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Fall '04: “Life” Out of Balance

ABC's Life as We Know It is from the producing team of Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs, both of whom also worked on the critically praised, commercially unsuccessful Freaks and Geeks. (If you haven't seen the show, do yourself a favor and get the DVD.)

Judah and Sachs are smart guys. They know that to deal with high school in all its ego-destroying glory is to court ratings disaster. So in creating Life as We Know It, a series about a trio of high-school boys, the girls they know, and their assorted families, Sachs and Judah have gone a little bit lighter on the realism.

In Life as We Know It, one of the characters is a handsome, popular athlete. Another is a handsome, sensitive kid. Another is a handsome everyman. And all of them are this close to having sex, while engaging in some serious heavy petting in the meantime.

Suffice it to say that none of these scenarios really fits well with my memories of high school. But perhaps it's mentally healthier for me to watch a show about high school that doesn't make me want to slit my wrists. Let's try, shall we?

For the show's three lead boys, heavy petting and the prospect of sex should mean that life is pretty good. But Life as We Know It wouldn't be an hourlong drama without some drama.

Dino (Sean Faris) is the hockey star with more than a passing resemblance to Tom Cruise (and don't think the girls don't notice). But Dino's seemingly golden life is about to become a lot more complicated, thanks to his discovery that his mother is having an affair, which leads to a series of other (somewhat obvious) complications with his beautiful girlfriend Jackie (Missy Peregrym).

Ben Connor (Jon Foster) is the young sensitive type. In the show's very first episode he begins an improbable romance with his mega-hot English teacher Miss Young (Marguerite Moreau). The pairing might be every horny teenaged boy's dream, but it also verges on the laugh-out-loud implausible. And with the pairing happening so soon, the show's producers run two big risks: first, that they'll turn off viewers who find the romantic portrayal of a high school teacher coupling with a student just a tad bit offensive. And second, that they have almost no place to take these two characters, short of having Miss Young fired from her job and run out of town.

The first problem is a bigger one. Life's writers and producers may think they're writing about wish fulfillment -- and they are. They may be planning serious ramifications for this relationship -- and they should be. But outside of teenaged boys, will anyone be able to watch the budding relationship between Ben and Miss Young without feeling remarkably uncomfortable?

The third boy is Jonathan Fields (Chris Lowell), often forced into the comic relief role. His girlfriend is Deborah (Kelly Osbourne). Yes, that Kelly Osbourne. And while Osbourne is a much better actress than I ever expected, she's still the weakest link in the cast. Even worse is the position her character has been forced into: she's the "fat girl"... a concept that's really laughable when you get a look at Osbourne. Yes, she's not willowy. But fat?

And if Deborah is the fat girl, why is she pals with Jackie and Sue (Jessica Lucas), two smokin' hotties? Soon after we meet Deborah, she's opening up to the pair of pretty, skinny girls (one of whom just shot down a pick-up attempt by Ben), getting advice from them about sex in the bathroom. It's an instantly incongruous scene -- how in the world would these three girls be talking to one another civilly, let alone speaking as best pals, were it not for the convenience of a TV show which only has a handful of female characters and needs to put them together in the same room.

Taking a cue from The O.C., the parents in Life aren't as peripheral as you might expect for a show about the sex life of teen boys. At the front are Dino's parents, Michael (D.B. Sweeney) and Annie (Lisa Darr). Annie's having sex with Dino's hockey coach, the act that begins the dramatic spiral that kicks off the show. (That plot point reminded me of "The Garage Door," a strong episode of Freaks and Geeks about uncovered parental infidelity co-written by... Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs!)

The real problem with the parents is Michael, who is portrayed as a bit too slow on the uptake. In Life's pilot episode, it seemed that Sweeney had made the interesting choice of playing the character as severely retarded. In the show's second episode, Michael progresses -- but still isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. Clearly, viewers are supposed to think that infidelity is bad. (As bad as teachers fooling around with students? That's your call.) But then again, if Annie's husband is as much of a dimwit as he's portrayed here, can you blame her for wanting to escape? It's a dramatic situation that's gutted by the weird way the show has chosen to portray Sweeney's character.

In the show's post-pilot episodes, there seems to be quite a bit of rethinking of the style and substance of the pilot. Even after seeing three episodes, it's pretty hard for me to judge Life as We Know It. The pilot had serious weaknesses, but the scenes with the three boys were really strong. The successive episodes have attempted to address some of the pilot's shortcomings, but still haven't managed to pull it all together. Throughout, the show has some problems with plausibility and poorly drawn characters. Sometimes it simply feels like Life as We Know It doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up.

I can't count the show out. The three male leads are all appealing actors, and the show's premise -- an exploration of the secret life of high-school boys -- could really take it a long way. But the show's attempt to mix soapy plot action, goofy comedy, and a taste of the bittersweet pain of high school doesn't quite work yet. I worry that by the time Sachs, Judah, and company get all the pieces working properly, it may be too late for this show to make it with audiences.

If that's true, Life as We Know It might end up sharing the fate of Freaks and Geeks... even though it got there by a remarkably different path.


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