“Don’t you wanna be friends first?”
“No, I have plenty of friends. I want my girlfriend!”
“I wanna be your girlfriend. I just think it’s really important that I’m your friend first.”
“All right, you know, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
— Jackie (Missy Peregrym) and Dino (Sean Faris), life as we know it
Teens slumming outside the WB universe for an hour can still find recognizable situations and pretty, precision-coiffed actors in life as we know it. That’s my guess, anyway. Those of us more familiar with last decade’s teens on TV have a more complicated negotiation to make.
First, the show is an exercise in déjà vu. One moment the series apes My So-Called Life (both series’ pilots weight a teen with the suspicion that one parent is cheating on the other), the next it channels Dawson’s Creek, when a high school boy gets busy with his English teacher. And did I mention that Freaks and Geeks alums Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs are executive producers?
All three series cast long shadows on life as we know it. My So-Called Life offered a richer range of emotions, via Angela’s (Claire Danes) introspective voiceover and creator Winnie Holzman’s nuanced emphasis on the connections rather than distances between the teens and their Baby Boomer parents. Dawson’s Creek was seldom strictly “believable,” but Kevin Williamson wrote entertaining adolescent conversations. Freaks creator Paul Feig revisited the pain of his adolescence in 1980 Michigan with the kind of humor and understanding that transcends fashion trends.
By contrast, life as we know it offers a primer on high school, and especially teenaged boys, exactly right now. Based on Melvin Burgess’ 2003 novel Doing It, the Seattle-set series revolves around Dino (the stud), Ben (the wit) and Jonathan (the court jester). Obsessed with sex but perplexed by women, the buddies grimace, roll their eyes, and talk trash to keep up appearances, but periodically the action stops, allowing them to tell us how they really feel. The cringe factor in these confessions can be good for laughs (watching his girlfriend apply lip gloss, Dino (Sean Faris) compares it to painting on a welcome mat), but as narrative device, the effect is underwhelming, painting in broad strokes what any observant viewer already knows. So far, the series has developed no distinctive voice, behind or before the cameras.
Rather, the show spreads its attention across several characters. When Jackie (Missy Peregrym) breaks up with Dino for being unreliable, her own story — juggling soccer, school, and her father’s alcoholism — takes off (she says, “It’s Jackie time!”). Dino’s mother’s (Lisa Darr) short-lived affair with the hockey coach isn’t just a device to shake him up; we follow his dad’s (D.B. Sweeney) move to a new apartment (and a new romance) and witness his mom’s regret and loneliness.
Nine episodes in, it has become clear that all the characters are loosely connected. Dino’s dad is involved with his (and his wife’s) old friend Mia, who lives in the building with her daughter, Deborah (Kelly Osbourne), who’s dating Jonathan (Chris Lowell) but detests Dino because he ridicules her as fat and never deserved her friend Jackie. At school, rumor has it that Miss Young (Marguerite Moreau) had sex with Coach Scott in the boiler room; no one knows she’s really sleeping with Ben (Jon Foster, recently May-December romanced by Kim Basinger in The Door in the Floor) or that the coach chased after Dino’s mom for months. And in one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, Miss Young shops for condoms while her underage lover’s unwitting mom (Freaks alum Becky Ann Baker) stands one aisle over confiding to a friend that Ben may be on drugs.
The teacher-student affair usually seems a sensationalist ploy, but this version has played out in entertaining and surprising ways. Miss Young isn’t the typical wise, older woman; she’s an unhappy 23-year-old stuck living at home with mom until she can clear up her credit card debt. Since she can’t take her student beau home, the pair make out in her car and have hurried sex in empty rooms at school. Ben has his own problems with this; his parents fear he’s on drugs and his buddies worry that his sudden disinterest in girls means he’s gay. “We don’t want some Boys Don’t Cry thing going on,” Dino says. Ben realizes that while his teacher may be hot, she’s also unhinged: jealous of his relationship with classmate Sue (Jessica Lucas), she gives the girl a D; when Ben ends their affair and takes up with Sue, she sleeps with his older brother out of spite.
While Miss Young’s revenge machinations make sense for the character (her own high school days weren’t so long ago), they bring the series perilously close to camp. Just in time, viewers get the big reveal they knew had to happen: Sue learns the truth about her boyfriend’s recent past. She storms out, disgusted and angry at Ben, but then the storytelling surprises. Ben races after her to explain, and she actually listens, and watches, her heart melting, as he dissolves into a tearful confession of regret. “I wanted so much to get out of it,” he says, his pain and confusion obvious — no aside to the camera required.
life as we know it is best during these little moments of communication and revelation, allowing the teens to show their instinctual decency even as they prove exceedingly fallible human beings. Yes, Jonathan is so tired of serving as the butt of his friends’ jokes that he initially resists a romance with fun but “overweight” Deborah, but when he finally steps up and holds her hand (more shades of MSCL) as they walk through the carnival, his buddies laugh and accept his choice. Their friend is going for it, after all, and isn’t sex what they’re all clamoring for? Yes and no. As Ben has learned and Dino and Jonathan are discovering, getting laid is a complicated world away from the ease of taking a girlie mag into the john and closing the door.