There has been a lot of talk, from me as well as other critics, about how ambitious TV is right now: how sharp the sitcoms, how deep the dramas, how trippy the sci-fi. If this year’s fall lineup has been fairly dispiriting so far — PEOPLE! SAVE LONE STAR! NOW! — there’s still tons of great stuff out there, especially on cable. (This weekend, watch Bored to Death and Dexter.)
And yet there is another kind of TV, the kind I’ll call “catnip.” Catnip is TV that’s not actually good, but for some reason you just want to roll around in it; you can’t help it, there’s something wrong with your brain, and it feels good. For some people, this might involve the obsessive binge-watching of a necro-porn procedural such as CSI; for other people, it’s Tivo’ing Two and a Half Men (although I can’t be friends with those people). I myself am not a fan of Jersey Shore, but I respect the viewers whose brains are broken that way.
Because, of course, my own brain is broken, a fact I had to acknowledge fully after watching the premiere of My Generation — a show which makes no sense, has headache-inducing clichés for characters, involves such shocking misuse of mockumentary techniques it would give Arrested Development an aneurysm, and yet, which I enjoyed completely.
What made me like this show, despite the fact that it is terrible? My own weakness: I will watch any series that reminds me in any way of the Herskovitz/Zwick oeuvre and/or St. Elmo’s Fire and/or The Big Chill. Talky ensemble shows about maturity, featuring (symbolically if not literally) the music of Kate Bush.
My Generation features nine high-school graduates from Austin, Texas, class of 2000. They are filmed by a documentarian — aren’t we all these days? — who revisits them a decade later, à la 7 Up. The characters are basically every ensemble of The Real World placed in a blender: a rich white kid turned slacker; an African-American Republican turned soldier; a shy Asian nerd turned prom-induced single mother; a ditzy wannabe actress turned wannabe adulteress; a bland white-bread yuppie married to the actress but hung up on his ex; a go-getter Latina scientist turned liberal politico; plus a shy, damaged nerd turned schoolteacher who has taken in his punk turned pregnant-military-wife ex-girlfriend. Also, a D.J. who seems to have wandered over from How to Make It In America. Surely one of them is secretly gay.
The show features unconvincing flashbacks, awkward “confessionals,” Enron, 9/11, a fake clip from “The Bachelorette,” numerous slick shots of computer screens, suicide, and vast swathes of narrative illogic. (The shy Asian nerd got pregnant at the prom, but when she calls the dad, he isn’t upset that she never told him she got pregnant? A blind date talks about his small penis even though he knows there are documentary cameras around? I could go on.) It’s basically The Big Chill stuffed inside Forrest Gump, but filmed like The Office.
And it’s not that it has promise, exactly, but it has … something. The cast is likable, especially the web-camming punkette (Kelly Garner) and the tragic nerd (Keir O’Donnell). The most ridiculous revelation — two of the characters are linked to a historical tragedy in a way that is both manipulative and moving — got me. And basically, the last decade was so insanely eventful that it’s perfect fodder for a show like this: a Thirtysomething for the aughts.
I realize I could just watch Parenthood — a quality series, but one that also meets my catnip needs. But I’m weak. I will be watching My Generation, hoping for the best. Lots of shows take a few episodes to grow. Either way, I’m looking forward to the montage of everyone having sex on the night Obama was elected. Ideally, scored to “Hallelujah.”