Like “Hung,” “The Hard Times of RJ Berger” essentially uses a crass come-on — the protagonist’s extra-large trouser luggage — to sell an otherwise fairly conventional dramedy. The HBO show, however, is more satisfying than this furtive MTV foray into the scripted world, which lands somewhere between a weak “The Wonder Years” and the kind of coming-of-age series that drove Judd Apatow (happily, in retrospect) into movies. MTV itself charitably describes the show as a mix of “Wonder Years” and “Superbad,” but the punny title notwithstanding, this undercooked slab of meat is barely super-OK.
Mostly, the three previewed half-hours make sparing and not particularly believable use of the central premise — that nerdy, popularity-challenged, 15-year-old RJ (an appealing Paul Iacono) is disproportionately endowed. How this will empower or further humiliate him remains an open question, despite voiceover narration (must every teen-show employ that device?) hinting it will be the former.Beyond his unusual package, RJ’s is a fairly standard high school-outcast tale, as he pines for a seemingly unattainable girl (Amber Lancaster), is constantly accompanied by his roly-poly pal Miles (Jareb Dauplaise) and has little interest in a less-attractive classmate, Lily (Kara Taitz), who keeps throwing herself at him. And yes, there’s a cruel jock (Jayson Blair, no relation to the famous fabulist) to torment and tease him.With such familiar elements, producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith seek to distinguish the show in its details and style, which are, for the most part, too gratuitously salty for the program’s good. RJ’s parents are sex-obsessed swingers, there are plenty of bleeped expletives — and Lily tells RJ she’s available to him by promising “any place, any orifice,” a line that sounds conspicuously dreamt up by pervy guys, not a teenage girl.Along the way, RJ uses his secret (and eventually, not-so-secret) weapon to help strike a few blows for dweebs everywhere, but most of those moments are no more convincing than the aforementioned ones. And while there’s a certain manic energy in the use of animation or fantasy sequences to illustrate RJ’s fertile imagination, too often the scripts fall back on being crude in lieu of clever.Ultimately, “Hard Times’?” salacious logline (alas, everything sounds dirty in this context) serves as little more than a means to gain attention — the added wrinkle being that hypersexualized teens are sure to draw rebuke from the usual suspects, which will only help promote the series.ABC Family has clearly demonstrated cable can participate in the current dramatic renaissance by appealing to a younger audience, and MTV would seem a natural to join the party. Fortunately for them, the show’s derivative nature will be lost on a target audience barely in diapers during the initial run of “Wonder Years.”It’s only too bad that the Viacom channel began its scripted push with “RJ Berger,” which works a little too hard at, er, standing out.