TV Review – The Hard Times of RJ Berger, Season 1 (2010)

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

If you were to watch this based on the show’s premise as advertised by MTV — “a high school nerd accidentally reveals he has a long penis, and his social life turns around!” — you’d be disappointed. That one trait of the central character (despite being referenced in the show’s title) ends up being a pretty minor detail.

In reality, Hard Times is a raunchy but decent coming-of-age high school comedy with some well-earned heart. It successfully blends R-rated sex jokes with a dash of Wonder Years-style warmth and lessons-learned to a point that it reminds me of Judd Apatow’s ‘dick flick’ balance. (As a side note, the best high school coming-of-age show ever, Freaks and Geeks, was produced by Apatow.)

The show has silly, strong writing on its side. It occasionally goes a bit over the top with the side characters and throws some lines in to remind you it’s on the ever-hip MTV (facebook jokes, seriously?), but every script in the first season feels peppy and polished from a dialog perspective.

The plotting is a little bit weaker than the dialog, but surprisingly never terrible. Almost every TV comedy of every caliber has a first-season episode that’s a complete plotting disaster, but Hard Times grounds even its most out-there episodes with occasionally strong character moments. There are no wasted half hours among these twelve.

Before I get carried away, I should remind you that this is a teen comedy — if you have a high school diploma, some of the more immature jokes will probably bounce off of you. This isn’t exactly highbrow art, but it’s still good fun.

There’s another complaint I have with the show’s writing, and I suppose it could just be a byproduct of my naivete. A lot of the dialog includes jokes and double entendres for some seriously dirty terms and sex acts. These are sophomores in high school and everyone’s talking about serious sex without giggling or contemplating that their could be something immoral or illegal or unwise about underage sex (with a few exceptions).

I also want to praise the casting. It’s pretty solid from top to bottom, with the two leads being the highlights. Paul Iacano is pitch-perfect as the title character and Jared Dauplaise is a show-stealer as RJ’s best friend Miles. Kara Taitz does a good job with Lily, who is the show’s most problematic character and throws a wrench into some of the weaker episodes. Fortunately, the writers started taking her more seriously by the end of the season.

The last thing I want to mention is the first season’s finale, a two-parter that is bat-guano insane. I thought I knew where it was going, then it abruptly went somewhere else extremely dark and bizarre, before edging back to its original conflict. And it just kind of stops without a cliffhanger or a conclusion. I was expecting a “end of part 2 of 3.” Not necessarily terrible, but very weird.

I found a lot to like in Hard Times despite its MTV pedigree and gimmicky marketing. I’m actually excited to jump back in to the show with the second season, which is now available on NetFlix instant.

EDIT: Well, not only has NetFlix taken off the second season (it’s on an ad-bloated MTV.com instead) but it appears the season one finale is clipped, skipping some important stuff. I eventually saw it, and I’m glad I missed it the first time through. It’s pretty cheap.

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