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Published: Thursday, 10/7/2004

Inner 'life' of teen boys gets spotlight

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

After last month's release of a study that found teens who watch TV shows with sexual themes are more likely than others their age to start having sex, the timing for ABC's life as we know it couldn't be worse. Nor could a semipositive review from yours truly.

Oh, well - here goes.

The pilot episode for life, which makes its debut at 9 tonight, is really interesting. Unfortunately, two subsequent episodes are not as commendable.

There's a lot of talk about sex in tonight's pilot episode, and some of the stories are over the top, not to mention similar to plots on the first season of Dawson's Creek. But what I appreciate about the life pilot is how truly life-like it is.

In the past, teenage girls have been the ones to have their inner emotional lives explored with a microscope in TV dramas, particularly the ABC critical hit My So-Called Life. This new life - yes, the title is all lowercase out of a copyright necessity, according to producers - goes over the same ground as the previous Life. But instead of focusing on girls, it's more about sex and relationships and friendship from a teenage boy's point of view.

Not that the guys on this show share their innermost feelings with one another; they most assuredly do not, just as most guys that age do not. Instead, the characters speak directly to the camera to reveal their roiling emotions.

Unlike the kids on Dawson's Creek, the boys on life don't sound as if they have degrees in psychology; they sound like real teenagers, which is to say, sometimes they're pretty profane, saying things I can't quote in a family newspaper.

Should teenagers be allowed to watch this show? That's up to parents. As always, I'd advocate for parents to watch it with their teens in hopes of sparking a discussion.

Although the characters talk nonstop about having sex, none actually engages in anything more than making out in the first three episodes, although I expect that will change in future episodes.

But even though I liked the life pilot, my enthusiasm for the show has diminished since seeing two more episodes. The direct address to the camera begins to grate, and the whole show is not different enough from teen shows of the past.

Based on the British novel Doing It by Melvin Burgess (published in America this summer), life as we know it follows three primary characters: rising hockey star Dino (Sean Farris), a confident guy who knows he's attractive and knows how to use his looks to get what he wants; Jonathan (Chris Lowell), a creative and innately compassionate guy who is attracted to best friend Deborah (Kelly Osbourne) but is afraid to act on that attraction because he doesn't want to be teased for dating a full-bodied girl, and Ben (Jon Foster), a smart kid whose background remains undefined in the pilot.

He has the hots for a teacher (Marguerite Moreau) eight years his senior.

It's the Mary Kay Latourneau-like plot that makes me the most uneasy about life as we know it, both because of the sensational nature of the story and because Dawson's Creek had the same plot its first season.

"It should give some people the creeps and other people it shouldn't," said executive producer Jeff Judah, who developed life as we know it with Gabe Sachs. Both are veterans of the best teen show ever, Freaks and Geeks.

"We're trying to make it look like what if these people should have been together, if they were both 22. They share a lot, they have a lot in common, but they're not [both 22]. It is from the headlines and it is what's going on out there, and we're just investigating it," Judah said.

It's that investigation of teenagers and sex that some viewers just don't want to see on TV. And I see that side. Parents want to keep their children innocent for as long as possible; they want to protect them from the ugliness of the world. But sooner or later, kids are going to see that side of things - chances are they hear it every day in school hallways already - and it might be better for parents to engage their teens in conversation about uncomfortable subjects rather than ignore certain realities while crossing their fingers and hoping all will turn out well.

In a follow-up interview late last month, Judah said that in early episodes the teen characters don't have sex.

"One of the things we talk about as we do the show is that the kids are physically ready for sex, but not emotionally ready for sex," he said.

Wherever you land in the debate about what's wrong with TV - it usually comes down to conservatives who say TV has too much sex and liberals who say TV has too much violence - life as you know it proves one thing: TV shows like this don't make life as parents know it any easier.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.



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