I’ve got to hand it to MTV. And yes, I really did just say that.
The network has been making an honest effort to add scripted series to its lineup for a year or two now. For more than a decade, it looked as though MTV had not only given up music, but gone in solely for crumb-bum reality TV after the success in the early 2000s of “The Osbournes” and “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica.” The height of MTV ambition appeared to be “Jersey Shore,” “Teen Mom,” “The Hills,” “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila,” and a string of porny hot-tub scenes that inevitably trigger thoughts about the efficacy of chlorination.
So I applaud the recent influx of scripted material, which doesn’t merely ask viewers to laugh snidely at dodo brains and drama queens who ham for the cams and drink till they puke. The likes of “Awkward,” “Teen Wolf,” “Skins,” “I Just Want My Pants Back,” and, beginning Monday night at 10:30, “The Inbetweeners,” at least try to say something more eloquent about the teen experience and human nature. Some of them, such as “Awkward,” are more successful, but all of them involve an effort to impart some kind of wisdom and character insight. The scripted series are more expensive to film than reality shows, but the payoff is greater — for us, for MTV’s durability, and for MTV’s bank account if the show catches on and makes it to DVD and syndication.
“The Inbetweeners,” about four geeky guys looking for sex and romance in high school, falls in the middle of the quality scale. It lacks some of the texture and distinction of the British comedy on which it is based. The British “Inbetweeners,” which lasted for three seasons and a movie (opening in the US on Sept. 7), was special, as it toggled between adolescent raunch and poignancy in the manner of the Judd Apatow series “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” and the movie “Superbad.” It also had an indelible lead performance by Simon Bird, as the briefcase-carrying private-school kid who must suddenly attend public school. Bird was like a UK version of Jason Schwartzman, in that you couldn’t easily categorize him.
None of the guys in the American version are quite as interesting as their British counterparts. They all fall neatly into familiar high school types — the dumb one, Neil (Mark L. Young); Jay (Zack Pearlman), the horny extrovert who talks a big game but is inexperienced; Simon (Bubba Lewis), who is sweet and painfully awkward around his crush; and Will (Joey Pollari), the smart new kid. And the writing brings nothing new to the table on which the “American Pie” movies already sit — the endless giggly conversations about breasts and masturbation and the obsession with no longer being a virgin. From the drunken party and the failed efforts to impress girls to the Facebook shame that strikes Will in episode 3, the situations are all fairly stock. They trip through all the well-known circles of social hell.
Still, “The Inbetweeners” has a refreshing sincerity. There’s an innocence about these guys, even with their endless sex talk, that is relatable and relatively rare on TV these days. In episode 3, Will plays an imaginary game of chess with a girl that is lovely. Another plus: Brett Gelman, who plays the sadistic school vice principal. Gelman, also a regular on Matthew Perry’s “Go On,” is perfect as a sarcastic man whose timing throws everyone off. He resides somewhere in between weird and weirder.