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Teens, going all the way

Underage sex reaches fever pitch on ABC's 'Life as We Know It,' but it's not the scary variety found on news shows and 'Dr. Phil.'

October 07, 2004|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

For all the teenage sex in the works on the new ABC high school drama "Life as We Know It," the best of the story lines involves the flirtation between the grown-up Ms. Young (Marguerite Moreau), a teacher, and her student Ben (Jon Foster).

He spies on her as she's undressing after dance rehearsal; she turns to give him a better look. She catches him drinking a beer at the school carnival; he's embarrassed, she smiles. In English class, he stares at the subtle movements of her blouse as she stretches to write "Raskolnikov" on the blackboard; minutes later, she's sitting astride the empty desk to his left after teasingly asking him if he thinks "Dostoevsky is suggesting that the punishment is less terrifying than the pain and anxiety of trying to avoid the punishment."

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that this is great TV student-teacher foreplay -- hot stuff! -- on the same network that aired, two weeks ago, Barbara Walters' very final "20/20" interview with Mary Kay LeTourneau, the Seattle teacher who got pregnant by her 12-year-old student and was subsequently convicted of child rape.

Crime and punishment. On "Life as We Know It," sex isn't a sordid bummer. In fact, so far, one episode in, this series is hinting at serious soap opera panache. Trouble is, ABC is sending the show out to be slaughtered; it airs Thursdays at 9 opposite CBS' juggernaut "CSI" and NBC's "The Apprentice." There's no room, it would appear, at the inn, which means the show will either be moved, canceled or re-released as a limited-edition DVD complete with cast commentary.

But there's something to the show. Dark humor and light drama, and music-video pyrotechnics. Points of view, the show's publicity promises, will shift in coming weeks to the girls and the adults. There's one of the Osbournes in the cast -- daughter Kelly -- who is so good she seems born to be an ambassador to every teen dramedy looking for the pudgy-cute girl with wit to boot.

There's that student-teacher story line, and meanwhile it's all set in a picture book place -- an upscale, perennially chilly (judging by the $120 sweaters) all-American town where people drive beat-up Volvos and your mom mans the water-gun booth at that nexus of sexual longing, the school carnival.

Maybe I wouldn't be getting this excited if I had watched "Dawson's Creek" more. Like that show, "Life as We Know It" understands that the only way to make the subject of teen sex exciting to adults is to adult-up the kids. Make them vulnerable and awkward but also witty and, to look at them, potentially 18-and-over.

Is this so wrong? After all, if you come at the subject too realistically, you end up with something adults will find informational but not alluring -- to wit, the recent documentary "Teen Sex," which aired on what is arguably the least hot cable network, the Discovery Channel. This was a fairly sober look at the sexual life of teenagers, featuring actual gawky kids, from 14 to 19, and their concerned parents discussing the world of "hooking up," to use the unromantic parlance of their world. The show included statistics such as "nearly one in four young people contract an STD each year."

But "Teen Sex" wasn't as alarmed by its subject as Phil McGraw, who last week on "Dr. Phil," in conversation with the president and the first lady, turned the phrase "epidemic of oral sex in our middle schools."

An epidemic? Compared to that kind of rhetoric, "Life as We Know It" is a fever dream. The creators are Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, who were involved in two previous adult-humored, school-based shows, "Freaks and Geeks," set in high school, and "Undeclared," about freshmen in college.

Both of those series, from writer Judd Apatow, used antic realism (plainer-looking actors, Jewish self-loathing) to create seriocomic homages to the misadventures of youth. The shows were championed by critics and canceled.

Sachs and Judah, you sense, have learned their lesson -- ixnay on the Apatow-ay -- and turned up the heat.

"They say boys think about sex every 15 seconds," Ben tells us in voice-over at the outset of the pilot, as the camera consumes, in slow motion, the seemingly endless crop of midriff-baring lovelies at his high school. "I think about it every five seconds."

Ben and his buddies Dino (Sean Faris) and Jonathan (Chris Lowell) are the trio at the heart of this show. Jonathan, who is alternately nerdy and arty (he's the one, you sense, who has to buy his weekend clothes at Target), is contemplating a full-blown relationship with his photography partner Deborah (Osbourne) but fearing the stigma of dating the chubby girl. Dino is a jock who's gently pressuring his stunning girlfriend Jackie (Missy Peregrym) to go all the way. Hours before they are to consummate things, Dino spies his mother having an afternoon rendezvous with his hockey coach.

The dad being cuckolded here is played by former teen heartthrob D.B. Sweeney. He's convincing all right, sweet-mannered and a little dense and, worse, fixated on his award-winning barbecue sauce.

"I know it's a dream, but winning this rib contest again could really lead to something," he tells Dino.

I never wanted to live long enough to hear D.B. Sweeney say this, but alas, here we are. That night at the carnival, Dino gives up first-time sex with his girlfriend to flip ribs with his father, and Ben and Ms. Young come tantalizingly close to their first kiss. Not yet midnight in the garden of good and evil.

*

'Life as We Know It'

Where: ABC

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14 D,S (may be unsuitable for children under age 14; suggestive dialogue, sex)

Sean Faris...Dino Whitman

Jon Foster...Ben Connor

Chris Lowell...Jonathan Fields

Executive producers Gabe Sachs, Jeff Judah, Stuart Bloomberg, Francie Calfo. Writers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah. Director Michael Engler.

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