The truth about 'My Life as Liz'

On last month's premiere episode of MTV's "My Life as Liz" (10:30 p.m. Mondays), Liz Lee, the show's misfit protagonist, is assigned by her Burleson High School broadcast journalism teacher to complete a profile of golden girl Taylor Terry, an anchor of the school's news program. Eyes are rolled. At one point while filming Taylor, Liz threatens to vomit. Détente is eventually reached, with Taylor opening up to Liz about her inner life, and Liz taking Taylor shopping for vintage clothes. But at the end of the episode, Liz cracks open a camcorder tape marked "Taylor Terry Profile" and unspools it, laughing.

Liz and Taylor are real people, and Burleson is a real school, in the suburbs of Fort Worth, and yet this moment is pure fancy. There on the Burleson website is the Aug. 29, 2008, edition of "Elk TV," Burleson's news broadcast, with Liz's profile of Taylor intact. You know it's Liz from the mildly snide voice-over."I am NOT a fictional character. haha!" Liz recently wrote on Twitter. "What you see on tv, is what you get."

Except when you don't. "My Life as Liz" is quasi-reality -- real people, in their real environment, leading lives that are being in some way dramatized. Watch it as fiction, and it's charming teen comedy. Watch it as reality, and it's deeply disorienting.

"We didn't set out to confuse people," said Dave Sirulnick, MTV's executive vice president of multiplatform, news and documentaries. "We don't look at it as just a reality show -- that doesn't capture it. We weren't going to call it a sitcom, because it's not."

The familiar MTV docu-series style "wouldn't do Liz service," Sirulnick said, adding that Liz's constant interior monologues needed "a different device."

The hybrid form the producers developed is an inevitable outgrowth of the late reality era. The truth of "The Hills" was unraveled by paparazzi capturing its stars off-hours, and "The Real World" was undermined by disgruntled folks who tweeted about the whereabouts of the show's cast mates in real time. Reality TV as it was once done is a decreasingly viable option. So if the very idea of reality is going to be questioned from the get-go, why not write fantasy into the very DNA of the show?

"My Life as Liz" flirts with documentary but intersperses scenes of high-school hallway conversations with stylized, clearly acted bits. Each episode begins with a disclaimer: "The people, places and stories you are about to see are all real . . . at least the way I see it."

In other words, this isn't our reality, it's Liz's -- which is to say, inherently suspect and fanciful. "My Life as Liz" plays like a live-action version of MTV's animated series "Daria," except that Daria had the good sense not to tussle with the mean girls.

Liz, though, can be an agitator. She's a hipster sophisticate in a smallish town, which makes her naturally a little smug. Her archenemy is Cori, a would-be Kristin Cavallari. Her love interest is Bryson, the show's Jordan Catalano, but with brains. Taylor, with her color-enhanced hair and tanning-enhanced skin, is in Cori's clique but seems to want to break free. (So far, she's the show's unsung hero.) Though this is Liz's story, the show's editing isn't always generous to her -- plenty of times she's the mean girl.

But there's something cynical about Liz's positioning as an outsider: She's more conventionally attractive than her enemies, a more thoughtful dresser, a more proficient applier of makeup. (She was a member of Cori's crew earlier in high school.)

Reached by phone, Liz sounds beleaguered and shy, to say nothing of frustrated about the ambiguity the show has fostered about her life. "It's hard because it makes me wonder if I seem a little fake with it," she said. The tension with Cori was genuine: "There was never a re-creation of a moment with Cori, ever. I couldn't take it more than once."

MTV found Liz when researching school journalism programs, looking for a follow-up to its 2008 series "The Paper," which followed the newspaper at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla. Burleson High was one of a few schools producers scouted, eventually narrowing their focus to Liz. "We were fascinated by her and by the way she stood out in this town," said Sirulnick.

Filming began in summer 2008 and continued throughout the 2008-09 academic year, Liz's senior year, during which time the shape of the show evolved from conventional reality to this blended form.

Said MTV's Marshall Eisen, an executive producer of the series, "The rule was, when Liz is around other people, we played that as straight as we could. When she's alone, that's when we were able to stylize things more."

Each episode, then, is an amalgam. "I couldn't tell you a percentage," Eisen said. "It probably varies from show to show." The show's vérité elements were helped by "extensive preproduction," Eisen noted. "We had a lot of cameras in a lot of these places."

Sometimes what they capture is gut-kickingly true. The small ripples of discomfort on Liz's face when Bryson lets her down or the visible restraint when Cori attacks her -- those are genuine. Most shows, reality or scripted, would have airbrushed them, made the feelings cleaner and bigger. Sometimes, though, even in the ostensible documentary moments, the cameras feel impossibly close and smart. They zoom in for reaction shots at just the right moment or are conveniently filming the people on both sides of a crucial phone call. (And while we're here: phone calls? E-mails, maybe, or more likely texts, or Gchat conversations, but phone calls just feel so . . . televisable.) For sure, it's an innovation beyond the cool, disinterested style of "The Hills" and MTV's other docu-soaps, but the style breeds uncertainty.

Its blurry lines can be maddening. Does Taylor really compete in fitness competitions? (There are photos and mentions of her on various fitness websites.) Did Liz really participate in the school talent show? (There's a quick snippet of the performance in another "Elk TV" clip, from April 3, 2009, where she sang "Funeral" by Band of Horses, beautifully, it should be said, with shades of Hope Sandoval.)

Over the last two decades, plenty of young people have learned how to navigate the world at least in part through reality TV, adding a layer of performance to their already performative lives. Maybe Liz Lee will be remembered as a lonelygirl15 acting out her own life, or maybe the show will be revealed to have been an elaborate and hypertrophied fiction, a performance art stunt. Or maybe when a multinational media company comes to your out-of-the-way suburb, you do what you can to turn it into a lifeline.

Getting out of Burleson, Liz says, is what the final episodes of "My Life as Liz" will deal with. (The finale is scheduled to air March 8.) But if Liz's official Twitter account is to be believed, she's living in New York or nearby, attending art school and palling around with other MTV reality stars and members of second-rate, fourth-gen emo bands. Plenty have fudged more for much less.

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