The CW's new Canadian import series, 18 to Life, feels sort of like someone up north said, "Hey, that Juno movie was really something, no?" then ran the movie through a food processor and distilled it down into some sort of Juno smoothie. (Try not to think too hard about this; it's disgusting.) The show is basically a Juno ripoff in sitcom clothing. It's got a quirky cool soundtrack that plays whenever the kids do anything that doesn't require too much dialogue. It's got teenagers confronting a big, adult issue - pregnancy there and marriage here. It's got a variety of characters that can mostly be boiled down to a big pile of stereotypes. The best friends of the kids at the center are dressed and styled like extras from that movie. Hell, the lead actress (the winning Stacey Farber) was one of the final three actresses considered for the part of Juno in said film.
I was not a tremendous fan of Juno, but it has to be said that the film grew from its opening. The forced quirk of the first 20 minutes gave way to a story where a headstrong and confident girl realized she was in over her head and where the various stereotypes populating the film's world grew into something new and different and interesting. (I never thought that film deserved the awards attention it got, but that Jennifer Garner was never included among the various nominations the film landed that year always struck me as insane.) It wasn't a great film or anything, but it had an actual arc and things to say and a direction to head in. So when the producers of 18 to Life were looking to the film as inspiration for their series, I wish they had looked a little harder at the last 20 minutes rather than the first 20. What's here on the screen isn't atrocious and is, indeed, fairly watchable, but it never makes the leap from innocuous to essential, and it strikes me that the show could if it really wanted to.
For starters, Farber is a star waiting to happen. She's got a winning girl next door quality to her, and she manages to make even some of the show's goofier conceits - like the idea that her character, Jessie, would constantly wear a water bottle sealing ring as her engagement band - work, for the most part. This is a show with a terminal case of the cutes, and Farber is the only one in the cast who is able to sink down to that level and make it work. While her partner on the show, Michael Seater, is an enjoyable actor in his own right, he's not up to her level, and the lack of chemistry between the two drags some of their scenes down. At the same time, the actors playing the kids' parents are all quite good, even if they're constantly directed to push everything in broader and broader directions.
The other thing that makes me think this show could work is that I actually like the idea of a series about two 18 year olds who decide to get married (a premise that has proved weirdly controversial for some American reviewers, which we'll deal with down in the Stray Observations). The show flirts with the idea that in this day and age, the most shocking thing to do is embrace the cultural mores of the 1800s, and while the show never comes up with a terribly good reason for Jessie and Tom (Seater) to get married beyond the two slowly cornering each other into it, the attempts to at least half deal with what it might really be like to get married straight out of high school are interesting. Sadly, the show never really makes anything of, say, Jessie and Tom realizing they're going to have to live with his parents. This is the first 20 minutes of Juno, remember? Everything works out hunky dory, and then the kids have sex.
It's not exactly a promising sign, either, that the two episodes the series opened with (and the two The CW screened to begin its airing of the series) both feature variations on a plot where one character is keeping something from another and if they just told that other character what they were doing, there'd be much less heartache but also no plot. And the thing is, there's no real reason for the characters to behave this way in the first place! In the first episode, the couple's respective parents spend all of their time coming up with elaborate schemes to trick the two kids into not marrying each other that just serve to constantly push the kids more toward marriage, and no one talks about their fears that a marriage between two 18-year-olds is just going to end in disaster. Instead, it's all an elaborate game of teenage matrimonial chicken, and it ends up making all of the characters look like idiots. When Jessie and Tom confess their deepest secrets to each other - and hers involves sleeping with his best friend! - we're supposed to believe that their decision coming out of the argument to go to City Hall and get married of their own volition is a triumphant breaking of this pattern, but it still feels like they did so because it was in the premise of the show. The whole series starts with a scene where the two dare each other into getting married, and it never stops to realize that the idea, while whimsical, is also pretty stupid and reckless.
But, honestly, this is a lighthearted sitcom. It's not going to deal with the ramifications of anything the characters do, even though it would be funnier and more moving if it actually did. Things are going to work out in the end, and there's going to be a borderline-grating pop music soundtrack. And after the whole gang comes together to decorate Jessie and Tom's attic apartment at the end of episode two, you just know that they're all going to go back to thinking this is a terrible idea, and Jessie and Tom's parents are going to go back to being friendlily antagonistic toward each other at the start of the next episode. That's why we watch sitcoms, to a degree. We like the reset button. I'm probably going to watch the next two episodes of 18 to Life when The CW sends over the screener, if only to see what Farber gets up to next, but there's a much better show lurking inside of 18 to Life, and it makes me wish the producers hadn't confronted every creative decision with, "Can we make this moment more over-the-top?"
- So, Myles McNutt has the rundown on this, but a lot of U.S. critics have criticized the show for portraying a hunky-dory teenage marriage that also involves the couple having sex (something they were doing before getting married). This strikes me as patently ludicrous for a number of reasons. 1.) No parents are going to react to their 18-year-olds saying, "We're getting married!" by trying to trick them out of it by throwing them an elaborate wedding, at least not here in the real world. 2.) Lots of 18 year olds are having sex with each other, and it may as well be portrayed as a thing that kids do with certain precautions rather than a carnival of debauchery like it is on other shows. 3.) I thought the whole goal was to get people married off and then give them good sex lives? The show is far from an endorsement of teen marriage OR teen sex. It's just trying to deal with the fact that these two crazy, hormonal kids might be SO hormonal that they'd want to have sex within the traditional bonds of wedlock.
- I kind of think this show has too many characters. Outside of Tom and Jessie, you have the parents of both, the siblings of Tom, the friends of both, and an Iraqi refugee who lives with Jessie's family. This needs to be pared down somewhat.
- I like the title sequence. Very Wonder Years-esque.