals with things a lot of us can relate to.” (She is, it should be said, a twin in real life.)
Prescott also noted that she was struck by how the writing centered on strong female characters who were not simply there as foils for men; though Carter’s father and younger brother are each given subplots and some depth, this is primarily a show about mothers and daughters.
Stepping into her trailer to escape the summer heat, Watros said she felt her new show plumbed some serious thematic depths.
“Anyone who’s had the ground pulled out from under them because of a divorce or a death will relate to what this family is going through,” said the actress, best known as the ethereal, possibly psychotic Libby on “Lost.” “Every character has their own unique issue, which I think is what makes it interesting.”
Watros said she is conscious of the impression her presence might have on some viewers. “There are some similarities to ‘Lost,’” she said. “You don’t always know who’s good or who’s bad here either.”
Like several of the young actors on the show, Jacoby-Heron, who played Matt Damon’s daughter in “Contagion,” said she didn’t really watch MTV. But she said this is exactly the kind of show that can draw her to the network.
Still, even if others share her feelings, that doesn’t mean it will be easy to turn “Carter” into a hit. MTV has to face competition not just from other teen shows but adult-oriented series that young people also watch, such as “The Walking Dead.”
There’s a reason why MTV has generally found its teen drama via shows such as “The Hills.” Scripted is more expensive than reality, and it doesn’t lend itself to the kind of crank-‘em-out series and spinoffs in the same way (see under: Snooki and JWoww, now seemingly in their 112th season).
But at a moment when so many cable networks are cleaning up with critics, scripted does offer the possibility of increased acclaim, not to mention viewers. “I think this is exactly the kind of show that can bring in young people who don’t currently watch MTV,” Daniels said.
And, she added, it might just steal one back from those adult shows teens watch. “It really lends itself to co-viewing. Parents and children. I mean, those are the best dramas, right?”
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When: 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)