My Life as Liz

I don't really know what to make of My Life as Liz, MTV's attempt to bridge the gap between The Hills and The Office. I get that these MTV reality shows are usually pretty heavily scripted anyway, but this one feels like it was written by someone who'd seen a lot of Christopher Guest and Coen Brothers films and taken all of the wrong lessons from them. At the same time, it has a sort of goofy charm to it, and it's nice to see MTV noticing people who aren't either overly rich and/or living on the coasts. But then you look at how it seems to reduce nearly everyone in the middle of the country to a vague series of stereotypes, and you realize it's just the same old MTV stuff, and it's more interesting as an attempt to blend sitcom and reality show. Or maybe vice versa.

My Life as Liz is a show about a quirky, alterna-hipster teenager named Liz Lee, who lives in small town Texas and pretty much hates everyone she comes into contact with, treating them with a derisive sneer. She's like the Internet comments section of MTV, which is mostly based around giving shows to the kinds of people she makes fun of. Liz has a series of rotund best friends, all guys who are rather clearly in her thrall and willing to do just about anything so she'll keep hanging out with them (and maybe eventually fall in love with one of them). She's got a mom who follows her out of the driveway, down to the main drag when she heads off to the first day of her last year of school. She's into any variety of extracurricular activities, but she doesn't really care about them, leading to her teacher forcibly giving her an assignment to cover a girl named Taylor, who's like everything Liz despises in one pageant-ready nutshell.

Taylor is pretty much everything to dislike about My Life as Liz, even as the show makes a late-breaking attempt to make her vaguely sympathetic and/or a rounded character. The show presents her as a complete stereotype of a blonde Texan teenager, uninterested in anything that has anything to do with anything other than herself and how she can look good and mostly uninterested in Liz. It's a little bizarre that the instructor of Liz's TV class would send her to follow Taylor around for what seems like days on end to make a profile of her, but I suppose all of that was cooked up by the show's writers, who thought throwing Liz and Taylor (whose slow-growing friendship will clearly be an arc for the season) would be fun.

And it is, but only after a while. I want to like Liz, who's like a condensed version of every girl I ever had a crush on and/or dated in high school (including the girl who grew up to be my wife), but the show makes it decidedly hard to like her. It figures that since we're on her side, we're going to enjoy all of her gibes against the people in her life. Plenty of people have had problems with the movie Juno, whose title character is the closest thing we have to a wholly scripted Liz, but at least that movie spent its time breaking down the title character's viewpoint and showing why she was wrong to dismiss people like the Jennifer Garner character so quickly. My Life as Liz makes a halfhearted stab at this in the end, but for the most part, Liz is proven correct to be incredulous of everyone she encounters.

Now, I get why the show is doing this. Small town Texas is not the world's most exciting setting for a vaguely scripted sitcom/reality show, and creating a show about a bunch of conservative teenagers or something would probably be a death knell for the MTV audience. So it's cool that the show has chosen to follow Liz - who's a compelling presence in and of herself - around. But watching a show about someone casually dismissing everyone she comes in contact with is not as fun as it might seem to someone like me (who builds his life around casually dismissing all he comes into contact with). The show needs other characters or a second gear or an indication that it's going to do something other than just bash the other people in Liz's life that never really comes.

To be fair, the show probably thought it was indicating this by having a lengthy section where Taylor talks about the things that concern her and the ways that she feels she doesn't measure up. She even tells Liz that she thinks Liz is really cool compared to her (and it's not hard to think she's right about that), and she then embarks on a shopping trip at a local thrift store with Liz so she can be more like Liz. The two are becoming good friends, and now that the first day of school has arrived, surely Taylor will acknowledge Liz at school! Surely! Instead, she dismisses her, not even seeming to hear her when Liz says hello to her, and Liz destroys the tape she made profiling Taylor. The machinations of all of this feel so intricately scripted that it's hard to even give the show the benefit of the doubt, something it desperately needs.

Most of the time, when MTV does a show like this, it's easy to overlook the fact that much of it is rather poorly plotted out by someone behind the scenes of the show, that something like The Hills is being both carefully scripted and carefully improvised. But that's a show that is, to a real degree, about making the audience not really sympathize with its main characters, about making us think they're ridiculous, even as we kind of want to live their lives. My Life as Liz really, really wants us to sympathize with Liz, but it never finds a way to make her seem like anything other than a jaded hipster driving around and slagging on people who probably like their little town as little as she does.

So, in the end, that's the best reason to watch My Life as Liz: to try and figure out just how much of it is scripted. Indeed, this is the rare show that would probably do better just completely turning off the attempts to goose false drama and follow Liz and her friends around. Or, that said, it might do better just making no bones about the fact that it's scripted, completely embracing everything that a scripted sitcom about these characters might embrace. (As an example, there's an early sequence showing Taylor in all of her outfits in rapid-fire cutting that so clearly feels scripted that to pretend it's not just seems disingenuous.) There's nothing wrong with My Life as Liz that couldn't be fixed by taking a long, hard look at just what the show wants to be, but the show doesn't seem to want to do that. It could be the Internet's favorite show. Instead, it merely settles for being its own favorite show. And that's a damn shame.