Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

August 3rd, 2010

I am not surprised to learn that critics, as a whole, are not jumping on the bandwagon for 18 to Life, the Canadian comedy which was recently purchased by The CW to fill out part of its summer schedule and which debuts with two back-to-back episodes at 9/8c. I watched and more or less enjoyed the show’s first season when it aired on CBC, but I did it without much emotional attachment, and certainly without any critical analysis (which is why reviews never materialized beyond the pilot). I appreciate some of the series’ choices, and am intrigued by the show it developed into, but it is unquestionably a simple pleasure rather than a complex reinvention of television comedy.

However, I was a surprised to see how many critics have been stuck on the series’ premise, and disappointed to see how many critics are unable to get past the stereotype of Canadian television and summer television as lesser entities in expressing their dislike of the show. It’s been a while since I’ve read pre-air reviews of a series which I’ve seen in its entirety, but most of the series’ reviews ignore the show itself and instead focus on attacking either its origins, its scheduling, or the apparent offensiveness of its premise – while I understand that these are all part of the series’ impact, that these critics have not bothered to watch closely enough to see the kind of show which 18 to Life is becoming seems a disservice to a show which is just trying to be an old-fashioned traditional sitcom.

Which doesn’t make it brilliant, but does make it something that doesn’t deserve this level of scorn.

18 to Life is a series about two eighteen-year olds who, after graduating from high school, impulsively decide to get married. I will agree that the premise isn’t particularly novel, and is riddled with numerous cliches, but what fascinates me about critical responses to the series is that people find this premise to be out and out controversial. The Wall Street Journal’s review, from Megan Angelo, is particularly bizarre, seeming to condemn the series for daring to suggest that kids are having sex in reality:

What is it that makes this so creepy, even though the kids have made it legal? It’s that they’re still kids. And even actors can’t mask the fact that it’s unnatural to watch kids behave like they’re as entitled to sex as they are to silly bands. Somehow, trying to legitimize the whole thing only makes it worse — and usually, the CW doesn’t try. It’s way weirder to watch these two wholesome, suburban teens crawl into bed together than it is to watch the extravagant sexual exploits of the high schoolers on “Gossip Girl” or “90210.” That’s because both shows have a consistent unreal quality: set in high school, but not really true to it. Viewers sense that they can’t get away with those characters’ moral codes any more than they can their dress codes. So they don’t try.

This argument fascinates me: apparently, it’s fine to portray teen sex when the series is hyper-stylized, but depicting two adults (they’re both over 18) having sex while married is somehow weird because it takes place in a decidedly normal environment? I’ll be honest in that I never once thought it was weird for these two adults in a long-term relationship to have sex, which is why I was so surprised to see reviews get so hung up on the series’ supposedly twisted morality. The Miami Herald’s Gleen Garvin gets in on the act as well:

But there’s something deeply creepy about a network that pitches itself as the TV destination for adolescent girls, as The CW does, offering them a sitcom in which teenage marriage is portrayed as a cute idyll of making out in soda shops, picking wedding dresses and reading Eco-Spouse magazine.

What’s funny is how much these two arguments conflict with one another: while Angelo seems to argue that the show’s depiction of Tom and Jessie’s relationship is too grounded in reality, Garvin argues that it is portrayed too wistfully and that it is simply a different degree of The CW’s amoral depiction of today’s youth. However, in the sitcom tradition, a story can be both: what is a sitcom, after all, if not the exaggeration of reality for the sake of comic effect? The highs become higher, the lows become lower, and the resulting conflict because the source of comedy.

I don’t blame critics who don’t find the show particularly funny, as the show starts slowly and never reaches any sort of comic apex – however, to attack the show for daring to suggest that a marriage between two consenting adults could make them happy, or that two eighteen-year olds in a long term relationship could have sex, shifts the focus of these reviews solely to the series’ premise. Garvin, for example, writes that even those with no problems with the premise won’t find much to enjoy with the series, but if that is the case I’m far more interested in why he felt this couldn’t translate into a successful comedy than his inability to get past the premise. Perhaps the summer months have critics without much of an opportunity to stretch themselves, but focusing solely on the apparent controversy surrounding the light-hearted sitcom’s premise seems to be doing a disservice to what it is trying to accomplish as a television series.

The single best review out there right now doesn’t like the show either, but The Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara accurately captures what I was preparing to argue in the first place: while some seem shocked by the series’ politics, this is a decidedly old-fashioned sitcom.

