Michael Apted’s “Up!” series of documentaries ranks as one of the great achievements in the history of film and television. It’s almost impossible to underestimate its value as both a piece of cinema and a piece of cultural anthropology. If you haven’t seen the films, which have checked in on the lives of a group of British children every seven years since they were seven, take a long weekend and watch the DVDs.
One of the things that critics have said as they watched the way that Neil and Nick and Tony and John and the rest evolved from kids to mature adults is that the “Up!” series crafted real human drama in a way that you could never script.
That’s a memo that Noah Hawley, a professed fan of the “Up!” series probably got, but he decided to try anyway.
And now, thanks to ABC’s new mocku-dramedy “My Generation,” he’s a cautionary tale.
Although “My Generation” mimics a documentary style, it’s a crushing disappointment in which every single moment rings false. It’s as tone-deaf a pilot as you’ll see this fall, though I suppose it will find a few fans, mostly among viewers who are literally the exact same age as the characters on-screen. [I’m five years older than they are, which ought to make me at least close enough to a demographic match, but apparently not-so-much.]
Full review of “My Generation” after the break…
The conceit of “My Generation” is that a documentary crew did some really superficial interviews with a group of seniors at an Austin, Texas high school. Then, 10 years later, the filmmaker decides to revisit the students and is shocked — SHOCKED!!! — to discover that most of their lives had changed in ironic ways since high school and that most of them were not living the lives they predicted for themselves a decade earlier. SHOCKED!
As the film’s director tells us, “A lot can change in 10 years. Life takes unexpected turns. But for these nine men and women, these last 10 years were just the beginning.”
That statement is the thesis beyond “My Generation” and it’s simultaneously banal and nonsensical. It doesn’t MEAN anything.
The dramatic irony in the “Up!” series — things the audience knows that the characters don’t know and which let us feel snarky and superior to said characters — has built over the years. There’s no question about that. It helps if you start off with seven-year-old kids giving their opinions on marriage, politics and their aspirations. When they’ve flip-flopped 21 years later, that can be a source for both humor and drama. Still, the “Up!” series has never been entirely about dramatic irony. It’s just something that happens.
“My Generation” has only irony on its mind.
The FIRST really line of dialogue in the entire show comes from Mehcad Brooks as an ego-driven jock who, shockingly, becomes a selfless soldier.
“My name is Rolly Marks and I think that George W. Bush is going to be the best president this country’s ever seen. Woo!” the character bellows into the camera.
Yes. We get it. Because… see… it turns out that that’s the sort of thing that this character — and other characters — might later regret saying or which might later look foolish.
And it doesn’t matter that George Bush Jr. probably didn’t have a huge amount of support from African-American teens (even in Texas) in the spring of 2000, because the point is the winking and nudging, not the possibility of actual character moments.
And when ultra-annoying Falcon tells the camera in 2000 that he’s going to become rich thanks to mp3s and everybody looks confused as if mp3s were this unknown quantity that only Falcon was hip to, it doesn’t matter that folks had been trading mp3s on Napster for nearly a year at that point and that the format had been the standard for online music sharing for three or four years already, because the point is the winking and nudging, not the possibility of actual character moments.
But it’s not just annoying lines of dialogue that are driven by irony. Romantically, the characters have been paired up almost entirely based upon the confused reactions that those pairings would bring a decade later when none of them apparently have any access to Facebook and they have to reconnect.
The whole pilot is, “Wait, you’re married to THEM?” “Wait, you’re now working as WHAT?” “Wait, you said you were going to be AWESOME and you’re actually LAME. How weird is that?”
And it gets tiring, because if your whole conceit is based around the documentary format, maybe reducing the contrivances would be a batter narrative strategy than relying solely on them.
Probably, “My Generation” was never going to work. If the point of the documentary style is to impose a sense of naturalism, it might not be well suited to a show featuring a group of young actors ineffectively playing dress-up to pretend to be both 18 and 28. In FOX’s “Reunion,” for example, the hair, makeup and costume decisions were never especially realistic, but the show wasn’t shot in a way where realism was aspired to. You can do that silly aging on a soap opera/murder mystery like “Reunion,” not something that’s meant to be a documentary.
And if the point of the documentary style is to impose a sense of realism, maybe Hawley wasn’t a great choice as showrunner. I adored ABC’s short-lived “The Unusuals” because of the heightened dialogue and situations and I’ve been impressed with Hawley at TCA press tour sessions with his self-awareness, but heightened dialogue and self-awareness are actually an awful combination for a show in this format.
And it’s not even like the show does the documentary style particularly well. Yes, there’s an off-screen filmmaker asking annoying and all-too-self-aware questions and sometimes the camera jiggles a little, but Hawley and pilot director Craig Gillespie make no effort at all to embrace the advantages and the limitations of the style. It feels as if this little documentary, with no likelihood of funding, much less ever being seen, has a crew of at least three or four cameras and that they have tremendous remote microphone technology and that secondary characters, people unaffiliated with the documentary itself, have no compunctions about being filmed saying and doing some embarrassing things.
The documentary style isn’t illuminating and finally it’s little more than a stylistic tic. The actors are so laughable in their 2000 incarnations that I really can’t believe we’re going to be treated to more of those moments in later episodes, unless “My Generation” really is a comedy at heart. The “My Generation” flashbacks recall “Friends” flashbacks in their level of dramatic execution.
But even if “My Generation” just became about a documentary crew following these characters at 28 or even if it became a straight-forward, conventionally shot dramedy about 20-somethings it Austin, it still wouldn’t be a good show. Within 10 minutes of starting the pilot, my notes read “I HATE THESE PEOPLE!” only with an expletive between “I” and “hate.” It took that little time for every character and every actor to grate on my nerves. And there are actors in “My Generation” who I actually like, especially Kelli Garner and Michael Stahl-David, but even that wasn’t enough. Maybe if Hawley had taken a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or Mike Leigh-style semi-improvised approach, that might have helped, but with this script and this style, most of the actors in the cast aren’t convincing characters on a TV show, much less as real people.
As I wrote in my Take Me To The Pilots entry, “Pretty Stepford 20-somethings natter on to the camera portentously about their life goals, romantic obstacles and difficulties finding happiness? Dear Lord. It’s ‘E-Harmony Commercial: The Series.'” And you know how you watch those E-Harmony commercials and go, “I don’t believe for a second that either of you actually spent any time in the online dating pool, much less that you found each other on E-Harmony,” that’s the level of artifice achieved on “My Generation.”
In part because Thursday night is a huge night for advertisers, it has also traditionally been a big night for event television. It’s still the home to a trio of great (or occasionally great) NBC comedies and CBS’ “Big Bang Theory,” the sometimes great “Grey’s Anatomy,” the increasingly great (in its own way) “Vampire Diaries” and a couple CBS procedurals that some people seem to really like. Perhaps sensing excessive stress on the nation’s DVRs, the networks decided to only introduce “My Generation,” “Feces My Dad Says” and “Outsourced” into their Thursday rotations. That’s the most charitable explanation I can give for the quality tonight’s less-than-appointment-viewing new series premieres.
“My Generation” premieres on ABC at 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 23.