Re-Watching My Teenage Years: Life as We Know It
By Gretchen Kast
This is the first in a series called Re-Watching My Teenage Years, in which I admit that I have little-to-no life and reflect upon teen drama TV shows of the late-90’s–early 2000’s, a genre that I have been binge-watching online as of late.
Life As We Know It
No one watched this show. I’m pretty sure that’s a fact. Like many truly great TV shows about teenagers (Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, My So-Called Life), there was only one season of Life as We Know It. Except this one never quite garnered the critical attention like those gems, which featured multi-faceted characters and treated the emotional drama of being a 13-19-year-old with a kind, careful realism. While the cancellations of those shows prompted outrage from fans, I don’t think anyone batted an eyelash when LAWKI was cancelled. Because no one cares about this show.
Except me. Which is undoubtedly embarrassing to admit. But I watched this show when it aired on TV. And again a year or so later when the DVD came out. And again this past week, in 8 minute increments on YouTube (dedication, man).
But the fact of the matter is that this show is pretty terrible. The IMDB page describes it as such: “Life through the eyes of Dino Whitman, Jonathan Fields, and Ben Conner, three hormone-charged teenage boys.” That’s it, the entire series in one sentence. The writers didn’t even spend the time to come up with some interesting storyline or plot arc, it’s simply good looking people, talking about sex and sometimes crying.
I won’t go into the details of the narrative because it’s mostly predictable (also, you should probably just go watch it on YouTube): The hot one breaks up with his girlfriend, someone cheats on someone else, someone’s parent is an alcoholic, the clever one sleeps with a teacher (which, interestingly, is a trope used often in teenage dramas, a la Dawson’s Creek, but never properly analyzed, in my opinion. The boy gets high-fived, the teacher eventually slips away in the night, no one gets arrested for statutory rape).
The three boys are all played by relative unknowns. Dino is played by an actor you may recognize from the great Hollywood Classic Never Back Down (full disclosure, I own this movie on DVD. Also I have no shame). I could have sworn Ben was played by this guy, but I actually meant this one and it turns out the guy who actually plays him and that actor are brothers IRL! Wild! And no one cares about Jonathan (though I think the actor was on that Grey’s Anatomy spin-off I never watched).
This show is different from all of the others not in content, but in style. You learn in the very first episode that the three boys are capable of breaking down the fourth-wall and speaking directly to the audience. It’s supposed to be a little peek into their inner psyche; the action around them slows almost to a stop as they look at you, the viewer, and explain what they’re actually thinking and feeling. This choice essentially destroys any hope for subtlety. The viewer gets a full 45 minutes of explication, no nuance. When Dino snarls “Yeah but you broke up with me” to his leggy ex-girlfriend Jackie, he turns and explains “But I actually still love her and I want her back and I care about her and the only reason I’m acting this way is because my mom slept with my hockey coach!” Yeah, you say, this is a TV show centered around you, we actually saw all of that happen like ten minutes ago.
The three boys are the only characters with this capability, which I think reflects the rather misogynistic portrayal of high school that this show puts forward. Their internal monologue is paramount to the structure of the show–it’s what sets it apart from all of the other TV series about teenage relationships. Their thoughts stop time and silence the women who are badgering them; no one else is given such agency. But they’re the main characters, you say. Yes, that’s how it’s been packaged, but, in reality, they aren’t really. Dino is the main character. He is the chiseled pretty boy with the winning smile and the over-inflated ego. His emotional problems serve as the catalyst of the whole series; it’s his show.
While ex-gf Jackie has a much more intricate relationship with Dino, and a much more complicated back-story than everyone else, she’s not given the chance to explain herself to the audience. Jonathan, on the other hand, gets to demystify just how difficult it is is to date a fat girl (inexplicably played by Kelly Osbourne). Jackie, instead, talks through her emotions with her other friends–and the boys complain about how girls can’t keep their mouths shut. The female characters exist solely as they are expressed in relation to others, whereas the male characters are given an undeserved autonomy. The boys can express both pleasure (“I’m sleeping with Miss Young!”) and distress (“Just tell her!”) from their one-on-one time with the audience; they’re allowed some semblance of independence and depth.
While the girls on the show do have messy, complicated emotions (however stilted), they’re also generally seen as nagging shrews. They’re caustic and insecure, positioned in the traditional TV binary: you’re either a chastised over-sexed slut or a sexually-repressed tease. And as most teenage dramas are wont to do, LAWKI is guilty of overstating the gravity of sex–it’s basically the sole plot line of the entire series. Perhaps I was super oblivious in high school but it never seemed like the huge stressful race that modern media has portrayed to me. Some people had sex, some didn’t. We gossiped about you either way and no one seemed particularly judgmental about it.
So, why do I watch such a categorically awful show? I’ve been asking myself that question all week. I had chalked up my previous viewings to unhealthy crush on Dino–I could overlook the narrative missteps as long as they featured Dino without his shirt on at least once an episode.
But I guess it all boils down to the undeniable allure of the guilty pleasure, the essence of which is grounded in a sense of escapism. You are aware that it is silly, unrealistic, absurd, but you suspend your disbelief for however long because its a reprieve from the mundane realities of your own life, which is decidedly lacking in Kardashian sisters, or ballroom dancing celebrities, or the overindulgent emotional distress of good-looking “teenagers”. There’s a sense of containment in the teenage dramedy. Yes, often the drama extends into major life issues, but they’re neatly compartmentalized, quickly resolved, ultimately forgotten.
Life as We Know It reflects the specific time from 2004-2005, a time when gaucho pants were an acceptable fashion statement. This was the year that Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles and Pat Tillman and ODB died. Southeast Asia was devastated by a deadly tsunami. The Greeks held the Summer Olympics and George W. Bush launched a major attack on Fallujah at the height of the Iraq War. Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, while 11 other states voted to ban it. There was turmoil brewing across the world and, in lieu of furthering those anxieties, TV became straightforward. America felt powerful choosing the fate of American Idol contestants (if you vote, they will win) and Dino looked you in the eye and explained how he felt. Clear. Simple.
Re-watching these shows later in life is a strange experience. You, as a viewer, have aged, while the characters remain forever immortalized in their teenage hey-day, when all of their problems seemed like the end of the world. Even in the most flawed variations of the genre, of which Life as We Know It is certainly an example, the sense of careless naivete, of youthful egocentricism, is oddly soothing. Sometimes, the hyper-palatable is just what you need. As our entire world continues to hurdle forward to shifty unknowns, we have come to find solace in the formula.