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Much hullabaloo has taken place over the last few days in anticipation of "Faking It," MTV's new comedy-drama about two high schoolers who pretend to be lesbians in order to launch themselves out of obscurity at their super-progressive high school in Austin, Texas. Even though it just premiered last night, there's already been a mini-Twitter campaign denouncing it, all sorts of think-pieces debating whether or not it's homophobic and so much Tumblr wank surrounding it that my keyboard might be sticky for weeks. And yet, having seen the first episode, I don't think it's all that bad.
Caveat: a lot of it is bad. Oh God, as a show, it is ever so bad. I watched "Teen Wolf" obsessively for two seasons, so I have a soft spot for self-aware programs about high schoolers in unrealistically dire straits, but even I could barely make it through 22-odd minutes of weirdly timed Shia Labeouf cracks and jokes about filled-to-the-brim Netflix queues without wanting to go to sleep under a table like an old, sad dog. For a show that seems set on subverting the "norm," "Faking It"'s writers sure do seem to love relying on generic signifiers of pop culture.
At one point, for example, a character refers to her best friend as "The Faye to my Polar." It took me a good 10 minutes (and a few increasingly befuddled Google searches) to realize that she was referring to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler -- just because that struck me as such a weird thing for any human person to say in real life, let alone one supposedly under the age of 20. From what I can tell, the show's target audience seems to be "People whose interests appeared when you Bing'ed the word 'teen' in 2010."
That surrealism continues, actually, throughout the entire pilot. "Faking It" takes place, again, in a utopian universe where everyone is so progressive that it's actually a little regressive. At Hester High School, the once-outcasts are now the popular kids, presumably wearing their proverbial scarlet "A"s with pride. (MTV would like us to know that they, too, have read Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
And in true poetic-nerd justice, all the crusty little Roger Chillingworth-types have been robbed of their power -- main character Amy's almost-stepsister Lauren, who informs Amy that she would have been "worshipped" in her old town, is set up as a Cheerleader Villain with no social standing and no redeeming qualities beyond her dopey football-jock boyfriend.
However, because Amy and her best friend Karma do not have any outcast-tendencies, even in this sunshiny paradise, they are routinely ignored. Thus, the plot is hatched: after accidentally gaining access to the "hottest party of the year" at the home of what appears to be the only gay kid in school, the two decide to pretend to be lesbians in order to become homecoming queens.
Yeah, I know. Like I said, it's pretty bad. Also, the aforementioned "hottest party of the year" includes a bouncy castle.
But the badness is a trifle more subtle than I originally thought it would be. Yes, Amy and Karma are pretending to be gay in order to get attention (and in Karma's case, a secret boyfriend). This, undoubtedly, is gross, and perpetuates the idea that girls who experiment with their sexuality must be doing it for ulterior motives.
It's pretty clear from the very end of the pilot, though, that Amy, at least, seems to be heading full-throttle down the plaid-shirt-strewn path toward Queerville. And though the performative lesbianism is annoying, I can thus appreciate the fact that it's couched in one of my all-time favorite romantic comedy tropes, wherein two characters are forced to pretend to be together in order to defeat a bad guy and/or achieve world peace.
When this is employed in rom-coms, the two characters almost always realize that being fake-married / -engaged / -soul-bonded on an alien planet isn't so bad after all, usually following a lot of Very Convincing Kissing for Greater Justice. So if Amy and Karma do end up getting together, I will take their public displays of affection as a subversion of heterosexual rom-com conventions rather than a confirmation that lesbians are totally hot, bro. I admit it: It's nice to have a show with LGBT themes that probably won't lead to someone tragically dying of gay for once.
This is not to say, though, that "Faking It" is completely without its problems. Pretty much all the main characters are white, thin and attractive, because it would obviously be too much to have a queer-ish show with a person of color in the lead role. And weirdly, in all the back-and-forth about whether it's offensive or progressive, I haven't heard much discussion about the fact that Karma pretends to be blind in the opening scene in order to gain mystique.
In general, Karma is definitely the "edgy" (offensive) one -- she's angling to get into the pants of her school's resident hot guy with chunky bangs, and she later gasps "Oh, please let me be Portia" (as in, the femme, conventionally attractive one) in response to said hot guy likening her and Amy to Mrs. and Mrs. DeGeneres.
If the show presented all this queer-baiting, disability-mocking behavior as universally reprehensible, it might work as a satire of those offensive behaviors; instead, it's played for laughs. And this makes me concerned that even if "Faking It" fancies itself to be a biting send-up of homophobic stereotypes, its viewers might not take it that way.
For now, though, I'm cautiously optimistic about "Faking It." If nothing else, I'm glad to get a teen-angst show that appears to be setting up a protagonist to experience the same kinds of uncertainties, pressure to fit in and unfortunate crushes on supposedly platonic BFFs that a lot of queer kids do. Amid all the outdated jokes and painstakingly crafted homecoming-royalty schemes, that, at least, feels real enough.
Kate is not faking it on Twitter: @katchatters