Series Premiere: 18 to Life – “Pilot”


January 4th, 2010

It’s not a huge surprise that ABC (likely through ABC Family), which already has a show about teen pregnancy, would be interested in acquiring the rights to 18 to Life (Mondays at 8 on CBC), a show which investigates teen marriage (as has been pointed out to me now, that co-production deal eventually fell apart). However, the Canadian series is not the same type of moralistic investigation that The Secret Life of the American Teenager wants to be. While it may not necessarily be offering an endorsement of kids who marry on an impulse at a young age (there’s a cautionary tale, here), it has no interest in taking the premise beyond its sitcom roots: this is a show about the madcap hijinks that face two kids trying to start a life together before their parents believe their lives have actually started, and the lack of moral aspirations is perhaps its strongest quality.

If you’re looking for something to break down sitcom expectations, you’re not going to find it here: of course the young couple have secrets that complicate their relationship, and of course their parents represent polar opposites, and of course they don’t think everything through before committing to their marriage. However, the pilot captures enough of the charm the premise is capable of evoking that I’m willing to endorse the show as a light-hearted negotiation of life, youth, and holy matrimony.

Like with many shows which focus on teenagers (or, in this cast, adults who might as well be teenagers), I’d argue the real interest here is in their parents. I don’t mean to suggest that Stacey Farber and Michael Seater are unconvincing as Jessie and Tom, the young lovebirds who literally get engaged on a dare, but their story is on an almost painfully obvious path: the show readily admits they’re not ready for this, and when they eventually choose to run off to City Hall to get married it seems like they consider that a solution to the complications of Jessie having slept with Tom’s best friend, Carter. Their arc is one of slow self-revelation achieved through comic scenarios designed to embarrass them, which is why their parents (who are going to be the source of the majority of that embarrassment) are undoubtedly the more intriguing element of the series.

And I think that the show delivers on that expectation, as I found all four parents (albeit broadly drawn as conservative/stern on Tom’s side (Peter Keleghan, Ellen David) and as laid back/hippy on Jessie’s (Angela Asher, Alain Goulem)) are engaging characters that are that one extra notch above caricature that the show needs to survive. When they get together to plot against the kids, the comedy is exactly what you expect it to be (the fathers don’t get along, the wives run the show) but the results are enjoyable enough that it becomes less predictable and more, well, productive. It creates enough pressure that the kids start to come to terms with their situation, and how the parents are handled in the future is really the test of where the show goes from here.

As far as the central relationship goes, I think there was some smart setup here. The episode ultimately rushes them to the altar (or the courthouse, as the case may be) based on the half-hour run time alone, but it uses some cute satire (the accordion player narrating their love) and some nice symbolism (the fence which divides them for their late night rendezvous, which is torn down in time for them to confront the identity of Jessie’s Judo Boy) to get its point across without feeling melodramatic or preachy (which would be my greatest concern coming into a show with this premise). There is nothing subtle about the pilot, but it moves at such a pace that the lack of subtlety seems necessary, and there’s no point where it felt like things were moving too fast; it might sound cheap, but considering that the whole point of the show is that things move too quickly, the pilot manages to capture that without feeling out of control and with only one gratuitous montage.

This isn’t to say that I don’t have my issues with the show. The opening might have some charming moments, but it is the one part of the episode which seemed like a pretty huge stretch: I get that the move is meant to be impulsive, but the “Truth or Dare” element seemed like something that no eighteen year old would ever do. I think it would have worked better if it had been a romantic notion they had discussed at an earlier age that perhaps re-emerged, or something which still felt impulsive without feeling quite so sudden (especially since we had only just met the characters). Subsequently, when the marriage is later complicated by the news that it was Tom’s friend Carter who was “Judo Boy,” it seems too convenient: would they have really not discussed his identity? And, more importantly, wouldn’t these apparent “best friends” have spent enough time around each other for there to be some moment of awkwardness that would reveal the truth? I’m always skeptical of storyline which create a moment that by all logic should have happened earlier, like when people pick up the conversation from before the commercial as if they wouldn’t have discussed the topic in the car ride between locations.

But these are concerns that, let’s face it, are somewhat outside of the show’s intended functions. It’s meant to be a charming investigation of young love and how it drives adults wild, which makes the show an odd fit with Little Mosque on the Prairie on CBC but a perfect fit for 10 Things I Hate About You on ABC Family (if that were happening – I had presumed the show was earmarked for the network, having been co-produced by ABC, but there’s no official date in place and the co-production seems to have fallen apart in March). I don’t think a half-hour show could approach the level of Greek (the network’s best blend of the teen soap opera and the teen comedy), but I’m intrigued at how the network is opening itself up to the “sitcom” in its more traditional form (albeit single-camera) with these shows. I could probably map out where the series is going from this point forward (what a shocker that next week’s episode, based on the preview, features a lack of personal space and parents walking in on heated makeout sessions!), but I think that’s what the show is going for – if they happen to surprise along the way, that’s a bonus, which is how I approach most ABC Family material (which, regardless of whether this show ends up south of the border, is where the show seems to fit).

