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TV Tonight: Their So-Called Lives

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BBC America

If you have both BBC America and a taste for raunchy, smart, good-hearted teen comedy, do not miss the debut of The Inbetweeners tonight (9 p.m. E.T.). Several reviews out already have made the obvious comparison to the movies of Judd Apatow, or said that the show is sort of like an R-rated version of Freaks and Geeks. All true, but I don’t want to be a copycat, so instead I will say: The Inbetweeners is like a British Superbad: The Series.

Wait, that’s basically saying the same thing, isn’t it? Sigh. All the same: watch this show. And if that doesn’t satisfy your teen-comedy jones alone, consider switching over to MTV at 10:30 for its odd little reality-dramedy hybrid, My Life As Liz.

Starring Simon Bird as Will, an awkward new kid transitioning to a new high school, The Inbetweeners is based in Superbad’s eternal verity that teenage boys want to get laid and get drunk (or, the Dazed and Confused / That ’70s Show correlative, stoned), and that of the two, getting drunk is much, much easier.

As one attempt to fit in after another goes badly for Will—showing up first day with a briefcase, surprisingly, turns out to be a bad call—he’s subjected to a series of embarrassments, such as someone snapping a cellphone picture of him copping a squat in a boys’ room stall. (Technology, it turns out, has perfected humiliation as much as any other human endeavor.) He soon falls in, though, with a group of other students at the margins of the social castes, each with their own knack for humiliation, self-imposed or otherwise.

The result may not be groundbreaking (again, see Superbad for similar takes on the results of lust, illicit alcohol and the weakness of the human digestive system). But it’s well-written and charming—Bird, especially is winning as the socially inept but delightfully sarcastic Will. And it’s a welcome change on American TV, which is still hesitant to show the raunchy comedy of teen life (instead, we either get cleaned-up versions or the fantasized, over-the-top decadence of Gossip Girl).

My Life as Liz, meanwhile, debuted on MTV last Monday. I’ve seen the first two episodes, including tonight’s, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, but I’m taken regardless. MTV refuses to strictly categorize the show as fiction or nonfiction, though it calls it the “unscripted,” based-on-life story of Liz Lee, the star and an actual high school student in a small town in Texas.

Like Angela Chase from My So-Called Life, Liz—or at least the TV version of her—is a sensitive, sardonic, arty-oriented girl who feels out of place at school. Unlike Angela, who had an upscale Pittsburgh suburb to play out her angst in, Liz is in a small, conservative Bible Belt town (or, again, at least it’s portrayed that way), which makes her feel all the more isolated and out of options among the jocks and cheerleaders.

On the one hand, not knowing anything about My Life As Liz’s production, I don’t buy it as undoctored “reality” for a second. Too many scenes seem rehearsed or at least planned and too many scenarios—as when Liz is assigned to document the life of a popular girl for a film class—seem too convenient. On the other hand, this is the network of The Hills and The City, and I neither expect unadorned reality nor really care.

Taken as what it seems to be—a high-school comedy with nonprofessional actors and some or other level of artifice, My Life as Liz is visually intriguing and charming in its off-kilter conversationality. It’s hardly perfect—for one thing, it shows that traditional teen dramas have no monopoly on cheerleader-bitch stereotypes—but as an attempt to get inside the head and voice of one teen, it’s at least an interesting experiment.

If nothing else, it makes the case that there’s not much difference between “real life as seen through the eyes of a real person” and the TV shows that have shaped the way we perceive our lives. That’s the aspect of My Life As Liz that seems the most real of all.

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