The best part of My Life As Liz isn't its protagonist. Nor is it the the array of cliches about high school life, complete with evil blondes and school-wide talent shows. It's sidekicks Taylor and Sully.
MTV's My Life As Liz follows Liz Lee through her senior year of high school, juxtaposing school scenes with Liz's acerbic monologues. Any one who has been watching MTV with any regularity knows they have a very loose sense of "reality" - scenes are routinely scripted, re-shot, and edited to create plot arcs.
During the opening episode, we meet Liz heading to burn pictures of her old self (re: her with blonde streaks). Later, Liz is trying to do an edgy video project for a class, when her teacher assigns her to instead shoot a profile on Taylor Terry, the stand in for the "cute, popular hateable" stock character that resides in most teen flicks. Interestingly enough, the pilot episode is eerily reminiscent of "Monster", an episode from season two of Daria. In "Monster," Daria is chooses to make a humiliating movie about her shallow sister Quinn (obvious parallel to the Liz-Taylor relationship.) However, in keeping with a hazier sense of good and evil, Daria eventually caves under her conscience and edits the video to show Quinn in a better light. Liz decides to commit grade-book kamikaze and unspools the tape while talking to herself by her pool.
Well - that's kind of what happened. According to Jon Caramanica, writing for the LA Times, that scene was one of those "through [her] eyes" moments:
[A]t the end of the episode, Liz cracks open a camcorder tape marked "Taylor Terry Profile" and unspools it, laughing.
Liz and Taylor are real people, and Burleson is a real school, in the suburbs of Fort Worth, and yet this moment is pure fancy. There on the Burleson website is the Aug. 29, 2008, edition of "Elk TV," Burleson's news broadcast, with Liz's profile of Taylor intact. You know it's Liz from the mildly snide voice-over."I am NOT a fictional character. haha!" Liz recently wrote on Twitter. "What you see on tv, is what you get."
Except when you don't. "My Life as Liz" is quasi-reality — real people, in their real environment, leading lives that are being in some way dramatized. Watch it as fiction, and it's charming teen comedy. Watch it as reality, and it's deeply disorienting.
The show reveals its "quasi-reality" angle early on: each episode appears to be plucked from the nostalgia bin of its writers and shot to a predictable and inevitable conclusion. The next episode mashes up all kinds of teen swooning and prom love with a secret admirer sending her Valentine's carnations. Instantly a red flag goes up - if Liz had been truly an outcast (and not a fallen popular kid, as she reminds the camera often), she would have realized that whole situation smelled like a set-up. More to the point, when Liz arrives at the dance with no secret admirer, she should have been happy there wasn't a bucket of pig blood waiting.
Popular kids these days have no imagination. (Or at least, no frame of reference for classic horror films.)
Episode three and four are a lackluster mash up of comic book geekery, the inevitable show-down scene, and feel good underdog frenzy as Liz finds herself somehow the representative of the nerds. Somehow, she convinces her crush object Bryson to help train her and play back up on the guitar as she brings down the house with something suitably indie - but alas, her Romeo leaves with his girl friend, Jamie. Poor Liz is dejected.
The reception for MLAL has been mixed. Naturally, the town of Burleson isn't exactly thrilled being portrayed as boring and "white bread." The AV Club loves her, with a fawning admiration for her sneering angsty ways. Oh No They Didn't unearthed some dirt that Liz isn't who she claims she is to be, but I'm going to leave that for now - the whole conversation surrounding what it means to be "truly" geeky is full of purity tests and generally needs a whole post of its own.
But My Life As Liz still rings false to me, for more than the reasons Caramanica outlined in his piece. For one thing, the lines between the so-called popular people and the school outcasts are always blurrier than they appear. To take it back to Daria for a second, sometimes, the only difference is how much you are willing to perform:
Secondly, Liz appears to have assumed a new identity - but she kept a lot of the horrific habits that came from clawing her way to popularity. In many ways, Liz (the character, since I'm not sure who the person is) embodies the worst parts of nerdom - the internalization of all the anger that comes from alienation and isolation, without any of the developing any of the empathy of having been there. She frequently pulls rank with a nasty sense of entitlement - treating the nerdier guys (including her friend Sully) as utterly disposable minions in her schemes, condescending to Taylor after she opens up about wanting to be someone else, and being a fairly typical self-absorbed teenager. Liz doesn't reveal anything approaching empathy or compassion for other people who may be working on the same transformation she claimed to have gone through a short time ago.
Still, there are some people on screen who were truly compelling to watch. There's Sully, the happy-go-lucky nerd who seems to be carrying a small torch for Liz. He unapologetically throws old English into his regular vocabulary, will dress up as Gandalf on the flimsiest of provocations, and seems like he lives for comic conventions and the Renaissance Faire. Sully is the kind of guy that would have this kind of conversation:
But honestly, Sully had me when he tried to encourage Liz to take on the talent show by saying "may the force be with you."
Taylor is another fascinating character, as she appears to be in the self-examination stage. What happens when you are living the dream and hate it? As the story arc continues, it appears that Taylor and Liz will eventually become friends - but I like Taylor's character because she represents a person who is covering her true self, and still performing up to expectations. Adolescence is when a lot of people work through their personalities, trying on different identities and shedding them just as quickly before they settle comfortably into their own skin. It will be interesting to watch if Taylor's character progresses, or if she fades even further to the margins of stereotype.
My Life As Liz [MTV]
Monster [Outpost Daria]
The truth about 'My Life as Liz' [LA Times]
Carrie (1976 film) [Wikipedia]
'My Life as Liz': MTV comes calling on Burleson [Dallas News]
The "truth" behind Liz Lee. [Oh No They Didn't]
My Life As Liz [Onion AV Club]