Monday, June 7, 2010

The Hard Times of RJ Berger

Review by Paul Steven Brown

It's pretty easy to be cynical about any new original programming that MTV decides to trot out. This is the network whose biggest shows at the moment are 'The Hills' and 'Jersey Shore'. Even 'The Real World', while not always the most sophisticated of programs, has devolved into casting towards the lowest common denominator in the last decade. Remember when the roommates had careers or goals before they came on the show? Now it seems like the goal and the career is to be on 'The Real World' or some other similar reality show. At least 'True Life' continues to be the one shining star in the MTV unscripted line up.

Occasionally there has been some bright lights in the realm of scripted television on the former music video network, but even those are products of bygone days. 'The Sifl and Olly Show', which ran from 1997 to 1999, was a comedic gem. Who would have thought that the combination of sock puppets, musical parody, and dry humor would be such an amazingly hilarious combination? The animated 'Clone High' was another pleasant surprise. It was sharply scripted and employed a reliable cast of comedic voice actors such as Will Forte, Nicole Sullivan, and Christa Miller (not to mention an awesome theme song). There may have been other equally enjoyable shows over the past decade, but MTV hasn't instilled me with a lot of confidence in their programming in a long time.

Now arrives 'The Hard Times of RJ Berger' (which premiered last night after the '2010 MTV Movie Awards'), a teen comedy produced and written by David Katzenberg ('Survivor') and Seth Grahame-Smith, the writer of the period piece/horror mash-ups Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It's a bit of an odd pedigree for a show that amounts to a raunchy, post-millennium version of 'Parker Lewis Can't Lose'. A more modern comparison would be Superbad, which centered on a curly-haired awkward teen and his chubby sidekick, too. Fans of Judd Apatow produced films will probably feel right at home with 'RJ Berger'.

RJ is your typical nerdy outcast with a good heart and the standard high dose of heterosexual male hormones. During a basketball game in which he is forced to sub-in, despite only being the water boy, his over-sized uniform shorts and jockstrap drop to reveal to the rest of his classmates his apparently large penis. Despite being a point of jealousy amongst the male student body, it just becomes another source of ridicule for RJ.

Paul Iacono plays the title character and physically he reminds me of a young Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds and Ack Ack in One Crazy Summer). Iacono plays resigned humiliation extremely well and he gets plenty of opportunities to do so. From his being walked in on by his mother (played by Beth Littleford) while masturbating or during the climatic pants dropping incident, Iacono sells RJ's embarrassment with each Adam's apple gulp, grimace, and clenched pair of eyes.

RJ's best friend Miles (Jareb Dauplaise) is your standard fat, but energetic, sidekick. It's a role well-played by the likes of Chris Farley and Jonah Hill, and though Dauplaise doesn't really track any new territory with it, he does a serviceable job. RJ's triumvirate of misfits is rounded out by Lily (Tara Taitz) who makes no bones about wanting RJ. She's sort of a horny version of Ethel Muggs to RJ's more clued-in Jughead. We are treated to a scene of Lily humping a desk while staring at RJ's yearbook picture and later she wears a shirt with his face on it that reads "I Want You Inside Me". It may be a bit of an oversell on the character, but Taitz is pretty funny and over-the-top.

Of course a show like this would not be complete without an unattainable, hot, popular girl. Jenny Swanson (Amber Lancaster) gets paired with RJ as a study buddy for Biology, but she's played as being good-natured and not snubbing our hero. However, Lancaster, while very pretty and especially striking during a dream sequence, does look older than most of the cast. My wife commented during the program that Lancaster looked about thirty, of which she is a few months shy.

Like a lot of good raunchy comedies of the past few years, like The Hangover and the aforementioned Superbad, the dirty humor is tempered with heart. Making RJ a character that you can root for helps lift 'The Hard Times of RJ Berger' above what could have been just another American Pie rip-off. It's not groundbreaking television, but it's pretty damn funny at times and better than the usual MTV fare. It's not for everyone but it made me laugh a few times so I'll probably check out tonight's episode.

'The Hard Times of RJ Berger' is on tonight at 10PM EST on MTV.

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