The teen drama has always faced snobbery and disdain—seen as sophomoric at best, glaringly fake and sugary at worst. This prejudice has yet to fade even though some of the smartest shows of recent decades (My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, and, most recently, The O.C.) have revolved around teen protagonists. What makes those series compelling, even for those of us who left teenager-dom behind long ago, is their embedded emotions of confusion and limitless longing, their conflicted sense of possibility and entrapment, all supercharged by seething hormonal overdrive. Two of the more promising fledgling series in what looks to be a pretty sedate fall season—Veronica Mars and Life as We Know It—both explore this teen-life terrain with charm and a fair amount of flair.
Veronica Mars may be the first television drama to attempt a fusion of Chinatown and Heathers. It’s not 100 percent successful, but the show creates a new genre we’ll call “Teengirl Noir.” Veronica (Kristen Bell) is a 17-year-old blonde stranded in a California beach town “without a middle class,” where everyone’s parents are either millionaires or minions servicing them. This class divide maps perfectly onto the high school lunch area, where Veronica languishes in a no-man’s-land between the two camps. Her dad (Enrico Colantoni, best known as the womanizing photographer in Just Shoot Me) used to be town sheriff. Disgraced after a botched murder investigation, he now works as a private investigator, making ends meet with bail-jump cases, while Veronica serves as his silent partner. Like a cross between Nancy Drew and Kyle MacLachan’s boyish sleuth in Blue Velvet, she sniffs out the town’s tawdry secrets and lies. In another Lynch echo—Twin Peaks, this time—Veronica Mars swirls around the unsolved murder (the very case that lost her dad his job) of a dead girl who happened to be Veronica’s best friend. But most of the action is more mundane and low-key, involving such traditional teen-flick standbys as the scheming, disciplinarian principal (whom Veronica perpetually outsmarts), the nerdy outsider (whom she befriends), and various studs, thugs, and stoners.
Oscillating between the overarching noir mystery narrative and the smaller subplots, Veronica Mars never quite settles into a consistent tone. Yet the series is held together by Bell, who (like Caroline Dhavernas in the sorely missed Wonderfalls) injects Veronica with an attractive blend of tough-cookie independence and crumbly-inside vulnerability. Scarred by her friend’s death, her dad’s shattered career, and her parents’ subsequent breakup, Veronica girds herself against betrayal and keeps everyone at a distance. She acts hard-bitten, while regularly succumbing to elegiac reveries about the lost idyll of her early teenage years.
Life as We Know It, which premieres next month on ABC, comes with a pedigree. Creators Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah wrote for Freaks and Geeks, and they’ve based this new series on Doing It, a British young-adult novel by Melvin Burgess. The tale of three perpetually horny boys, Doing It took a battering in the U.K. press: The liberal Guardian condemned the novel as “filth, whichever way you look at it.” ABC’s adaptation, naturally, is thoroughly Americanized and sanitized. Sure, the three male leads—Dino the jock, artsy Jonathan, and Ben the smartass—talk about sex nonstop (“I think about it every five seconds,” Ben confesses morosely in the first minutes of the series). But by the end of the pilot episode, not one of these guys has managed to get inside a girl’s jeans.
Life opens with a shot of Dino (Sean Faris), Jonathan (Chris Lowell), and Ben (Jon Foster) striding through the halls of their school. It’s slightly reminiscent of Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s gorgeous existential evocation of a single (bad) day in high school. But where Van Sant’s elusive characters keep their inner thoughts pent up inside their isolated heads, Life‘s lecherous threesome constantly step out of the narrative flow to speak directly to the camera—a fourth wall smashing device that’s oddly redolent of the “confession room” sequences in reality TV. As they speak directly to us, the action behind them either slows to a crawl or speeds up Koyaanisqatsi-style, as if real life is just a dream-stream and the character’s interior life is the true reality. Life‘s camerawork is imaginative throughout, but unfortunately the insights offered in these confessionals are uniformly trite. Take the moment when the awkward and self-conscious Jonathan (played by Rob Lowe look-alike Lowell) admits he really likes chubby pal Deborah (the show’s one poor casting choice, Kelly Osbourne) but is scared to date her for fear of public humiliation. “She’s got an ass and boobs you can grab on to. . . . But I don’t like to get laughed at.” He’s right to be worried—as soon as Dino and Ben spot him making out with “full-bodied” Deborah, they tease, “It’s like feeding time at a pork farm!” If Dino’s story line is the most well-worn (strategies for getting his waifish girlfriend to surrender her virginity), Ben’s promises the most potential fun. He’s an awkward voyeur lusting after his implausibly gorgeous English teacher, who flirts back like a wannabe Mary Kay LeTourneau. The twist adds a nice dash of perversity that keeps the show from getting too earnestly wholesome.
As with Veronica Mars, the weird mixture of registers in Life as We Know It doesn’t quite gel. You sense the series would like to be edgy in its frank engagement with teen sexuality and peer pressure, but the end result leans more toward the sweet soapiness of Dawson’s Creek than the cynical realism of Freaks and Geeks. Still, excellent performances make the show watchable while you wait for it to find its groove.