'The Hard Times of RJ Berger'
10 p.m. Sunday on MTV
Teen entertainment is a different beast, and it has its own rules. There has to be an underdog hero, a secret crush, an absurdist and eye-rolling depiction of high school, and random raunch. It doesn't have to be a good show to be considered a classic (see: "Square Pegs"). In fact, sometimes it's better if it's not. Not every teen is emotionally ready for a "My So-Called Life" or "Freaks and Geeks," after all.
Sometimes raging hormones demand stupid gross-out jokes instead. And they will get them aplenty in "The Hard Times of RJ Berger," which signals its intentions with a pun in the title. No, not "Berger." Our hero RJ is "scrawny and weird looking, awkward and pale," as he describes himself. The Harry Potter glasses don't help.
But RJ has one standout feature, or a secret weapon, if you will: an enormous phallus. We learn this in the gym at the same time the entire student body does, but it's not humiliating - RJ is immediately recategorized in the high school order as a freak who commands a certain amount of respect.
From the show's grownup equivalent, HBO's "Hung," we learned that this kind of a gift can be profitable. But when you're a high school dork, it comes in less handy than you'd like.
The show has an irreverent tone that works; RJ's parents turn out to be swingers who invite other suburbanites over for small orgies. (And you complained about your parents.) But the other characters are offensively stereotypical, and not in a good way. RJ's overweight best friend plots to impress "hot girls with low self esteem." RJ's got a lusty female pal/stalker who says things like "Anytime, any place, any orifice." And RJ's in love with the prettiest girl in school, a Jodi Lynn O'Keefe lookalike. "Be still my beating balls," he sighs when he sees her.
(A side note: The jerk jock boyfriend of RJ's dream girl is played by Jayson Blair - who shares a name, spelling and all, with disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. I suppose if the actor changed his name, then the plagiarists will have won.)
Each half-hour episode is essentially a disposable teen movie. In short order, RJ runs for student body president, auditions for the school musical, debates the carpenter club vs. the woodworking club, and mocks sullen Goths - "Five feet of pure Columbine." I shudder to think what the inevitable glee club episode will be like.
If you're an adult, you'll cringe more than you laugh. If you're a teen, you'll laugh - but nervously, because the reality of high school life is more painful than any bad comedy could be. And laughing is the only way to survive.