No matter what you think of ABC's new drama "life as we know it," there's one thing it gets irrefutably right: being a teenager can be a pretty crappy, painful and awkward experience - and in many cases all three at the same time.
While the "Dawson's Creek's" and "One Tree Hill's" of the TV universe have painted the high school experience with buckets full of melodrama and beyond their years dialogue, "Life" opts instead to portray that defining period as the mix of fear, hormones and confusion it actually is.
The series, which is loosely based on the Melvin Burgess novel "Doing It," tracks the friendship between three Seattle teens, each with their own varying degrees of troubles with the opposite sex - Dino (Sean Faris), the charming hockey player, struggles with his girlfriend's (Missy Peregrym) sexual boundaries; Ben (Jon Foster), the overachieving scholar, finds himself unable to relate to girls his own age; and Jonathan (Chris Lowell), the shy creative one, is barely comfortable in his own skin, let alone with the fairer sex.
While on paper these characters aren't altogether original, the frankness in which their issues are dealt with is. These are kids who we constantly see talking about sex and (thanks to the overused but surprisingly effective gimmick of talking to the camera) thinking about sex. I'm sure such sexual aspects can be a turn off to some viewers but said elements are not done in a "we want to be like cable because people want to hear swearing and see brief nudity" kind of way. Both the acting and writing in the series rise well above such easy pigeonholing.
For example, one of the pilot's (and the show's in general) most effective plotlines involves Jonathan's burgeoning relationship with his friend Deborah (Kelly Osbourne, whose casting isn't the distraction you might think it would be). Constantly derided by both Dino and Ben over her less than supermodel appearance, he struggles to hide his feelings in spite of their growing presence inside of him. It's not long after that he's given an ultimatum by her which leads to a revealing monologue about the awkwardness and fear his character feels about sex and how she calms those issues for him.
On the flip side, the series knows when to throttle back on these type of moments to avoid becoming too soapy, not to mention taking itself too seriously. Overall, "Life" features quite a few genuinely funny moments, most of which are rooted in the characters' gut reactions to their sexual foibles. What really carries the show however is the genuine sense of friendship between the three leads, as anyone offended by their sometimes boorish behavior can't help but be roused to their side at the end of the day. There's another great moment that closes the second episode (full details of which I won't spoil here) as Jonathan "takes one for the team" so to speak in order to restore the levity after an emotional revelation by Dino. In other words, despite their myriads of hormones and anxieties, these are good guys we want to root for.
As for the show's weaker moments, D.B. Sweeney and Lisa Darr as Dino's parents (the only parents of the three leads that are prominently featured) feel slightly out of place as with so much energy devoted to the teens and their sexual failings one can't help but feel underwhelmed seeing plots like Michael (Sweeney) hating his job and yearning to open a restaurant. Also maybe it's just me, but Ben's exploits with a new twentysomething teacher (Marguerite Moreau) feel science fiction-esque, despite valiant efforts to paint it as a natural relationship. Like I said it could just be my own bias, but a teacher becoming involved with a student feels at best somewhat creepy and at worst a total violation.
Nevertheless, it's without a doubt that "life as we know it" completes ABC's wonderful trifecta of new dramas this season. With the ratings success of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," one can hope viewers will find this series as well.
"life as we know it" premieres tonight at 9:00/8:00c on ABC.