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The Hard Times of RJ Berger - "Pilot"

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Increasingly, it feels like more and more TV shows and movies are made for people who only know how to approach real life via the filter of movies and TV shows. I mean, I'm not immune to this. There have been a number of times in my own life where I've jokingly said things were just like a TV show or where I've acted as though my life were guided by television gods. But there's this whole race of shows out there now that feels specifically constructed for people who've watched lots of TV and know all of the tropes. I like some of these shows - Community comes to mind - but unless a show's creator has a firm handle on his show's tone (as Community creator Dan Harmon does), it's too easy to have all of this disappear into a meaningless void, a place where literally everything is covered up by an affectless sneer.

Enter MTV's new foray into scripted programming, The Hard Times of RJ Berger. It is a show that is literally without a premise. I mean, there's an attempt to present this as a premise: RJ has a big penis, and then everyone in school finds out about it. But it's not immediately clear how this creates conflict or puts characters into new contexts or anything like that. It's simply the way to open up your raunchy teen sex comedy movie in which RJ Berger's penis is revealed to his high school's cognoscenti, and then he has sex with lots of hot girls, and he finally realizes that the girl who was his best friend all along was the girl for him because she really understands him. Unfortunately, this isn't the opening of a raunchy teen sex comedy movie. It's the pilot of a raunchy teen sex comedy TV series, but the pilot has made basically no effort to distinguish itself from the first 20 minutes of a movie. Worse, what the series has to say about high school seems to be almost entirely, "Man, high school movies and TV shows sure are fun to watch, aren't they?"

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Now, obviously, this series could grow from this initial episode. Of all of the popular, well-worn TV genres, the teen soap seems to be the most likely to turn into something surprisingly different from its pilot given enough time. Dawson's Creek started out with a hammy, way-too-earnest pilot and ended up a show where buildings blew up. The O.C. started out with an ironic sneer and gradually pulled back the mask to reveal a heart beneath that sneer (before sending it back behind the mask for much of the show's middle two seasons). Buffy the Vampire Slayer suggested that high school problems were just like monsters, tee hee, and ended up being a show about how the process of growing up completely fucks you up. And so on.

So, yeah, RJ Berger could become something else entirely. I would not be surprised to randomly tune in to the season finale and have it be a sweet, well-written thing about how sex isn't a substitute for a real relationship or a very funny satire about how RJ getting to bang hot chicks was EXACTLY what he wanted. But the pilot mostly just suggests that the show has learned all of its moves from other shows, that, indeed, the show's producers only know about high school from having watched other fictions about it. At this point, haven't we come far enough to be a little riskier? Couldn't we push things a little farther? There have been so many teen shows that we know the grammar now. We don't need every character to be spelled out in exacting detail within this show's universe. (Say what you will about Glee, but its pilot very ably used the tropes of teen soaps to help orient the audience in which character was which and didn't say much more beyond that.)

Everything about RJ Berger is crass, save its ending, which seems to suggest the show will have somewhere to go (or would have somewhere to go if it were a movie, that is). The series has that terrible thing that so many post-Wes Anderson indie comedies have had, where they seem to ape his style but don't grasp that Anderson ultimately has some level of affection for his characters. Seth Grahame-Smith and David Katzenberg, the creators of RJ Berger, pretty clearly just hate everyone in their fictional universe and think they deserve the horrible things that happen to them. The girl RJ kissed back in kindergarten is a particularly bad example of this, as she's become obsessed with him, to the point of being a rather shrewish, sex-obsessed harpy, who rants at him about how her offer (for him to sex her) still stands and withstands myriad forms of abuse just to be near him. We've seen it before, and here, it's not even close to funny.

But if the creators don't have much affection for anyone in the show (save for the token hot girl, whom they mostly seem to like just because she's a hot girl), they really don't have any feelings of warmth toward their main character. The ending of the episode is, I think, supposed to be a moment of triumph for him (it's certainly edited and written to play that way), but, instead, it's a moment where he suddenly rises to the occasion (and that's the level of sexual wordplay you'll get in this series, if you thought that might save the day) for no apparent reason whatsoever. RJ masturbates to pencil sketches of a hot woman on a dragon. RJ can't shoot a basketball to save his life. Everybody laughs at RJ, and, even worse, it's clear that we're supposed to laugh with them, that RJ is the object of our scorn, even as we're supposed to identify with him, I guess, because he has that giant penis.

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I don't know that it's so much to ask anymore that we get shows that are about plausibly real people in plausibly real situations. I don't even mind if you want to head over into genre or into raunchy teen sex comedy if you can at least make the emotions play with some level of veracity. But if you have a show, and the only reason I'm supposed to enjoy it is because I've seen other shows like it and I can appreciate the level of care that's gone into perfectly blending those shows into something that feels like it came out of a factory, I'm not immediately sure why I'm supposed to be watching other than the fact that I've left the TV on. RJ Berger could be all right, I guess, but it comes from a cynical, cynical place, a place that thinks caring about something is only worth condescension.

Stray observations:

  • How the hell is Beth Littleford in this as RJ's mother? Didn't she know to run far, far away? (The original version of this article listed Melora Hardin as playing this role.)
  • Cursory Internet research suggests this was meant to be a movie originally. I'm not surprised. Lots of screenwriters try to turn their movie ideas into TV shows, particularly in this age of serialized shows. Most of them are pretty bad at nailing the most important aspect of TV-craft: creating an enjoyable and finely tuned individual episode.
  • Sample humor: RJ is talking about all of the problems in his life, then says that he just has to "beat it." Cut to a shot indicating that he is furiously masturbating. Hilarious!
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