It is very possible to make a good TV show about a bad TV show. On 30 Rock, for instance, TGS manages to stay on the air every year, but what we see of it—”Zis machine has too many farts in it! It’s going to explode!”—does not suggest a classic.
My Generation, premiering on ABC tonight, is about a bad documentary. A film crew followed a group of graduating high school students in Austin, Tx. in 2000 and is returning to update us on them ten years later. (Actually, I don’t believe the pilot makes clear whether the documentary was for a movie or TV, but the serial format and narrative style suggests TV, a la an MTV News doc.) In the show-within-a-show, the various characters get reductive reality-TV handles (The Nerd, The Punk, The Wallflower) and the decade gets a glib newsmagazine summary: “It was a time of prosperity…” “The country was split in two, red states and blue states…”
The intriguing challenge of My Generation is whether, by showing how real life has complicated this neat package, it can make a good show out of this bad show. It’s not there yet, but in giving it a try, it’s at least one of the few interesting new broadcast series this season.
The thesis of the show is that the ’00s were as disappointing for its twentysomething characters as for the rest of us. The docu crew that follows them packages it in sweeping, from-the-headlines, generational terms—2000 was so promising, then Enron, 9/11 and Katrina hit, and Everything Changed, all to a pop-music soundtrack. (Warning to those prone to premature midlife crises: “The Real Slim Shady” is now nostalgia music.) But we gradually see that their lives have fallen short in the timeless, little, non-news-pegged ways that real lives do. They got distracted, complacent, disillusioned, sidetracked. (And in one case, as you might have suspected, pregnant.)
The mock-doc format, so popular in comedies now, can seem pretentious in a drama. But here, it’s actually refreshing and gives the show a distinctive voice. We often learn most from the characters not by how they answer questions but by how they can’t answer them. One of the most affecting scenes in the pilot is both comic and sad. The school rich kid and his trophy wife bore the camera by showing off what they’ve learned in a wine-tasting class (“Yes! Blackberry!”), then—in response to a question about her acting ambitions—he alludes to her stint as a contestant on season 2 of The Bachelor, and a clip rolls. Visibly embarrassed, yet resolutely smiling, she changes the subject: “I am so excited to see how the salami’s going to go with the wine!”
My Generation has taken a hammering from other early reviews, and I can see why; it’s hard to separate the documentary (which is quite realistic in its glibness) from the show’s framing of it. (Which, since the documentary is all we see, is framing of the most meta kind.) Creating a more nuanced drama entirely through reading between the lines, through our perceiving the ironic difference between TV’s neat packaging and the messiness of disappointing life, may be too much for the show to handle, and may be too much to ask of audiences.
But after an episode, I’m intrigued. My Generation may end up as bad as the mockumentary it contains, but I’d rather watch it try and fail in its messy ambition than watch the competence of a dozen other new shows this fall.