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TELEVISION REVIEW

Raunchy MTV sitcom has a heart

Jareb Dauplaise (left), Paul Iacono, and Kara Taitz in “The Hard Times of RJ Berger.’’ Jareb Dauplaise (left), Paul Iacono, and Kara Taitz in “The Hard Times of RJ Berger.’’ (MTV via AP)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 5, 2010

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MTV’s “The Hard Times of RJ Berger’’ is puerile, sexist, flooded with geek and jock clichés, inappropriate, obvious, derivative of “Superbad,’’ forced in its political incorrectness, and filled with double-entendres that make the title look subtle.

And I kind of like it.

This scripted high school sitcom, which premieres after the MTV Movie Awards tomorrow at 11 p.m., is crude enough to fit in with MTV’s lineup of steamy hot-tub reality shows. Our brainy, awkward young hero, RJ, has an enormous penis that’s accidentally revealed to the entire school during a basketball game. The series opens with him masturbating in his room — right before his mother walks in on him. His sex-obsessed best friend Miles — he’s the Jack Black/Jonah Hill chubby sidekick of the piece — is always ready with a lewd retort, searching for “hot girls with low self-esteem’’ and prepared to be vomited upon by drunk girls if that’s what it takes to get female company.

But somewhere behind all this MTV male-audience bluster beats the heart of a sweetly droll coming-of-age story. It’s the same heart that makes all the Judd Apatow movies into something more than their raunch, into human stories that so often lead to the triumph of the dork. The show, created by David Katzenberg (son of Jeffrey) and Seth Grahame-Smith (author of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’’), takes on all the facets of its teen characters’ sensibilities; not just the sexual obsessions and gross-out humor, but the vulnerabilities, fears, and desperation as well.

A show like “My So-Called Life’’ was a chronicle of teen stress and school hierarchies, but it always kept one eye on its adult audience. Knowing and literary, it appealed to the more mature young viewers, as well as to older demographics. And “Glee’’ is an adult’s message of inclusiveness addressed to kids. But “The Hard Times of RJ Berger’’ is about teens and for them, too. Indeed, one of the trademarks of “Hard Times’’ is the way it ruthlessly lampoons teachers and suburban parents. RJ’s mother and father (Beth Littleford and Larry Poindexter) are locked in a narcissistic, orgy-loving bubble of their own, flaunting their sex life in front of their son. Next to them, RJ is like a little Ward Cleaver.

It helps that Paul Iacono, who plays RJ, makes such a sympathetic underdog hero. He has the Harry Potter look, with his round wire glasses, but he’s a bit of a depressive whose horniness is suffused with defeat. He feels doomed by his fixation on the school’s prettiest blonde, Jenny (Amber Lancaster), who also happens to be dating the school’s nastiest jock, Max (Jayson Blair — not to be confused with the New York Times plagiarist). It’s familiar David-and-Goliath teen-romance material, but Iacono improves on it with some of the self-conscious charm that made Adam Brody as Seth Cohen the real star of “The O.C.’’ He is as likable and fleshed out as the other teen characters on the show aren’t.

“The Hard Times of RJ Berger’’ stands out on MTV, not because it’s about music — that would be a miracle — but because it is scripted. It’s a small step forward for a network that has been selling hollow exhibitionism, Tila Tequila, and “Jersey Shore’’ for far too long. From RJ’s campaign for office (with a “yes we can’’ reference in his speech) to his moment as the star of the high-school play (a mash-up called “Vamp Side Story’’), there’s more truth in his misadventures than in all them there “Hills.’’

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE HARD TIMES OF RJ BERGER Starring: Paul Iacono, Jareb Dauplaise, Jayson Blair, Amber Lancaster, Beth Littleford, Larry Poindexter, Kara Taitz

On: MTV

Time: Tomorrow night, 11-11:30