The pilot of the CW’s new Canadian import “18 to Life” plays like an improv exercise in a high school drama class: “You’re an 18-year-old girl in the park. You must get your boyfriend to propose to you, accept and then tell both sets of parents that you’re going to get married. OK, go.”
And so Jessie (Stacey Farber, “Degrassi: The Next Generation”) truth-or-dares her next-door-neighbor boyfriend Tom (“Life With Derek’s” Michael Seater) into proposing and soon they are confronting his parents (controlling, uptight, non-practicing Jews) and hers (unmarried, hippie activists with an Iraqi refugee living in their basement) who are no more or less believable than the show’s premise.
Not surprisingly, none of the parents is thrilled with the prospect of the previously bound-for-college children getting married. And so they enter into a Lucy-and-Ethel reverse-psychology scheme, which backfires, of course, and mere days after the park episode, Tom and Jessie are husband and wife.
If you don’t turn the show off in the first 15 minutes, and you very well might because it is that clunkily acted and poorly written, things get a tiny bit better. Well, things don’t — the two do get married and don’t seem to understand what the fuss is about (making it alarming that they even got accepted into college) — but the characters are allowed to relax slightly and the possibility of an old-fashioned coming-of-age comedy, in which a young couple is bullied and supported by two very different types of families, peeks its head around the cardboard setup.
Not that one should expect great things — the second episode is almost as ridiculous as the first, with Jessie and Tom trying to figure out where to live (the attic in Tom’s house? A frat house?) — but there are a few nice moments, most of them provided by the adults. As Jessie’s parents, Al Goulem and Angela Asher (who may have the best voice in the biz since Kathleen Turner) are politically picayune but parentally slack activists who regard weddings as festivals of greed and marriage as an unnecessary government intervention. Tom’s parents (played by Ellen David and Peter Keleghan) are much more tightly wound, believing that indeed good fences make good neighbors. That, of course, must change, as the two families become related, first in opposition to and then in baffled acceptance of their kids’ marriage.
It’s a pretty retro story line for the CW, or any network for that matter, and raises some interesting questions about marriage. It is much more shocking to see these young people leap into matrimony than it would be if they were just having sex or even moving in together. Twenty years ago, story lines about marriage between teenagers usually involved an unwanted pregnancy and the requisite anger and shame (am I the only one who remembers “Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones”?), though of course Juliet was two weeks shy of 14 when she first met her Romeo. Still, imperfect parents having to confront their own limitations through their children’s rocky rise to adulthood is the oldest sitcom plot in the box, so there’s something refreshing about the troublesome adolescent behavior being marriage, as opposed to drug use or vampirism.
Unfortunately, “18 to Life” is not about exploring our attitudes toward marriage or anything much. Creators-writers Derek Schreyer and Karen Troubetzkoy seem content to simply set up tiny and occasionally amusing obstacles for Tom and Jessie to overcome, which of course they do. “18 to Life” is clearly aimed not only at young audiences but young audiences who are doing at least two other things while they’re watching TV. How else to explain the sloppy narrative, the vacillating characters, the utter lack of actual romance? That Farber and Seater have absolutely no chemistry to speak of, that the two actors are given virtually no characters to work with — “you are an 18-year-old in a park” is about as far as it goes — is the elephant in the room, a much bigger problem than the fact that these two crazy kids went and got themselves hitched.