Reality television cleverly coopted drama and comedy, pilfering plots and stylistic flourishes from scripted TV and movies; with “My Generation,” ABC has reversed that polarity, with predictably awkward results. Focusing on a group of high-school grads 10 years later, the heavy-handed result plays like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the ’00s.” Presented in documentary style, the show periodically breaks the fourth wall, as characters turn to the camera and address the “filmmakers” or ask for privacy. Barring a major course correction, the show will likely remain more private than is commercially healthy.
The conceit is simple enough: Nine students in Austin, Tex., were profiled for a documentary in 2000, and the film crew is returning a decade later to see what they’ve made of their lives. They’re introduced — in true unscripted-TV fashion — with ready-made labels, like “The Brain,” “The Over-Achiever,” “The Rich Kid” and “The Beauty Queen.”
Not surprisingly, life has unfolded in unpredictable ways. But most of those forks in the road lead in painfully obvious directions, and the milestones that altered their lives — the Bush-Gore election, Sept. 11, the Enron scandal — feel like a trivialization of history for the purpose of mushy-headed drama.
Rolly (Mehcad Brooks) is serving in Iraq, leaving a pregnant wife (Kelli Garner) behind. She’s staying with sad-sack Kenneth (Keir O’Donnell), who pines for her — in the same way Jacqueline (Jaime King) married Anders (Julian Morris) but appears to have a long-simmering thing still for Steven (Michael Stahl-David).
Meanwhile, Brenda (Daniella Alonso) has fled town — becoming a D.C. lawyer — implicitly driven apart from one-time beau Anders by his disapproving parents. And “Wallflower” Caroline (Anne Son) is a single mom, an unexpected prom-night parting gift.
Put those pieces together, and “My Generation” resembles its own illegitimate offspring — the child of a frothy CW drama and the reality show “High School Reunion,” now airing on TV Land. Derived from a Swedish format, the “Where are they now?” approach also echoes Fox’s short-lived “Reunion,” although at least that series — which by happenstance occupied the same Thursday time period five years ago — had a murder mystery at its core.
By contrast, the documentary device is often stifling to and distracting from the drama, and using labels as shorthand to introduce the characters makes them feel even more one-dimensional — a device that’s acceptable in reality TV, perhaps, but potentially fatal to scripted fare.
ABC has positioned the show as a lead-in to “Grey’s Anatomy,” and at least the tone (that is, utter self-absorption) makes the two moderately compatible. Nevertheless, after wading through the pilot, it’s hard not to put the show down — and harder still to imagine people around the watercooler talkin’ ’bout “My Generation.”