“Faking It” is an odd, interesting, lightly subversive, and potentially offensive concoction from MTV. It’s a twisted comedy that has charm, but also a premise that could be insulting if not handled intelligently. I could probably write two different reviews of the series, which premieres Tuesday night at 10:30.
The concept is certainly ripe. It’s set at an imaginary high school in Austin, Texas, where being different is celebrated and hierarchically advantageous — where the geeks, hippie freaks, Goths, and gays are the In Crowd. In the middle of a huge red state, there is this blue dot.
Meanwhile, the jock, cheerleader, and J.Crew types are outcasts straining for power. The resident Heather, a blond queen bee named Lauren (Bailey Buntain), refers to the school as a “Kumbaya socialist freak show,” claiming “there’s a natural order to high school and all of this is against nature.” In case her use of phrases such as “natural order” and “against nature” don’t tip you off, she’s meant to represent social conservative outrage.
In this bizarro scenario, best friends Karma (Katie Stevens from “American Idol”) and Amy (Rita Volk) decide to up their social standing by pretending to be a lesbian couple. They accidentally stumble into the lesbian label, but once they get a warm reception from the school’s cool kids as well as a party invitation, they decide to follow through with the ruse. After Karma and Amy “come out,” a committee starts to lobby students to vote for them for prom queens, and Karma, the more superficial one, is ecstatic to have picked up 400 new Instagram followers.
Karma and Amy have been friends for a long time — their voices are almost indistinguishable, as they fast-talk and drop pop cultural references like the mother-daughter pair on “Gilmore Girls.” They think of themselves as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, or Rihanna and Katy Perry, or Lucy and Ethel. So the lesbian-lovers act comes easily to them, especially Karma, who realizes that her crush, Liam (Gregg Sulkin), is drawn to her more because he thinks she is gay. “He’s severely allergic to commitment,” Karma says to Amy. “I’m a lesbian with a girlfriend, which makes me hypoallergenic.”
One review of “Faking It” would praise the show for its playful spirit and its effort to spoof cultural expectations and social hierarchies. It takes the paradigm of high school supremacy and turns it on its head. And there are a few surprise twists in the story line — I won’t spoil them here — and they add valuable and welcome layers of complexity. “Faking It” rises above its gimmick in a number of ways, with themes that turn on matters of friendship and love; it’s more than a mistaken identity farce.
In many conversations about the growing national embrace of gay marriage, people talk about how younger generations are more accepting of a broad range of orientations and gender identifications. “Faking It” takes that notion and joyfully runs with it. The openly gay Shane (Michael Willett) is one of the most popular kids in school, and his best friend is the straight ladies man Liam. When Lauren delivers a snide anti-gay comment, Shane comes out with this rejoinder: “Bullying the gays — someone reeks of the late ’90s.”
MTV has been overridden with reality shows for so long, it’s great to see the channel continue to try for something better with a scripted series.
The other review of “Faking It” would caution show creator Carter Covington to be careful. No one should think that the bullying of gays and lesbians is no longer a real problem. The fantasy element of the show is funny, but the irony of the situation needs to remain clear. Plenty of kids in the real world still feel as though they need to fake it — fake being straight, that is.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.