Playing like a dating show on amphetamines — or a “secret crush” episode of a daytime talkshow — MTV’s “Friend Zone” strips down relationships to their potentially humiliating or heartwarming beginnings: In each half-hour, two teens break the news to a “just-friend” that they’re secretly infatuated with them, offering the possibility of rejection or triumph. The situation resonates, mostly, because it’s easily relatable, but also because the participants are so inarticulate as to create a level of authenticity. Leave it to MTV: Presenting romance without any foreplay or, for that matter, messy aftermath.
Although the show comes from “Jersey Shore” producer SallyAnn Salsano, “Friend Zone” is almost the understated antithesis of that cash cow. Addressing the camera, kids talk about how they’re mad for a friend of the opposite sex (is same-sex in the future?), setting them up for an on-air proposal: The gimmick is they think they’re providing support for a dating show, only to be hit with the “I want to date you” overture themselves.
As constituted, it feels like kind of a cheap trick to the object of affection, but they’re quickly lost, frankly, in the pursuer’s relief and exultation, or embarrassment and pain. And if there’s the risk of friendships squandered or true heartbreak, well, hey, the show’s only a half-hour, let ’em sort that out beyond the camera’s prying lens.
The feelings of youthful ardor, however, are raw, honest and compelling (“I’m just gonna be devastated” if the answer’s “no,” one says), perhaps more so because the first participants lack the words to really express them. Nor, for that matter, do their intendeds have much to say once confronted.
In a way, that leaves the “why” of the romance — and distinction between being friends or more — to an answer as simple as “Because,” and the focus squarely on whether the pass is completed or not.
Should “Friend Zone” become a success, it would presumably become more difficult to arrange these oncamera ambushes, which hasn’t stopped CBS’ “Undercover Boss” from finding participants, and frankly, it’s a high-class problem.
For now, though, why over-think things, on a show that neatly reduces relationships to “The Wide World of Sports” opening — as in “the thrill of victory” or “the agony of defeat.”