It’s always a bit of a surprise when MTV premieres a scripted series. Teen Wolf, Faking It, and Awkward., are all popular, but the network still has about four times as much unscripted content as scripted series. Finding Carter is an even bigger surprise; not only is it an hour-long drama, but it’s a family drama, and one that’s supposed to pack an emotional punch with every episode. Finding Carter has a great premise, a solid cast, and is overall a refreshing departure for the network. So why doesn’t it work?
Finding Carter has a storyline that ABC Family would drool over: 16-year-old Carter (Kathryn Prescott, who was great as Emily on UK’s Skins) suddenly finds out that she was taken from her family at age three and that the only mother she knows is actually her kidnapper. She’s returned to her original family, which includes her mother Elizabeth (Cynthia Watros), her father David (Alexis Denisof), an overlooked younger brother Grant (Zac Pullam), and a polar-opposite twin sister Taylor (Anna Jacoby-Heron; oddly enough, Prescott’s twin isn’t played by her real-life twin and fellow actress Megan Prescott, also from Skins). Her kidnapper Lori (Milena Govich) still hangs around in the shadows while hiding from the police.
Finding Carter has a whole lot in common with Caroline B. Cooney’s popular young adult book (and later TV movie) The Face on the Milk Carton. In that novel, which spanned a five-book series, teen Janie also discovers that she was kidnapped at age three and is sent back to live with her real family, where further conflicts brew. What makes The Face on the Milk Carton work better is that it doesn’t feel so contrived. That’s actually the most impressive thing about Finding Carter: it manages to take a unique (if not entirely unprecedented) story about a kidnapped teen and her new-but-old family and makes it feel contrived.
How? Well, for starters, there are the parents’ professions. Carter’s mother is an angry detective (with a secret!) who solves cases but couldn’t crack her daughter’s kidnapping. Her father is a novelist who is looking for a breakout idea — and hey, maybe the return of his long-lost kidnapped daughter just might work? To add to the family drama, there is also a thriller aspect; Carter longs to be with her kidnapper instead of her real family, while her mother is hellbent on bringing Lori to justice — meaning we’ve likely got a cat-and-mouse chase between the two moms to look forward to throughout the season. (It doesn’t help the show’s case that we don’t know anything about Lori or why Carter is so connected to her. They only spend about five minutes together in the pilot.)
The thing is, there is already so much intrigue, fascination, and promise built into the very basic roots of Finding Carter that it would be a good show if not for all these unnecessary additions. I would love a hard-hitting emotional drama about Carter’s struggle to rejoin a family full of strangers, or her confusing bond with a new twin sister, or the whirlwind of being thrust into a media spotlight, or the resentment from her siblings, who suffered the brunt of their parents’ anger, frustration, and overprotection after Carter’s kidnapping. When Carter explains, “I just had my entire life ripped from under me. My name is all I have left,” it’s obvious there’s enough in just those words for a gripping series. But then Finding Carter piles useless extra twists on top of it: her mother is hiding a predictable secret, Taylor and Carter are interested in the same boy (yawn), there are some high school party hijinks and police sting operations.
This all says more about MTV as a network than Finding Carter as a show. Finding Carter would have its problems anywhere — some of its soapy, emotional beats all but come with a blinking sign saying, “YOU SHOULD FEEL SOMETHING NOW,” and though the acting, particularly by Prescott, is admirable, the dialogue is so clunky that I often found myself laughing. But these problems are endemic on MTV, a network of excess. Faking It could have risen above a shoddy premise if it didn’t keep piling on bullshit throughout the season, while Awkward. destroyed three great seasons of a clever teen drama with a fourth season that turned into a sociopathic thriller, complete with an actual crazy wall. Even the network’s reality show staple The Real World couldn’t escape MTV’s endless need for more, and saw an over-the-top twist introduced just last season.
I welcome MTV’s renewed interest in the world of scripted series, and I’m patient enough to stick with the network (and this show) as it tries to figure things out. MTV has a basic idea of what stories it wants to tell — and kudos to MTV for exploring this narrative as a scripted series instead of a True Life: I Was Kidnapped as a Child episode — but it’s not entirely sure how to tell them. Finding Carter fits on the network, largely on the strength of its premise. It will surely find its audience, but I worry that it won’t find the strong, narrower focus that its story deserves.