Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column

What would happen if a network ever introduced a show like My So-Called Life but with teenage boys as the main characters, instead of an angst ridden girl played by Claire Danes?

What would happen if the producers of the critically acclaimed, but short lived NBC drama Freaks & Geeks ever got a chance at another primetime drama centered on the problems teenagers face every day in school?

ABC’s new offering life as we know it (in all lower case letters) answers those questions in a daring, charming show that follows the network’s strategy of abandoning the standard legal procedural dramas other networks love so much in favor of different types of shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives.

Based on British author Melvin Burgess’ sexually graphic novel Doing It and produced by Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, the duo that helped make Freaks and Geeks the legendary show that never quite caught on, life as we know it takes place in the Seattle area. It focuses on three 16-year-old best friends, Dino, Ben, and Jonathan as they face the problem that most boys that age face: trying to keep their libidos in check. That may be an issue for men of all ages, but the obvious difference is that these boys are not only trying to keep their hormones under control but also go through the painful processes of finishing up puberty, trying to grow up and figure out exactly who they are. In short, it captures what all teenagers go through at that age.

Complicating matters, each boy has his own unique problem with the female gender while also illustrating the main point loud and clear: “No matter what’s going on in our lives, we’re thinking about sex at least every five seconds during the day.”

Dino, the handsome hockey star (played by Sean Faris) has been dating one of the most desirable girls in school, Jackie (Missy Peregrym), for close to 18 months. Naturally, he thinks it’s time to take their relationship to “the next step.” Initially, Jackie recants Dino’s constant barrage of requests. But just in time for the pilot episode, Jackie finally decides that it’s time to take that next step. However, when Dino sneaks home to try and swipe a bottle of wine for the big occasion, he discovers his mom (Lisa Darr) about to have sex with his hockey coach. Since his family is remarkably close, this destroys Dino and for the first time, he shows he is more than just a pile of raging hormones.

This life altering event changes Dino’s plans for losing his virginity with Jackie and because he never told her what happened, she accepts some bad advice from her pompous, annoying, know-it-all best friend, Sue (Jessica Lucas) and just blows him off and moves on. The perfect couple breaks up and future episodes will certainly not only follow Dino’s faltering relationship with Jackie, but the potential destruction of the family he cares so much about as well.

Meanwhile, Jonathan and Ben face their own girl problems, while not as serious or realistic. Jonathan (Chris Lowell) has discovered feelings for one of his best non-guy friends, Deborah (Kelly Osbourne). The problem that apparently exists is that Deborah is considered “fat” by the wacky standards of high school beauty and Jonathan is afraid of the ridicule he might face if he addresses the feelings he has for her. Then again, he is 16 and looking for some regular action, so it works out.

Of course, this storyline begs the question, “Why is Kelly Osbourne considered fat?” Sure, she’s not built like Giselle or Tyra Banks, but she’s hardly a spokeswoman for Overeate’s Anonymous either. Despite the typical Hollywood label of what “beauty” is how “fat” is defined, this particular storyline feels real. Even though it should be cut and dry for Jonathan and Deborah to get together, the point is in high school that really isn’t the case.

Somewhat surprisingly, Osbourne, known more for yelling and swearing at her famous parents on MTV’s The Osbournes, comes off as sweet, sympathetic, and a strong young woman with real feelings. You can almost forget anything MTV ever filmed while watching her alluring performance.

The third major storyline revolves around Ben (John Foster) the bookworm and straight-A student exploring the possibility of starting a relationship with his 23-year-old English teacher, Ms. Young (Marguerite Moreau). Naturally, Ben is the epitome of an awkward teenager outside of the classroom. It seems a long shot that this storyline would come to fruition in reality.

While Ms. Young comes off a bit like a self-conscious teenager herself, it’s obvious she knows that the intense flirting two engage in is wrong, yet she continues to go on with it without ever giving any sort of indication why she might be attracted to poor Ben to begin with. It almost appears as if any sequence is involving Ben and Ms. Young is a dream fresh out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High instead of a real storyline a 16-year-old boy might actually face.

After all, high school kids deal with self-image every day and have done so for as long as the term “peer pressure” has existed. Also, while kids might have to deal with the possibility of parents breaking up (and even parental infidelity) in this age where the divorce rate is way up. But how many kids wonder how they’re going to get their young, attractive teacher into bed…and actually come close to succeeding in the process?

Despite some of the flaws in the first two episodes, life as we know it does come off raw, real and engaging just like its predecessors My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks did before it. This is particularly true with the story about Dino and the problems he and his family are facing. Faris leads the charge and gives a convincing performance.

For some reason, it can be very difficult for adults working in Hollywood to create gripping teenage characters for prime time dramas, even though all of them have been through it before. Thankfully, in this case, this group of adults has created characters that are not only feel real, but those that I want to tune in and see every week.

It’s even more difficult for these types of shows to grow and develop, as My So-Called Life, yanked after 19 episodes, and Freaks and Geeks, sent packing after just 15.

Unfortunately, after two weeks, the show is following the same path as those earlier teenager-centered shows. New episodes have averaged less than five million viewers in a crowded Thursday, 9:00 timeslot against The Apprentice and CSI. In comparison, new episodes of CSI often secure five times as many viewers and win the ratings battle of the week. With these paltry numbers and ABC’s foolish strategy to keep the show on that night, life as we know it, a show that treats a lightly regarded population of people with care and compassion, could find itself in the in the same spot as My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks: CANCELED.