As for how I approach CBC material, I’ll spare you the thesis argument about the fundamental lack of Canada within the series (the only pop cultural reference is The White Stripes, although the show at least acknowledges that they’re have to road trip to get there), but I think it’s a solid entry into their original programming lineup.

Cultural Observations

  • My one nagging issue with the show that never really came to the surface was that I didn’t find any of the teenagers to be overly well defined in terms of characters: outside of getting married, we know nothing about them other than that they’re in love. I don’t think this is a huge problem (it’s definitely heavy on the situation in situation comedy), as it could be fixed with time, but I do think that the teens need to get more unique voices as the series goes forward.
  • We only got one “flashback” cutaway, which I think the show will be using quite often. I actually wish we would have gotten more in this instance to flesh out some back story, but the show definitely wants to be Malcolm in the Middle to some degree (with its focus on parents, in particular) so it’s only fitting that it play with one of its most distinctive single camera techniques that has helped define this particular form over the past decade or so.
  • Probably won’t be watching every week, and certainly won’t be reviewing regularly, but will stop in if something surprises me or seems particularly noteworthy.


Filed under 18 to Life

3 responses to “Series Premiere: 18 to Life – “Pilot”

  1. Pingback: TV, eh? » Reviews: 18 to Life premiere

  2. Smartie

    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the proposal that sets this whole story in motion. Truth or dare? Please!

    You’re right. The proposal should have come about because of their recalling their first kiss as eight-year-olds, or in response to one of them doing something very heroic or romantic, and the other saying something half-jokingly like, “I am going to marry this woman!” And then, surprised by the depth of feeling that is actually there, following through.

    Or, if they had to have the Truth or Dare component, it should have been suggested by a wedding party being photographed in the park. As it is, I don’t think that teen-agers who have just been rude to an accordion player, and licked garbage, suddenly get all romantic and propose marriage. If they were trying for a Jim-and-Pam-style playful buddy romance, it flopped because there was no subtext of Nobility, Self-Restrained Longing and Finer Feelings.

    The conflict with the parents doesn’t ring true either, in my estimation. The parental objections would be stronger if at least one set of parents was split up and had more reason to be jaded about marriage. (And statistically, isn’t that more likely?) As it stands, I would think that Jessie’s parents would simply invite Tom to move into Jessie’s bedroom sans ceremony (what’s one more refugee in the house?) Or would Tom’s parents okay a wedding if the “gentile girl” signed a pre-nup so that their son’s financial future would not be compromised when they inevitably divorced?

    The main problem is that the “stakes” of this engagement are not spelled out very well. Why is it so important to the two kids that they get married? Why is it so important to their parents that they don’t? The show so far looks like everyone’s motivations are about power: the parents want to plan/run/vicariously-live-through their children’s lives. The kids want to declare their independence . . . from something.

    It’s one kind of show if the kids have a good reason to marry and will be happy. It’s another kind of show if the kids marry for the wrong reasons, and will be unhappy. It’s still another kind of show if the kids marry for the wrong reasons, and somehow learn to be happy.

    And the sub-plot of Jessie having slept with Tom’s friend? Yuck! I admit, it took me a while to figure out who they were talking about when they mentioned Carter (after all, the show introduced 11 characters in 22 minutes), and then it didn’t occur to me that this was the same person as Judo Boy. And, like you, I don’t see how this would have been a mysterious secret between them. But for this comedy to work, this ingenue couple has to lose the post-modernist ennui and find some sweetness and innocence. The comedy has to turn on the idea that nobody believes in their marriage but Jessie and Tom. They can’t doubt themselves — they can run off a cliff, like cartoon characters, who, as long as they don’t look down, can walk on air.

    But I don’t think the comedy turned very well in the first episode. I tuned in to this show because I have enjoyed the work of several of the actors in other projects. And here they all are, acting their little hearts out — but they don’t seem to have much of a script to work with. I did not laugh once at this comedy. I did not even smile.

    “18 to Life” looks a little like “Dharma and Greg”. It looks a little like “Reba”. It looks a little like the venerable “Bridget Loves Bernie”. It even looks a little like “Family Ties”. But it’s not as good as any of them, because the stakes and motivations of the characters are murky, the jokes are stale, and the plot clunks.

    Here’s hoping for better days.

  3. Richard

    Can you tell me what the songs name is on episode 01. it sings about a alien or something

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