On Sunday, MTV takes yet another step away from its original charter as a purveyor of music videos with "The Hard Times of RJ Berger," a single-camera sitcom about a boy with a big penis. Nevertheless, in moving what I suppose we may call "forward," MTV has created a show that goes right to the heart of the network's original aesthetic, the erotic dreams of adolescent males. It strikes me as no cultural coincidence that MTV launched, in 1981, on the eve of a wave of take-my-virginity-please teenage sex comedies —- "Porky's," et al. — that, like many an early music video, paired geeky boys with hot girls. "American Pie" revived the genre near the millennium; "Superbad" brought it back for the Apatow Generation.
"Hard Times," which premieres Sunday before taking up its regular post on Mondays, is basically the network getting its "Superbad" on, minus the humor, warmth and believability. Created by David Katzenberg (son of mogul Jeffrey) and Seth Grahame-Smith, author of the bestselling "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" (which gets a passing nod), it is, for a step into new territory, surprisingly tepid and old hat, if strenuously outrageous. This is the network that brought you the divine "Daria," and, with "The Real World," more or less invented modern reality TV.
"Nature made me scrawny and weird-looking, awkward and pale," says our hero (Paul Iacono) by way of introduction. "But I'm not about to roll over and be nature's bitch. I'm going to beat it." He is masturbating as he says that, see, making it just the first of the many sexual puns, metaphors, euphemisms and innuendos that people the series.
Apart from the big, main twist, it's all very much by the book. R.J. has a friend who is more socially marginal (and ambitious) than himself (Jareb Dauplaise, big like Jonah Hill), and a girl friend who is not a girlfriend (Kara Taitz, game), although she would like to be: "Any time, any place, any orifice," she tells R.J., disturbingly. (She also refers to menstruation as "a vampire buffet.") But like every scrawny hero in the history of fictional high schools, R.J. has his eyes set on the most desirable girl in the school (Amber Lancaster), who is dating the school's top jock (Jayson Blair, but not the well-known plagiarist), who is, I am going to shock you now, a jerk.
R.J.'s gift, or curse, is made public when he loses his pants before what amounts to the entire school, but past initial gasps of delight or horror, no one really seems to care. (Much that happens here fails to prompt any appropriate response.) Indeed, subsequent episodes (of the three I've seen) do not make a big thing out of his big thing, and though on the one hand this counts as welcome restraint, on the other it also makes the show's central conceit sort of beside the point, just an occasion for jokes and minor plot points, a high-concept but meaningless tease.
Some of the details are novel — R.J.'s parents (Larry Poindexter and Beth Littleford) are swingers, the first time I can remember that happening in a TV comedy — and there is something in the premise that does speak, in an exaggerated way, to the sometimes frightening way that teenagers are buffeted by their own bodies. But notwithstanding some inspirational, now-gods-stand-up-for-geek-nerds rhetoric and R.J.'s doe-eyed pining for his female ideal, "Hard Times" feels shallow and mechanical, its characters jerked around for effect, comic or triumphal. MTV may have a hit on its hands.