It’s a pretty retro story line for the CW, or any network for that matter, and raises some interesting questions about marriage. It is much more shocking to see these young people leap into matrimony than it would be if they were just having sex or even moving in together. Twenty years ago, story lines about marriage between teenagers usually involved an unwanted pregnancy and the requisite anger and shame (am I the only one who remembers “Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones”?), though of course Juliet was two weeks shy of 14 when she first met her Romeo. Still, imperfect parents having to confront their own limitations through their children’s rocky rise to adulthood is the oldest sitcom plot in the box, so there’s something refreshing about the troublesome adolescent behavior being marriage, as opposed to drug use or vampirism.

Now, McNamara is right that the series never dives into these questions about marriage as much as it could, but she rightfully points out that the show is just as interested in the parents as it is in the teenagers. The series eventually develops into a simple sitcom about two worlds colliding, as the two families reluctantly become one through Tom and Jessie’s union. This isn’t a series about teenage sex (although one of its strongest episodes, “Hanging Pictures,” deals with the subject on a multi-generational level), nor is it simply a series about two young people who get married; instead, it’s a show about an extended family who has to deal with these kinds of issues before any of them were prepared to, which is your run of the mill sitcom premise. In fact, if it wasn’t considered too old-fashioned, this premise could have easily been a multi-camera sitcom, which is why relating the series to Gossip Girl or 90210 seems so bizarre.

It makes me wonder how much these reviews seem to be caught up in the circumstances of the series’ arrival rather than the series itself: McNamara really looks at the kind of television show the series wants to become, but other reviews seem hung up on the fact that it was a Canadian import, or the fact that its being aired in the summer months. The Boston Herald’s Mark Perigard, lamenting that the series is filming a second season in Canada, quips that it is “more proof that we’re looking at the wrong border to close,” while Garvin writes that “the network is scraping the bottom of the TV barrel for new programming — worse, the bottom of the Canadian TV barrel.” When writing pre-air reviews, I get that a series’ origin (network, producer, nation) and its scheduling (Timeslot, Season, etc.) are two easy ways to fill some space and contextualize a series’ arrival, but these reviews make me wonder if the series would be treated differently if it wasn’t from Canada, and whether it was immediately considered lesser due to The CW’s decision to burn it off in August so they could claim they are committed to original summer programming. Combine with the apparent prejudices about teen marriage, and finding the show itself within these reviews can become a pretty substantial challenge.

Which, regardless of what one thinks of the show, does it a disservice. This wasn’t the best comedy to come out of Canada this year, but once it settled into its premise it surprised me in how its multi-generational approach manifested itself, and how it managed to craft stories which didn’t feel as if they infantilized the adults or made Tom and Jessie seem too mature. Obviously, these reviews won’t have that level of foresight, so I don’t expect them to see the subtlety in the show’s future execution: however, I wasn’t expecting for the series’ old-fashioned premise to be attacked in this sort of fashion, and it was unfortunate to see the series get defined by its national origins and The CW’s scheduling decisions.

I won’t defend the series as perfect, but I will defend it as a show worth more than reviews which fail to get past its premise and the circumstances of its airing: this is an old-fashioned sitcom, and while this keeps it from reaching any new heights I think that there is an honest charm about the series which keeps it from scraping the bottom of any barrels. It’s not for everyone, and I agree with many of the criticisms directed at the show’s early episodes, but the idea that these are problems which could not be ironed out suggests a short-sighted view of the series’ potential which has been unfortunately predominant in early critical perspectives.

Cultural Observations

  • It’s true that Michael Seater and Stacey Farber don’t have the most chemistry in the world, but I think the parents have an outrageous amount of it, which is why I never really minded: the parents are definitely the highlight here, which is the real reason why the show won’t work on The CW.
  • This actually would have paired really well with long-canceled Aliens in America, each story taking a potentially problematic premise and letting it play out with a certain degree of honesty and integrity.
  • The CW is airing two episodes a week all month, so the series will be over quite quickly – I expect ratings to be pretty abysmal, so don’t expect the second season (debuting in Canada in January) to make its way to American airwaves.
  • There’s no point where the imposed hierarchy of American television over Canadian is more clear than in Garvin’s observation that “Of the mostly Canadian cast, only Stacey Farber (Degrassi: The Next Generation), who plays Jessie, appears to have any future in U.S. television.”
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3 Comments

Filed under 18 to Life

3 responses to “Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

  1. Pingback: TV, eh? » The misdirected scorn of 18 to Life’s US critics

  2. I knew that when this show hit American screens people would be up in arms.

  3. I really don’t understand the outrage over the premise. A LOT of teenagers get married right out of high school. This isn’t even the first CW show to deal with teen marriage — two characters on One Tree Hill got married and they were juniors in high school, and not because the girl got knocked up, just because they were impulsive and wanted to. (Those characters are still together, by the way. And…I obviously know too much about One Tree Hill.)

    Weird.

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