After watching the first three episodes twice each, I’m still unsure as to what I’m supposed to make of Faking It. The very basic premise — two teenage girls pretend to be a lesbian couple in order to become popular in high school — was worrisome from the beginning. MTV’s announcement of the show and the subsequent trailer release swiftly earned it detractors, but the network and showrunner Carter Covington, who also originally found the premise offensive, stuck by it, harping on the fact that there’s an inspirational message behind it. That’s somewhat true; there isn’t much to be offended by, but that’s only because there isn’t much to the show. Faking It, which premieres Tuesday night, is too average to offend.
Don’t get me wrong: there is still some troubling shit happening within these episodes, like how this fake relationship between Karma (Katie Stevens) and Amy (Rita Volk) — this “let’s kiss each other to get homecoming votes!” moment that the trailer makes so much of — can invalidate real lesbian relationships and reinforce that awful, straight-guy “You’re just doing this for attention” cry. And as required by the Rules of Teen Dramas, Faking It employs a love triangle: the two “lesbian” best friends and popular guy Liam (Gregg Sulkin).
Liam is progressive because, as Amy points out, his two best friends are a gay guy and a feminist — it’s a jokey statement, but it comes off straight on Faking It. Liam’s main deal is that he has always wanted to hook up with a lesbian. He gets called out on this desire by a friend who remarks that Liam’s just being a typical, shitty straight guy, trying to prove himself by turning a lesbian. It’s true! Liam’s gross! Faking It is right about this, and I want to commend the show for pointing it out, but then Liam succeeds and he and Karma begin a secret relationship. But hey, this isn’t screwed up because Karma isn’t actually a lesbian. Crisis averted, I guess.
Faking It is full of strange, non-confrontational, “should I be offended?” moments like this. In one scene the girls’ nemesis/Amy’s stepsister Lauren (Bunheads‘ Bailey Buntain) outs (ins?) the “couple” by screeching, “They are mocking the gay rights movement!” Again, she’s right, but Faking It doesn’t care. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek dialogue in Faking It that misses the mark and just feels tone-deaf.
That’s actually the weirdest thing about Faking It. It’s not so much offensive as it just doesn’t hit the mark. The show is definitely “on brand” for MTV: the cool outcast teens at the center, references to Tumblr and Shia LaBeouf’s Twitter account, tawdry love triangles, bleeped swears, and a score by fun.’s Andrew Dost. But it’s so middling. It takes a vaguely original premise and drags it down until it’s a garden-variety teen dramedy devoid of laughs and depth. It all feels very cheap — Let’s pile on the television references! Let’s make some vagina puns! Let’s release confetti as two girls kiss! Let’s make the main antagonist a super Christian! — like it’s a first draft, with further character development and better jokes to be filled in later.
Unbalanced and off-centered, Faking It is never quite sure what to do with the universe it created. It tries to make use of a “hippie commune” high school where the outcasts (the kids who meditate or shop at Hot Topic) are at the top of the totem pole and the perky, tiny blondes like Lauren are made fun of at parties. What a sweet little world — but Faking It wavers between embracing it and treating it as a joke. It is refreshingly tolerant and annoyingly hand-holding, but every time Faking It picks a direction, it soon veers in the opposite. (Oddly, I was immediately reminded of 21 Jump Street‘s popularity switch, though the movie established in a few seconds everything that Faking It struggles with for three episodes and counting).
Faking It is a show that thinks it’s more revolutionary than it is. Nothing really holds any weight — after all, it’s hard to get an emotional reaction from a coming-out scene if that character isn’t actually coming out. It’s hard to care about two characters swooning over each other if one is just trying to check off the “had sex with a lesbian” box on his list. At times, Faking It gives the sense that MTV wants to get the credit for portraying a super-tolerant world without running the risk of centering a show on actual gay characters.
There is a slight chance that Faking It could get better as it goes (its counterpart Awkward. rose above its original faux-suicide premise to become one of the best scripted teen shows on television), but it’s hard to imagine how it would happen. The show could do great things if it spends more time focusing on the actual friendship between these two girls — that special high school variety that is full of fights, jealousy, break-ups, and reconciliations, much like a romantic relationship — but the Liam/Karma dramatics already take up so much time. And also, as countless people have already speculated from the previews, Faking It might be heading toward a storyline where one of the friends is a lesbian — though the show’s shaky beginnings don’t bode well for its potential to craft a thoughtful exploration of this.
Faking It is a misstep for MTV, a network whose scripted programming tends to go one step forward (Awkward, Teen Wolf), then two steps back (Skins, Underemployed). It can be gleaned that the writers are clever and adept, but they’re stuck on a show that doesn’t reward cleverness. It rewards emptiness and shallow plots, and unless it learns to rise above its premise, it’s never going to be interesting.