18 To Life Shocks the U.S. Critics

Like Myles McNutt, I expected the CBC dramedy 18 To Life to get mixed reviews when it got a U.S. run (on the CW network). Like him, I was extremely surprised at what a couple of the bad reviews have chosen to focus on: criticizing the show because it’s about two over-18 teenagers who get married.

McNutt’s post does a good job of responding to these reviews and the odd presumption — in the Wall Street Journal review — that a relatively realistic portrayal of teenage sex, of somewhat normal and (comparatively) de-glamourized teens who have been sexually active, is worse than the glossy version we get on the CW’s own shows.

I will add, though, that on thinking about it, I probably shouldn’t have been quite so surprised. Early marriage is a fairly controversial topic on television, possibly more controversial than early sex or early pregnancy. That’s because it manages to hit two types of controversy at once. First, even though it has the characters make the “moral” decision by getting married, they’re still having sex at a fairly young age, and as the WSJ review makes clear, that still pushes the buttons of those who feel that pop culture shouldn’t be glorifying youthful sex. (Telling people to wait till they’re married is often a sideways way of telling them to wait until they’re older; from that point of view, getting married at 18 is not going to help any.) And at the same time, others view it as a reactionary message, an attempt to convince viewers that getting married — even with no money and no job — is inherently preferable to just having an unmarried sexual relationship. This may be what the L.A. Times’ Mary MacNamara means when she says that “”it is much more shocking to see these young people leap into matrimony than it would be if they were just having sex or even moving in together.” That’s part of the point of the show: the characters make a decision that has more impact, legally and culturally, than any other, and one that their parents fear will ruin their lives.

Both sides, then, would view 18 To Life as an invitation to irresponsible behaviour, so it opens itself up to twice the complaints a teen show would normally get. Sometimes both these types of complaints come from the same people: the WSJ criticism attacks the show both for encouraging promiscuity and for encouraging premature monogamy (“many teens already have an inkling of how hard taking on grownup life before you’re done growing up can be”).

Now, the creators of 18 To Life didn’t have any of this in mind. They were trying to look at a young marriage and the impact it has on the couple and — perhaps more importantly — the parents. But now that the show is airing in the U.S., where the viewership is larger (even on the CW) and arguments over sex occupy a larger amount of journalistic real estate, this may become a larger part of the conversation than they intended. And I should also add that the subject matter of the show may well be a turn-off apart from any moralistic questions: the lead characters are, from any point of view, entering into marriage without considering everything that comes with it, and some potential viewers might not enjoy watching a show about people who aren’t acting very smart.

One thing I’d compare it to: if you were a TGIF viewer back in the ’90s you might recall that the show Boy Meets World did something similar, marrying off the hero and his girlfriend while they were college sophomores. (They actually spent the entire freshman year planning their wedding and calling it off again.) It led to several kinds of arguments: whether the couple was being irresponsible for getting married so young (the show itself seemed to suggest they were), and whether the culturally conservative creator of the show was pushing an agenda of trying to convince kids that an irresponsible marriage was better than pre-marital sex. (A scene where two other characters suggested that their co-habitation wasn’t a “real” relationship, while marriage was “real,” definitely seemed like prosletyzing.) It was controversial then on all sides, and it’s controversial now. It was also, in that particular case, a sign of a show that was on its last legs and whose lead characters had become idiots.




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18 To Life Shocks the U.S. Critics

  1. I would never have known of this but for this post. Very interesting.

    • One of those moments when one realises one is Canadian and not American, that is, that there are implicit assumptions about things that wouldn't even occur to us might be controversial.

      Conversely, it was a while before I understood the full implications of the bus in the film Speed. A bus, and people commuting by bus, is just normal, right? But no, especially not in L.A. But not just in Canada but around the developed world, a lot of the rich class-culture subtext, the maid winning the prince, was missed. It just wouldn't and didn't occur to us.

      • Can you explain the bus? I don't get it.

        • I think what's meant by the commenter is that riding the bus in LA is a significant marker of what class you belong to. Much moreso than in, say, Vancouver or Toronto.

          • But can you explain what it has to do with Speed?

          • You mean the movie Speed which takes place entirely on a bus?

        • Yes. I was in Houston TX once. My hotel was near the Astrodome, then a marvel. My colleague and I started to walk there but the concierge warned us not to. We went anyway and half-way there found there were no sidewalks. A cop stopped us and gave us the informal third degree. Nobody of any rating WALKS. Even the lowest strata rode the bus. Finally, after confessing our ignorance he drove to the Astrodome. We took a taxi back.

          • I saw a Patrick Stewart interview once (may have been Letterman, can't remember) talking about how he and a friend went for a walk in LA and two different they knew, driving by, stopped to ask what was wrong– because something must have been wrong if they were WALKING!

  2. That WSJ review is one of the stupidest things I've seen in a while. At what age are we allowed to treat people as adults? In the past people did a lot of mature things before the age of 18 (hello WWII vets?) but now 18 isn't even old enough for the WSJ? I thought cultural conservatives were supposed to be against constant coddling (ie the phrase "nanny state").

  3. I love this show. Being a young adult and having a very serious girlfriend this show hits me right at home…figuratively and literally!!!! hahaha…. I hope in season 3 they take a page or two out of Sarah Palin’s daughters life!…

  4. I don't understand critics upset with the show. They think they are reviewing for the target audience- namely, 18-30ish- but truthfully, this show is exactly what young adult life is. Sure, most people don't get married at 18, but the parents and friends reactions and the ordeals with having to live at home while trying to become independent are what real young adult life is about. By being offended that 18 year olds can- GASP!- be in love, and/or having sex before the age of 30, is just showing their true fogeyhood.

    I really like this show. It's refreshing to see a relatable sitcom for younger adults that isn't revolved around copious amounts of alcohol or drugs or sex as a big bad or unexpected pregnancies. We already have a Canadian teenage show about that (Degrassi, for anyone who couldn't figure it out) and most U.S. critics are praising it for taking real issues head on, so what is so different about 18 to life?

    When do they think you become "an adult"? Is there a specific age, or measurable maturity level? What threshold do you have to have stepped over to be seen as an adult in the eyes of critics?

    Looking forward to next season.

  5. Amazing. They think those trash tv shows they put on MTV and VH1 are just fine but 18 to Life is shocking? Come on…….

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