The Hard Times of R.J. Berger -- TV Review



Let's cut to the chase. The title plays off the fact that R.J. Berger (Paul Iacono), an accurately self-described scrawny and weird-looking high school sophomore, has been endowed with supersized genitalia. When this is suddenly and unexpectedly revealed to fans at the Pinkerton High basketball game, Berger's life changes.

But it doesn't change as much as one might think, particularly if one was expecting an adolescent version of HBO's "Hung." Thank goodness for that. This would be a tiresome, gimmicky one-note show if creators/executive producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith used the 12-episode series exclusively as a repository for double entendres (though there are several).

Instead, even after his secret is exposed, R.J. remains a self-conscious nerd and outsider who ricochets from one humiliation to the next. The series, even with its abundance of stereotypical characters, is endearing and relatable to its target demo.

Katzenberg and Grahame-Smith liken their show to a cross between "The Wonder Years" and "Superbad." Had they plumbed deeper into TV archives, they might have noticed an even closer connection to "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."

Like Dobie, R.J. has a devoted best friend (Jareb Dauplaise), a less-than-attractive female friend (Kara Taitz) who constantly pursues him, parents who supply nonstop embarrassment and an unattainable girl (Amber Lancaster) of his dreams.

Of course, times change. R.J.'s friend isn't a beatnik, his parents don't own a small grocery and his near-stalker is more aggressive ("Any time, any place, any orifice").

But the dynamics of an uncool kid struggling to extricate himself from the quicksand of high school remains the same. In the first three episodes, R.J. looks pathetic at basketball, runs for student government president against the school's most popular jock (Jayson Blair) and tries out for the high school musical, the same kinds of things Dobie did a half-century ago and with the same frustrating results. Happily, it is that struggle, more than R.J.'s anatomy, that is the heart and soul of this series.

Iacono is perfect as hapless R.J., and Dauplaise brings a well-honed finagling Jack Black quality to the role of best friend Miles. Each episode includes a brief animated segment, with a style that varies from one week to the next. These segments aren't exactly speed bumps, but they feel more obligatory than organic. If the budget needs trimming in the future, here's an obvious place.

After the premiere Sunday, the show moves to its regular time slot at 10 p.m. Monday, June 14.

Airdate: 11-11:30 p.m. Sunday, June 6 (MTV)
Production: MTV
Executive producers/creators: David Katzenberg, Seth Grahame-Smith
Producer: Craig Cannold
Director: David Katzenberg
Writer: Seth Grahame-Smith
Director of photography: Matthew Rudenberg
Editor: Steve Edwards
Music: David Gregory Byrne
Casting: Debra Zane, Tannis Valley, David H. Rapaport
Cast: Paul Iacono, Jareb Dauplaise, Kara Taitz, Amber Lancaster, Jayson Blair, Marlon Young, Beth Littleford, Larry Poindexter, Satomi Okuno, Adrien Finkel
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