My Generation debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
My Generation needs to be canceled as soon as possible so all of the immensely talented people involved in it can go on to making something else. There is so, so much talent at every level of this production that is utterly wasted on a show that is more or less a version of the Conan O'Brien "In the Year 2000" sketch, if the punchlines were all things that actually happened in the year 2000. "In the year 2000, some people thought George W. Bush would make a great president!" "In the year 2000, MP3s were still new-ish enough that some people didn't know what they were!" "In the year 2000, the company Enron still existed, and peace and prosperity reigned!" It's a show that starts with a great writer, a great cast, a great premise, a great director, and a great set of influences and then wastes each and every element it has. Of all of the pilots this year, it's been the one that's been most difficult to get a bead on because every time it does something so atrocious that it should be written off instantly, it suggests a much, much better show buried deep within it.
The premise of My Generation blends the following bizarre and disparate elements: cable news networks of the last 10 years, thirtysomething, Michael Apted's Up films, any high school drama where everyone is broken down into easily classified cliques, and Modern Family. What it seems like the show might be about is a terrific idea: It's an instant period piece, a look back at the last ten years of American history - incredible, turbulent years - that strands its characters on both sides of a really tough decade and then asks how they went from who they were to who they are. Imagined in one context, this could be really cool, a kind of instant Mad Men that uses our knowledge of the last ten years against us. In another context, it could be really cheap, the kind of show where a girl and her high school sweetheart are in love and THEN YOU FIND OUT HE WORKS IN THE WORLD TRADE CENTER (dun dun dun). But in any conception of the show, it's hard to imagine it becoming just another soap about young people.
Yet that's exactly what My Generation is. Ten years ago, a camera crew followed around a group of nine high school seniors from Austin, Tex., as they approached graduation. The resulting documentary was popular enough that the camera crew decided to catch up with the kids ten years on, just to see how things were going and what was up. Right here is an interesting idea but one that is probably unsuited for television. In the ten years from 18 to 28, virtually every person on Earth develops entirely new relationships and associations. In those years, people change so much that they often seem like completely different people. (If 18-year-old me could see 28-year-old me, he'd be horrified.) But attempting to find the similarities and differences across this big a gap of time is a task probably better suited to a novel, where having a cast of characters in the dozens isn't too costly, than a TV series. My Generation promises the world or at least the country and then gives audiences a city block instead.
Initially, the pilot is kind of interesting from the perspective of seeing how these people changed. The punky girl is pregnant, and you'll never guess who the father is. The rich kid didn't marry his true love and, instead, married the girl his parents wanted him to. The high achiever is now an underachiever. The wallflower got pregnant on prom night and has a kid. Every character has a neat, ironic reversal (save one, whose flashback structure is barely even hinted at), and the pilot, satisfyingly, gets them all out of the way in about 15 minutes. Sure, the show's off-camera voice - presumably the director of the documentary - spends much of her time spelling out the subtext, rather than letting us revel in the irony (saying, more or less, "You used to be so cool. What happened, man?!" over and over), but there's stuff here that's fun to watch. Immediately after that, though, the show loses track of what it wants to be and mostly just settles in to having these people talk to each other endlessly about what happened in high school and how irritating it is to have the documentary crew following them around again.
It's at this point that you realize all of these people are still hanging out with the people they hung out with in high school. The high school best friends are still best friends. The couple that broke up still secretly pine for each other. The nerdy kid who became a teacher is now the teacher to the wallflower's son. And on and on and on. Developer Noah Hawley (who Americanized the show from the Swedish original) almost seems to be going for the suggestion that there are some friends it's remarkably easy to just fall into old rhythms with, but the degree to which all of these people are still obsessed with high school is a degree reached only by jocks gone to seed and TV writers, who see in the endless cliches of the high school drama a chance to right old wrongs all too often.
For all of its show-crippling faults, it's easy to see why ABC has made the promotional materials for this show the bane of every subway traveler's existence. There's something sharply executed about the pilot, something that only comes from having a bunch of pros at the helm. Everything Hawley has his characters saying is a banal cliche, but the way he has them saying it is remarkably naturalistic. Hawley, whose unheralded cop show The Unusuals was swiftly canceled a few years back, has a terrific ear for the way that people really talk, the way they toss pauses into the middle of speech and interrupt themselves to contradict what they were just saying. The characters all speak in vague platitudes (as when the punk girl talks at length about how stupid the idea of cliques is), but Hawley's talent for making all of this sound like something someone would actually say - his sheer ability to just get out of the way of his dialogue and not overload it with flowery words - makes it all go down smoothly enough.
Similarly, the cast is full of strong actors, who do their level best with what they're handed. In particular, Mehcad Brooks is very good as a jock who ended up joining the Army after Sept. 11, while Anne Son does a good job at playing both sides of her wallflower character, going from shy girl who never says anything to mom who'll demand anything of people if she thinks it will help her son. Daniella Alonso and Julian Morris do sturdy work with the star-crossed lovers song and dance. Best in show in the cast, though, has to go to Kelli Garner, as the punk girl. Garner's a wonderful actress who's been trapped in underwritten movie roles for too long now, and though this part is similarly underwritten, she seizes on to Hawley's naturalism with a real fervor, creating the pilot's one truly indelible character. It's almost enough to make you wish Garner and Hawley just ran off and came up with some other show entirely. The only real disappointment in the cast is Keir O'Donnell as the nerd, as he resorts to far too many nervous tics and tricks and doesn't terribly create a believable character. Similarly, the technical aspects are very well done, and director Craig Gillespie (who also worked with Garner on the wonderful Lars and the Real Girl) finds some ways to spice up the tired mockumentary format through unusual framing.
But, really, this is all in service of an idea that's so big and ambitious that TV probably can't contain it. TV's supposed to be the place where writers can do the new epic, telling gigantic stories that wouldn't fit on film screens. But when My Generation opens with a montage that attempts to capture the sweep of history - even a mere decade of history - it sets such a high bar for itself that all it can hope to do is run up to the bar, not even bother to try clearing it, then turn to the audience and say, "At least I tried." In its best incarnation, My Generation is a show about how every person's life feels like an epic when examined closely enough, about how events we set in motion pay off in ways we'll never comprehend down the road. But in the current incarnation, it's a show about a bunch of self-involved twits who can't get over who they were ten years ago. Objectively, this is better than many of the other shows debuting this fall; subjectively, it's hard to not be disappointed with not only how little Hawley and company came close to reaching their ambitions but with just how much they seem to have simply given up from word one.