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THE HARD TIMES OF RJ BERGER (MTV)
(Mondays at 10:00/9:00c starting June 14; Special Preview: Sunday, June 6 at 11:00/10:00c; TRT: 21:21)
The network's description: "Scripted comedy makes its debut this summer on MTV with the premiere of "The Hard Times of RJ Berger" on June 6th at 11pm ET/PT following the MTV Movie Awards. A half-hour, single camera, scripted, coming-of-age comedy that follows the awkward life of RJ Berger, a late-blooming loser with an anatomical gift, "The Hard Times of RJ Berger" provides a glimpse into classic teenage milestones. Following the premiere, the series will move to its regularly scheduled Monday night timeslot at 10pm ET/PT on June 14th. The first season will consist of 12 episodes. Every episode begins and ends with a "My name is RJ Berger" thought from RJ - a measure of what he's learned that week. Each episode of the series will also incorporate a stylized animation sequence, identifying the show with pop culture and video games. The series was created by David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith."
What did they leave out? "Hard Times" was originally ordered as a pilot presentation so a few non-essential scenes are missing in the cut I screened.
The plot in a nutshell: "My name is RJ Berger," the title character, water boy/social outcast RJ Berger (Paul Iacono) explains. "Nature made me scrawny and weird looking, awkward and pale. Nature did a lot of things but I'm not about to roll over and be nature's bitch. I'm going to beat it." You see, fate - or whatever etherial catalyst that's always in high school-based TV shows and movies - is about to give him a break: Jenny Swanson (Amber Lancaster), the hottest girl in class, has been named his sophomore study buddy in biology class. That's right, no more fantasy sequences from afar, he actually has an excuse to talk to her ("Be still my beating balls," he mutters). But just as fate gives, it taketh away: when a bench-clearing brawl sees half the basketball team ejected, the coach (Marlon Young) is forced to put RJ in. And as if missing the winning basket wasn't humiliating enough, his pants - and jock strap - happen to fall down, exposing himself in front of the entire school.
Instead of giggles though, the reveal is met with a wave of shock - "It's a goddamn Buick Regal," the coach so aptly notes. Or as RJ's overly excited best friend Miles (Jareb Dauplaise) puts it, "Here I am looking for our golden ticket [into popularity and] it's been draped over your balls this whole time." RJ however disagrees, citing his first painfully awkward sexual experience (via animation sequence). Regardless, they find themselves at Jenny's inaugural pool party, where not everyone is as impressed with RJ's "gift" - particularly her douchey boyfriend Max (Jayson Blair). Ultimately, gift or curse, RJ's going to have to stand up for himself and stake a claim for his new social status in the process.
What works: Somewhere beneath its surface of its recycled high school cliches and endless top 40 needle drops (this is MTV after all) beats the heart of a legitimately funny and endearing series. From Iacono's earnest performance to the script's random joke targets ("Twilight," Young Jeezy), the show is at its best when it doesn't play the obvious gross-out, vulgar cards: f-, s- and a- bombs are all dropped simply because they can be while characters like Lily (Kara Taitz), RJ's unwantedly amorous friend, say things like, "Any time, any place, any orifice," or wear T-shirts that say "I Want U Inside Me." Conversely, while watching RJ announce "I'm going to do drugs" after sitting through a dinner with his swinger parents (Beth Littleford, Larry Poindexter) or fumfer his way through his latest conversation with Jenny aren't exactly groundbreaking moments, they are evidence that RJ isn't your typical high school underdog.
What doesn't: No one outside of RJ feels like a real person. Miles is fresh off the conveyor belt of husky best friends who talk really fast while, as mentioned above, Lily responds to questions like "Why are you so eager to ruin this friendship?" with responses like "Why are you so afraid to ruin my sheets?" The same goes for local bully Max and the pedistalized Jenny. In other words, RJ's high school world looks just like every other high school world we've seen before. Nevertheless, I can't help but root for this one so...
The bottom line: ...here's hoping this underdog series turns into something greater.