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Finding Carter: “Pilot”/“The Birds”

Kathryn Prescott, Milena Govich
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Due to its outlandish premise, focus on an unconventional family, and earnest tone, Finding Carter resembles several other recent teen dramas. Though it shows promise, there isn’t much to distinguish it from the crowd. As with shows like Switched At Birth, the premise of Finding Carter could have been borrowed from a Lifetime movie. The eponymous Carter (Kathryn Prescott) learns that she was actually born Lyndon, and was known as such until the woman she calls mom stole her away from her birth family. One minute, Carter and Lori (Milena Govich) are discussing romantic comedies on a lovely mother-daughter outing. The next, her romantic flirtations with an ex on a carousel are interrupted by the police, who apprehend them for breaking into a fairground, then identify her as a missing person. See, she is a bit of a trouble-maker, taking after her felon mother. Not long after she learns the truth about Lori and why she has fled, Carter is swiftly reunited with her birth parents. By contrast, her birth mother, Elizabeth (Cynthia Watros), and twin sister, Taylor (Anna Jacoby-Heron), are the expected foils: the uptight, overworked mother, and the naïve, overprotected sister. Carter’s birth family also consists of a comparatively laid-back father, David (Alexis Denisof), and the typical, wise-beyond-his-years, sensitive younger sibling, Grant (Zac Pullam).


All of the above is both shocking in a conventional way and conventional in a conventional way. The question is whether or not Finding Carter can mine nuanced drama from its over-the-top premise, proving that the writers have something to say that extends beyond the soapy hook. Finding Carter chooses a wise direction, focusing on the unique dynamics of this singular family. The show also realizes that a young woman’s reunion with her birth parents can be a beautiful thing, but the transition isn’t necessarily going to be a smooth one. Like the protagonists of most MTV shows, Carter is followed around by cameras because of her sensational story (and efforts to inform her mother of her whereabouts in the process). Although this premise involves an unlikely situation, sensational crimes like this occur in the real world; like The Good Wife, Finding Carter is interested in what happens behind closed doors, away from the cameras and long after the media has moved on to another story.

What happens is bittersweet: A young woman is returned to her family, but her gains are canceled out by losses. Moved two hours away from everything she knows and told that her mother is a deceitful crook, Carter is forcibly separated from her past both physically and emotionally. The writers use specific language to convey the complexity of the situation: Carter would rather be referred to by the name her kidnapper chose for her than by her birth name, her sister corrects herself when she says “my mom” instead of “our mom,” and so on. Finding Carter’s take on this situation is insightful, but other attempts to create conflict raise cause for concern. A bland love interest who comes between the two sisters, Lori’s affair, and David’s book deal may generate rich stories in the future, but they come across as contrived obstacles in the short term.

The relationships between family members are often difficult in general; the show does a good job of illustrating how any holes in a family’s fabric can be exposed or widened further when a stressful situation interrupts the status quo or an outsider changes the dynamics. Carter and Elizabeth judge one another too swiftly while Grant attempts to mediate. Lori’s entire relationship with Carter may be a lie, but Carter and Elizabeth also lie to one another: Elizabeth denies having Carter tailed, while Carter denies seeing Lori to save what she thinks of as her family. Elizabeth may be having an affair because of the stress her marriage has undergone, but David also betrays his family when he decides to sell Carter’s story. Carter idealizes Lori and David while Taylor idealizes Elizabeth, blinding the children to their parents’ flaws.

Tragedy can also bind people together, however. A brief moment of communication occurs when David expresses concern about Elizabeth apprehending Lori personally, and Lori calmly counters with her take on the issue. Finding Carter shows the different sides and motivations of its characters, in fact. Carter is a fun, crafty teenager who may act out because she’s absorbed Lori’s selfishness, but she’s also expressing her anger and numbing her pain. Alternately warm and possessive, Taylor can be resentful, but she’s been raised by an overprotective, grieving mother. As for Elizabeth and David, they’re both strong and flawed, trying their best to do what they can in a difficult situation, but making bad choices along the way. Carter’s new friends act like they care—helping her out with a prank then dissuading her from antagonizing Elizabeth further—but offering her drugs so she can numb her pain shows serious lack in judgment. In this case, much of the characters’ behavior can be traced back to extreme circumstances. Given the variety of families out there and the difficulties inherent in these relationships, however, these dynamics aren’t altogether unfamiliar.


Unfortunately, the show’s insight into family dynamics doesn’t wholly negate its shaky subplots and lapses in tone. Finding Carter fits the MTV brand with its obligatory drug scenes and party montages but doesn’t go much further trying to prove its edginess. As with The Carrie Diaries, Finding Carter’s old-fashioned earnestness is somewhat refreshing, but the residual heaviness also threatens to drag the show down. The pace of the pilot is fast at first because the writers want to blow by the premise so they can get to the ramifications; eventually, the earnestness causes some scenes to drag. That being said, the more meditative memory and hallucination sequences trump the heavy-handed score when it comes to evoking emotional response. The tone is also off during the goofy prank scene; the premise’s broadness needs to be overcome, not matched. Still, some of the much-needed attempts at humor land, such as the reveal that Taylor has been passed out in the back of the car while others talk about her obliviously. Moments like those, the talent of many of the actors, and the show’s insight into family dynamics indicate that there’s potential there, even if Finding Carter hasn’t altogether found its footing.

Stray observations:

  • I freaked out when I saw Kathryn Prescott appear on Reign for the first time because that’s the kind of Skins fan I am. The fact that the party scenes in Finding Carter resulted in major Skins flashbacks is just icing on the cake. And don’t even get me started on Carter having a twin.
  • Every pilot must reveal a spouse’s affair or a philandering character’s marriage. So sayeth all of the series bibles.
  • David is a writer, his book was supposed to be called Losing Lyndon, and his publisher is really flamboyant because of course.
  • The transition between a moody flashback of Lori and Carter in happier times and Elizabeth appearing in the corner of a shot behind her daughter like an awkward ghost epitomizes the show.
  • Every show needs a deadpan high school bookie with a heart of gold.
  • Is MTV the new ABC Family? Isn’t that a weird but somewhat relevant question?

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