Feb 26, 2013

TV Review: "Pramface", Season One

By Josh Oakley

There is a surprising dearth of quality television shows about young people on American TV. Network channels have seemingly given up on the genre since the departure of Friday Night Lights. Cable has Bunheads, Switched at Birth and Awkward, but given how many stories there are to tell about high school and college-aged students, it’s rather disappointing that this “golden age of TV” seems to largely be ignoring those under 25. British TV, at least the British TV that makes it to America in some form or another, doesn’t offer unlimited options either, but it at least strengthens the field. Misfits, Fresh Meat and now Pramface offer an expanded look at the youth, thanks to Hulu’s distribution.

I went through the latter of those shows, the awfully named Pramface, earlier this week, and was happy to find that the oft-annoying commercials on Hulu actually led me to something worth loving. The six-episode first season is available through streaming, and the second season (which has already aired in Britain on BBC Three) will debut sometime in the spring. Frankly, it cannot come quickly enough, as this is a show that takes a funny, honest look at teenage pregnancy, in a way that American TV would most likely over-dramatize.

The story concerns Jamie (Sean Michael Verey) as a sixteen-year-old that has a one-night stand with Laura (Scarlett Alice Johnson). Laura is a number of years old, set on going to university and getting on with her life, away from her parents who teeter on the edge of divorce. Jamie doesn’t seem to care about much beyond playing video games and spending time with his friends, until he learns that his child is growing inside of Laura.

The first episode largely deals with getting us to know its main characters and setting up the central pregnancy. Jamie has just finished exams, alongside his best friends Mike (Dylan Edwards) and Beth (Yasmin Paige, the romantic lead from Submarine). Mike is the constantly horny and perpetually un-laid best friend, and Beth is the sassy girl who loves Jamie without his knowledge. Mike takes Jamie to a fancy party, the kind of party that un-cool kids like them are forced to crash. There, Jamie is instantly seduced by Laura, who is rebelling against her parents (don’t worry, one of the kids at the party mentions the cliché nature of this). Jamie and Laura have sex, and six weeks later, Jamie receives a call informing him that this issue has carried well beyond one night. The episode ends with Laura finding out that Jamie is only sixteen, and hanging her head in statutory-rape shame.

The rest of the episodes take us through Jamie’s attempts to prove that he can be there for Laura, Laura eventually caving, and the two becoming friends (and potentially more). Beth continues to yearn for Jamie, and Mike keeps trying to get laid. Pramface fleshes out the parental characters of its leads, played by a four-some of incredibly gifted characters, none more so than Laura’s mother (Anna Chancellor, who according to Wikipedia is absent for much of season 2 which is a damn shame if true). Laura’s parents are getting over an affair that the father had, by going to couple’s therapy and constantly fighting. This story doesn’t always work, but when it hits (namely in a scene set in a hotel restaurant), it’s the best stuff the show pulls off. Jamie’s parents are more of a non-presence, through their moments of drama, particularly in the season finale, are very earnest and warm.

Mike, the friend who just wants sex, is put through the “wacky best friend” wringer, and not given any emotional sturdiness. Luckily, the actor is fairly gifted, and his absurd situations are often grounded by the presence of Beth. Yasmin Paige is fantastic here, playing her unrequited love with bitterness rather than as a wounded puppy. A scene where she professes her feelings for Jamie in a bowling alley is expertly deployed, using subtitles to show that Jamie cannot hear a word that she is confessing.

The best performance on the show, though, comes from Scarlett Alice Johnson as the pregnant lead, Laura. She treats the unwanted interruption with sighs rather than by weeping. When she makes the crucial abortion/keep the baby decision, it’s a raw scene thanks to her exterior deteriorating as she speaks to a doctor about the decision she has made. As Laura’s relationship with Jamie grows, Johnson plays every beat with uncertainty, making it difficult to tell if the feelings are real or circumstantial. That may seem a detriment, but works given the scenario these characters find themselves in.

The show’s largest problem is probably the lack of characterization behind Jamie, who feels as if he popped into existence merely to accidentally make a girl pregnant. There seems to be no personality beyond him “being there for Laura” and “working hard when he needs to”, which stem more from his situation than himself. Luckily, Verey is talented, and gives Jamie shades he wouldn’t have from the writing alone. The other issue is a sense of disjointed tones clashing against one another. Mike’s stories often feature crude jokes, Jamie and Laura’s are more earnest but with a large dose of awkward humor, and Laura’s parents are given heavier material. Sometimes, like in the exquisite season finale, these meld together and create a fully formed world for the show to breathe inside of. Other times, namely in “Man of the Moment”’s dinner scene, there’s a severe clash that causes the humor to fall flat and the drama to seem underdeveloped.

Largely, though, Pramface is an easy show to recommend. It has deftness in dealing with the issues of teenage pregnancy and abortion. It doesn’t overplay the drama, or punish the characters for their opinions. Instead, it allows the moral/social ramifications to take a backseat, as they would in real life, to the emotions of the moment. I don’t know how abortion is treated in British society, but at least from an American viewpoint, it’s incredibly nice to see these characters being honest, and having real conversations rather than diatribes.

The show’s heart, something not always large in British television, only surfaces in spurts on Pramface. Because of this, the moments where certain characters admit their feelings, or kiss, or become genuinely angry or upset, are powerful. This is a show, with one of the best ensembles on TV right now, that glows with honesty. Even Mike’s attempts to get laid come from a real place, and the humor (mostly) follows that trend. Contrivances largely take a backseat to the emotions driving these characters. And the final line of the season, delivered with perfection by Verey, shows that in season two (and hopefully beyond), Pramface has a lot of room to grow, just like it’s characters both young and old.

“Like Narnia But Sexy”: B+
“Pregnant Rapist”: B
“Edinburgh… In Scotland”: A-
“Man of the Moment”: B
“Knocked Up and Homeless”: A-
“Aaargh”: A

Season One: A-

Note: I'll review the second season of this show episode-by-episode when it debuts on Hulu, so please watch the first season (it's really great) and follow along with Wine & Pop in season two.

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