Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pilot Review: Finding Carter

Finding Carter (Tuesdays at 10:00 on MTV)

Finding Carter is a bit of a strange fit at MTV, home to quirky teen comedies (Faking It, Awkward., etc) and Teen Wolf, not to mention the plethora of ridiculous reality shows that have little-to-nothing to do with the channel's musical roots. It's the kind of show that would better fit into the melodramatic teen angst on ABC Family, if it weren't for the adult edge and slightly more mature tone it's got going. As it stands, Finding Carter lives up to its own name in its pilot: much like the crisis of not fitting on its own network, the new young adult drama struggles to find a consistent tone and balance of too many characters.

Carter Stevens (the talented Brit Kathryn Prescott, of the original UK Skins) has her life turned upside down when she's arrested for smoking pot: the life she has known is a lie. Her mother is actually her kidnapper, an acquaintance of her biological parents who stole Carter, AKA Lyndon, away when she was three years old. Forced into a new living situation with the family who never got over her disappearance, Carter attempts to find some balance and some semblance of normalcy. Her new mother (Cynthia Watros, Lost) is an obsessive, icy detective; her father (Alexis Denisof, Angel) is a failed writer; and her siblings Taylor and Grant (Anna Jacoby-Heron and Zac Pullam) have lived their entire lives in their sister's shadow. Everyone has some issues to sort through as Carter comes home for the first time in thirteen years.

On paper, the concept of Finding Carter is fascinating, like a Gillian Flynn novel. The mystery of it all could be hugely entertaining. But the pilot for such a great story is relatively mundane and totally predictable. Most of the episode's first half follows Carter lamenting the loss of her "real" mom and stating over and over that her life before wasn't bad, that she wants to  go back, etc. There's little, if any, deep thinking on her part, almost no emotion. For such an identity crisis as what Carter must be going through, she seems to brush everything off really easily. Oh, I have a new sister? Let me take her out to get drunk. Oh, I have parents who are willing to do anything to get in my good graces? Let me take their car for a joyride to meet my ex-boyfriend two hours away. Oh, everyone wants to help me? Let me manipulate them rather than trying to get to know them. She's an asshole, in typical teenage fashion. Carter, aside from the fact that she was once kidnapped, is in every way the typical rebellious teenager: she gets drunk and high, quotes Mean Girls, only eats junk food, and resents her parents for no discernible reason. In fact, it becomes painfully clear by episode two that Carter really only liked Laurie, her kidnapper, better because she let Carter do whatever she wants (the pilot's opening sees Laurie allowing Carter to go out with her friends to get high, despite the evening supposedly dedicated to Laurie-Carter time). Well, that approach got Carter locked up for a night and her life left in shambles... so maybe go with the parents who have rules.

Finding Carter's other major flaw, for me at least, is that Carter is the least interesting character on the show. This would be a better series, overall, if it were more about Laurie. The psychology of what drives someone to kidnap a child and raise her as your own is much more intriguing than a snotty teenager going all emo because she isn't getting everything she wants anymore. I would rather see Laurie's side of the story leading up to Carter being reclaimed by her family, rather than the fallout of her return. Because Carter is such a typical character, it makes everyone around her seem more interesting. She's too shallow, too flippant about the whole situation, choosing to block everything out rather than deal with it head on. Her sister's reaction to Carter's return, for example, seems more human: she has lived under incredible strictures her entire life because her parents feared what happened to Carter... yet here Carter is, living it up and telling everyone how great her life used to be. So Taylor resents her. Grant has lived his entire life almost literally in Carter's shadow: he was born to be her replacement, but he only served as a constant reminder that Carter was gone, so he became nearly invisible in his own home. Her father turned his story of losing his child into a national bestseller, but he can't move past her disappearance long enough to write anything else ever again. Her mother became so obsessed with finding Carter's kidnapper that she shut out her family completely and turned off her emotions to the point that her own children aren't sure she even likes them. These are all infinitely more realistic and grittier reactions to the upheaval Carter's return home causes than Carter's own.

Finding Carter could be a really touching, really emotional show about one teenager's desperate soul-searching for her own true self... but instead it's yet another portrait of teenage rebellion. There are hints of this deeper, more thought-provoking show present. In the pilot, when Carter's parents insist on calling her Lyndon, she says, "I've just had my whole life ripped out from under me, and my name is all I have left. Call me Carter." More poignant moments like this would be welcome. Fewer scenes of Carter yelling at her mother for following her and trying to spy on her (of course she is, you were kidnapped and went missing for thirteen years and have been back in her care for like five freaking minutes, cut the woman a break!) would be appreciated. Less melodrama, more emotion, and this could be a good show. The acting is already better than is to be expected from a show on MTV, particularly from Prescott (who is as subtle as she can be with such an obnoxious character as Carter). I just can't get past the frustrating one-sidedness of Carter's characterization (she refuses to see Laurie as anything other than wonderful) and the melodrama of plot points like the whole family sitting down to therapy together.

It gets to be a bit too much at times.

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