There’s something appealingly retro about MTV’s latest scripted offering—and not just because Finding Carter bears a striking resemblance to Caroline B. Cooney’s beloved 1990 novel The Face on the Milk Carton. (You may know it better as the inspiration for a TV movie that aired in 1995).
These days, shows for and about teenagers tend to fall into one of two categories: the Ryan Murphy-esque dramedy (high-energy, soaked with pop culture references, alternating wildly between irony and sincerity; see MTV’s own Faking It or Awkward. for examples), or the Gossip Girl-ian glitzy melodrama (think privileged kids who don’t act like actual teenagers, getting into trouble and sleeping with each other; Pretty Little Liars is the current standard bearer). The pilot episode of Finding Carter, though, is neither self-consciously hip nor glamorously soapy; its dialogue is straightforward, its dramatic elements are understated, and its characters are good looking in a low-key way rather than being regulation CW hotties. I’d compare the result to ABC Family’s recent rash of family dramas (Switched at Birth, The Fosters), but they’re a little more after-school-special-y than Carter; more than anything, actually, the new show resembles an early ’00s teen drama, like South of Nowhere or Caitlin’s Way. (The comparison makes sense if you’ve heard of either of those shows, I swear.)
Which is a good thing. Carter’s relatively down-to-earth tone—plus a strong, grounded performance by Kathryn Prescott—gives the show a sense of authenticity that helps mitigate its sudsier elements.
The basic gist: After committing a petty crime, teenage Carter (Prescott, formerly of the U.K. Skins) discovers that she was actually kidnapped as a toddler and raised by her abductor (Milena Govich). In short order, she’s torn away from the life she’s always known and reintroduced to the biological family she never knew: domineering mother Elizabeth (Cynthia Watros of Lost), a detective who nevertheless could never solve the case of her missing daughter; good guy father David (Alexis Denisof), who made a mint by writing about Carter’s disappearance and might just be tempted to write a sequel; twin sister Taylor (puzzlingly played by Anna Jacoby-Heron instead of Prescott’s real-life twin sister, who also appeared on Skins), who’s just the tiniest bit resentful from growing up in her absent sister’s shadow; and overlooked younger brother Grant (Zac Pullam), probably the most perceptive person in the whole family.
There’s plenty of drama to be mined from this juicy premise—and for the most part, episode one of Carter manages to do so without straying too far into Lifetime Original territory. There are, however, a few little plot nuggets that point at unnecessary complications to come down the line. First and foremost: Elizabeth’s having an affair with a hunky fellow officer… who also happens to be the father of Taylor’s best friend, Gabe. And Taylor is secretly in love with Gabe. And Gabe is not-so-secretly into Carter. There’s also the matter of Carter’s fake mom, who escapes the clutches of police custody only to pop up again just long enough to tell Carter that there are things her “daughter” doesn’t know, “things [she] should know,” about her past—not to mention a montage of future scenes that indicates things could get very ridiculous very quickly; there’s a lot of yelling, and kissing, and dramatic exiting as music swells.
It wouldn’t be very surprising to see Carter go off the rails, even in episode two; MTV, after all, is not a network known for subtlety. But if Carter can embrace the things that make the pilot work so well—and stick to its low-key ’00s roots—it might become something that’s been sorely missing from the small screen for awhile: A teen-centric drama that doesn’t feel like a guilty pleasure, even to those watching it long after the conclusion of their own adolescence. And hey, if all else fails, at least we’ll always have The Face on the Milk Carton books. (Did you know the series’ fifth and final installment was just released in January 2013?)