How does that old showbiz saw go? Never act with kids or animals – and don’t ever talk directly to the camera because it will be awkward for all of us. If loosey-goosey Sarah Jessica Parker can’t pull it off (the device was rightly canned in Sex and the City’s first season), what made the creators of ABC’s new teen drama think their young stars should do it?
Oddly, it works, primarily because the testimonials come from high schoolers: hockey stud Dino (Tom Cruise look-alike Sean Faris), brainy Ben (Jon Foster), and skittish camera nerd Jonathan (Chris Lowell). The confessionals still seem self-conscious, but a boy talking about sex or friendship or…sex should bungle a bit. The contrivance also allows more realism: You gotta love the articulate kids that populate Everwood and Gilmore Girls and The O.C., but real teen conversations are notable for swallowed thoughts and last-minute verbal detours. In an upcoming episode, when Dino makes a tearful confession to his two buddies, we witness not just the stuttering surface exchange, but its mental undertow: Oh, God, Dino’s crying!
Life as We Know It, based on Melvin Burgess’ novel Doing It and created by the producers of Freaks and Geeks, revels in off-putting frankness: Dino, for instance, describes taking his girlfriend’s virginity as if he were planting a flag on alien territory. ”No matter what happens, they can’t take that away – I was there first.” Once I finished blanching, I thought it was a great line. Maybe Dino’s immature and occasionally unlikable, but I’m ready for a TV teen who isn’t a better, more knowing human being than I am. Plus, it felt right: When so much of high school life is transient – love notes trashed, promise rings returned – the idea of doing something ”they can’t take away” seems logical, if louchely put.
If you’re irked by the pilot, don’t give up. Jonathan’s friend Deborah (Ozzy progeny Kelly Osbourne), the target of fat jokes early on, proves she can defend herself quite nicely. And while Ben’s relationship with his teacher (Marguerite Moreau) has the whiff of an old Van Halen video, the writers play up its topsy-turvy, who’s-in-control vibe. That cleverly mirrors the dynamic between Dino and his parents (hangdog D.B. Sweeney and Lisa Darr) after he discovers an icky secret. With Dino gaining moral superiority, and leverage, this family becomes quite charged – just like the jangly triangle of guys at the series’ center.