By FRAZIER MOORE
AP Television Writer
NEW YORK — From those to whom much is given, much is expected.
That even applies to the seemingly shortchanged 15-year-old RJ Berger, who sizes himself up for the audience as “scrawny and weird-looking, awkward and pale.”
The hero of the new MTV scripted comedy ‘The Hard Times of RJ Berger,’ he follows in a rich TV tradition of winsome misfit adolescents – kids with smarts, creativity and spunk lurking just beneath the surface of their systematic victimhood.
But RJ comes with a bonus tucked away in his boxer shorts: He’s extremely well-endowed.
Thus does ‘Hard Times’ raise issues that consume males from their early adolescence onward: How much is big enough? Why don’t I have more? Why is life so unfair? A show aimed at teen and twentysomething guys (plus girls with their own interest in the subject), ‘Hard Times’ portrays the ultimate wish fulfillment of its primary audience, while reminding the viewer that no blessing comes without a cost.
Here is a young man whose gift (never witnessed by viewers, of course, and thus enhanced even more in the mind’s eye) is plenty big enough, and then some.
Get a behind look at ‘Hard Times’:
And yet, doggonit, RJ’s life isn’t perfect. For RJ, a large penis is as much a curse as a blessing, as much a burden as an object of pride.
As what could be described as ‘The Wonder Years‘ meets ‘Boogie Nights,’ the 12-episode series premieres Sunday at 11 p.m. EDT following “The MTV Movie Awards.” It focuses on RJ’s relatable misadventures in high school, as well as his relatable ambivalence about his manhood, however much the physical evidence might scream “case closed!”
‘Hard Times’ bears a passing resemblance to HBO’s ‘Hung.’ In that drama series, which returns for its second season June 27, a financially struggling family man and high school teacher becomes a male prostitute.
But RJ, who is played with understated forbearance by Paul Iacono, isn’t nearly so desperate. His struggles are more those of self-acceptance and gaining acceptance of his fellow teens.
RJ is free to stew over such dilemmas in private until, in the premiere, the cat (so to speak) is out of the bag. In a wardrobe malfunction during a basketball game, his secret is exposed to the whole student body.
RJ’s nerdy, marginal presence is instantly revised among all who behold him. From now on, it seems, he will be identified on campus with a blend of envy, jeering and a bit of the yuck factor. What might very well serve as an advantage is also likely to further stigmatize him.
The long and the short of it: What is expected of RJ is how to deal with his package deal.
RJ’s best friend, the sex-obsessed and sex-deprived Miles (Jareb Dauplaise) is thrilled to learn of RJ’s previously undisclosed bounty. Miles bets he will seem desirable to girls by mere association.
“It’s our golden ticket!” Miles rejoices.
After the revelation, RJ’s stalker-ish hanger-on Lily (Kara Taitz) is all the more interested in RJ.
But his sole, unrequited love interest remains the beautiful Jenny (Amber Lancaster), whose boyfriend is Max (Jayson Blair), the meanest jock in school.
Now Max gives RJ more grief than before, mocking him (jealously?) as a freak.
Meanwhile, a friendship blossoms between RJ and sweet Jenny, who by chance are paired as study buddies. It’s a friendship challenged in the third episode when, playing the romantic leads in the school musical, they share a kiss. RJ’s sudden onstage tumescence literally stops the show.
But ‘Hard Times’ isn’t totally fixated on RJ’s phallus. This condition is barely mentioned in the second episode (airing Monday, June 14, at 10 p.m., in the series’ regular slot), when RJ summons newfound confidence to run for student president against Max, the clear favorite.
“OK, maybe we’re losers,” says RJ in a bold campaign speech. “But why are we losers? Is it because we suck at sports? Is it because our parents are our only friends on Facebook? No, what makes us losers is that we BELIEVE we are losers!”
At heart, ‘Hard Times’ tells the familiar story of a little guy against the world. The message, delivered in provocative style: Size is what you make of it.
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