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The truth about 'My Life as Liz'

The new MTV series about Texas high-school misfit Liz Lee is one part reality and one part dramatized. Call this hybrid form the inevitable outgrowth of the reality era.

February 14, 2010|By Jon Caramanica
  • Texas teen Liz Lee, center, is the focus of "My Life as Liz."
Texas teen Liz Lee, center, is the focus of "My Life as Liz." (Renever Cervantes / MTV )

On last month's premiere episode of MTV's "My Life as Liz" (10:30 p.m. Mondays), Liz Lee, the show's misfit protagonist, is assigned by her Burleson High School broadcast journalism teacher to complete a profile of golden girl Taylor Terry, an anchor of the school's news program. Eyes are rolled. At one point while filming Taylor, Liz threatens to vomit. Détente is eventually reached, with Taylor opening up to Liz about her inner life, and Liz taking Taylor shopping for vintage clothes. But at the end of the episode, Liz cracks open a camcorder tape marked "Taylor Terry Profile" and unspools it, laughing.

Liz and Taylor are real people, and Burleson is a real school, in the suburbs of Fort Worth, and yet this moment is pure fancy. There on the Burleson website is the Aug. 29, 2008, edition of "Elk TV," Burleson's news broadcast, with Liz's profile of Taylor intact. You know it's Liz from the mildly snide voice-over."I am NOT a fictional character. haha!" Liz recently wrote on Twitter. "What you see on tv, is what you get."

Except when you don't. "My Life as Liz" is quasi-reality -- real people, in their real environment, leading lives that are being in some way dramatized. Watch it as fiction, and it's charming teen comedy. Watch it as reality, and it's deeply disorienting.

"We didn't set out to confuse people," said Dave Sirulnick, MTV's executive vice president of multiplatform, news and documentaries. "We don't look at it as just a reality show -- that doesn't capture it. We weren't going to call it a sitcom, because it's not."

The familiar MTV docu-series style "wouldn't do Liz service," Sirulnick said, adding that Liz's constant interior monologues needed "a different device."

The hybrid form the producers developed is an inevitable outgrowth of the late reality era. The truth of "The Hills" was unraveled by paparazzi capturing its stars off-hours, and "The Real World" was undermined by disgruntled folks who tweeted about the whereabouts of the show's cast mates in real time. Reality TV as it was once done is a decreasingly viable option. So if the very idea of reality is going to be questioned from the get-go, why not write fantasy into the very DNA of the show?

"My Life as Liz" flirts with documentary but intersperses scenes of high-school hallway conversations with stylized, clearly acted bits. Each episode begins with a disclaimer: "The people, places and stories you are about to see are all real . . . at least the way I see it."

In other words, this isn't our reality, it's Liz's -- which is to say, inherently suspect and fanciful. "My Life as Liz" plays like a live-action version of MTV's animated series "Daria," except that Daria had the good sense not to tussle with the mean girls.

Liz, though, can be an agitator. She's a hipster sophisticate in a smallish town, which makes her naturally a little smug. Her archenemy is Cori, a would-be Kristin Cavallari. Her love interest is Bryson, the show's Jordan Catalano, but with brains. Taylor, with her color-enhanced hair and tanning-enhanced skin, is in Cori's clique but seems to want to break free. (So far, she's the show's unsung hero.) Though this is Liz's story, the show's editing isn't always generous to her -- plenty of times she's the mean girl.

But there's something cynical about Liz's positioning as an outsider: She's more conventionally attractive than her enemies, a more thoughtful dresser, a more proficient applier of makeup. (She was a member of Cori's crew earlier in high school.)

Reached by phone, Liz sounds beleaguered and shy, to say nothing of frustrated about the ambiguity the show has fostered about her life. "It's hard because it makes me wonder if I seem a little fake with it," she said. The tension with Cori was genuine: "There was never a re-creation of a moment with Cori, ever. I couldn't take it more than once."

MTV found Liz when researching school journalism programs, looking for a follow-up to its 2008 series "The Paper," which followed the newspaper at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla. Burleson High was one of a few schools producers scouted, eventually narrowing their focus to Liz. "We were fascinated by her and by the way she stood out in this town," said Sirulnick.

Filming began in summer 2008 and continued throughout the 2008-09 academic year, Liz's senior year, during which time the shape of the show evolved from conventional reality to this blended form.

Said MTV's Marshall Eisen, an executive producer of the series, "The rule was, when Liz is around other people, we played that as straight as we could. When she's alone, that's when we were able to stylize things more."

Each episode, then, is an amalgam. "I couldn't tell you a percentage," Eisen said. "It probably varies from show to show." The show's vérité elements were helped by "extensive preproduction," Eisen noted. "We had a lot of cameras in a lot of these places."

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