Television review: ‘My Generation’
The mockumentary style of ABC’s new dramedy “My Generation” is both the best and worst thing about it. By chronicling nine members of the class of 2000 in Austin, Texas, creator Noah Hawley intertwines the lives of unlikely archetypes and injects their story lines with social significance — the Bush-Gore election, 9/11, Enron — as if it were Botox. Yet despite such heavy-handed manipulation, the characters and camera-aware performances of “My Generation” are precisely what make the show surprisingly fresh, vivid and touching.
Like “thirtysomething,” to which it owes an enormous debt, “My Generation” follows a group of friends as they enter the age of disenchantment: Steven Foster (Michael Stahl-David) is the “Overachiever” turned surf bum who gets a surprise call from “Wallflower” Caroline Chung (Anne Son). Anders “the Rich Kid” Holt (Julian Morris) has married not his high school sweetheart, “the Brain” Brenda Serrano (Daniella Alonso), now working on Capitol Hill, but “Beauty Queen” Jackie Vaches (Jaime King). Dawn “the Punk” Barbuso (Kelli Garner) has likewise dumped “Nerd” Kenneth Finley (Keir O’Donnell) for “the Jock,” Rolly Marks (Mehcad Brooks), who, after 9/11, ditched Stanford for the Army. Rounding out the group is Sebastian Sozzi as the Falcon, a rock star turned DJ who is considered the group’s “Rebel.”
None of them is particularly happy, and for mostly good reasons. Despite their previous ambitions, Steven and the Falcon are adrift; Caroline is a struggling single mother; Kenneth still loves Dawn, who is pregnant and living with him because Rolly, her husband, is in Afghanistan. Likewise, Anders and Brenda secretly pine for each other while Jackie longs for bigger things.
While other coming-of-age dramas aim to be timeless, “My Generation” roots itself firmly, indeed obsessively, in the present. Rolly is not the only character shaped by recent events. Brenda wanted to be a scientist but switched to political science after George W. Bush’s victory-by-Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Steven and Kenneth were both victims of the Enron scandal, and Jackie did follow her dream to Hollywood, only to become a loser on “The Bachelor.” (“It’s so political,” Anders says kindly.)
Cramming all these cultural nods into an hourlong pilot defines overkill, but perhaps it can be chalked up to exposition, not to mention the hubris of the show’s title. Either way, it’s overcome by the charm of the cast, whose members quickly color outside the lines of their stereotypes. Stahl-David (“The Black Donnellys,” “Cloverfield”), O’Donnell (“Wedding Crashers,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop”) and newcomer Son in particular give their characters an exploratory shake or two before punching the fluff and dust right out of them. (As the lovelorn and earnest-almost-to-the-point-of-creepy Kenneth, O’Donnell has the heaviest lifting.)
But all the performers use the documentary setup to their best advantage, shooting the omnipresent camera knowing, comical and anguished glances, and generally treating it as if it were another character. There’s a narrator too, but she seems superfluous — it’s the camera that the characters address. (In fact, they seem more comfortable in reflection than action.)
Twentysomethings are famous self-chroniclers, and it’s this easy and casually intimate relationship with the lens, rather than the references to Enron, sperm donors or current legislative battles, that earn “My Generation” its title — the first mockumentary dramedy of the digital revolution.