The Hard Times of RJ Berger

Credits

Cast

Network

Reviewer

Bob Hoose
Steven Isaac

TV Series Review

“When MTV says that it’s focusing on making earnest, socially minded TV shows, something weird is going on in America.”

Time TV analyst James Poniewozik wrote that in July 2009, responding to MTV’s publicized effort to incorporate morally redemptive themes into its shows. Less than a year later, with the arrival of The Hard Times of RJ Berger, “normal” parameters of programming have apparently returned to MTV. Sordid. Sleazy. Sick. Sad. Sex-obsessed. Those things are all on the table again. “Weird” no longer is.

Poniewozik was responding to MTV programming manager Tony DiSanto, who stated, “Our audience changes every few years. And I think our audience is now much more socially aware.”

But there’s nothing about RJ’s world that would suggest an awareness of much of anything. The titular teen wallows about in a world with no redemptive or wise voice. There’s little to nothing here about actually growing up and learning about life.

The show’s producers have called their creation “a cross between The Wonder Years and Superbad.” But there’s precious little wonder here. RJ Berger is all about the bad.

High school teen RJ is an appealing enough kid. Mop-topped and bespectacled, he describes himself as “scrawny and weird-looking, awkward and pale.” But his Hard Times take things downhill with heavy breathing gusto. It all starts with RJ accidentally exposing himself to the whole school. But instead of him dying of embarrassment and the student body collectively covering its eyes, RJ finds that he’s become a hero of sorts. It seems that his anatomy is so oversized that all the girls (and some of their moms, too) now want to have sex with him.

From there, this one-joke clown-about series has taken on the twisted task of coming up with ways to give RJ’s genitalia center stage while somehow keeping it just out of the camera’s reach. As the show trundled on, the situations RJ found himself in became ever more ludicrous—culminating in him losing his virginity with his best friend Lily, who just happened to be in the hospital recovering from a horrible bus accident. (The Season 1 finale suggested that the sex might’ve killed Lily. But she pulled through the hiatus and returned, albeit on crutches.)

While RJ shows flashes of misguided morality, the show is almost completely centered around sex. Zipping and unzipping get full attention. As do busty “bikini babes” strutting down school hallways and in RJ’s daydreams. Sexual situations (masturbation, oral sex, foursomes, the suggestion of date rape, etc.) are more than just par for the course, they’re at the very core of the show. Incessantly, they get hinted at, talked about and partially shown.

“We want to tell the coming of age stories and the classic high school stories that every kid can relate to, or that every adult remembers from their time in high school,” co-creator Seth Grahame-Smith told iesb.net. “Yes, we’re heightening them for comic value, but high school is a very over-sexed, profane environment for a lot of people, and we wanted to reflect that in the show.”

MTV clearly isn’t talking “social awareness” anymore. Now it’s all RJ all the time. “[Berger] really captures what our audience wants,” network general manager Stephen Friedman told the Los Angeles Times. “[It] speaks to where we need to go as a network.”

Episode Reviews

HardTimesofRJBerger: 3242011

“RJ’s Choice”

RJ breaks things off with Lily so he can pursue Jenny. Lily smacks him in the face with one of her crutches, drawing blood. After the confrontation, RJ heads home and compliments his parents, saying, “You both were really there for me, and I just wanted to say thank you.” His parents then inform him they’re getting a divorce.

Christianity is mocked at a student’s memorial service: “Why, Lord!?” the mother shouts. “Why did you have to take my baby!?” The priest, preparing to scatter the ashes, says, “Off you go, son, to run and leap with Jesus.” The ashes land on RJ, and the grieving mother tries to scoop them off RJ’s lap. Later, Lily wears a shirt that says, “I (heart) Jesus” (with “RJ” scrawled in the heart).

Several incredibly graphic sexual jokes, double entendres and explicit references to anatomy are used (including riffs on homosexuality, oral sex and foursomes). RJ and Jenny kiss. Two students beat each other up wearing sumo suits. Someone gets punched in the face. A teacher trips a student. We hear one (bleeped) s-word, as well as “d‑‑n,” “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch,” “g‑‑d‑‑n” and “h‑‑‑.”

HardTimesofRJBerger: 662010

“Pilot”

This series premiere opens with RJ masturbating under his covers—the camera lingering on his movements and heavy breathing. Then his mom walks in and unknowingly “contributes” by patting him through the covers.

Girls are grossly objectified—relegated to fantasy-only status while wearing revealing getups in school, bikinis at a pool party and lingerie in RJ’s imagination. At school, Lily vocally pushes RJ to have any kind of sex with her. A flashback shows her noisily masturbating over his yearbook picture in the library. An anime scene toys with ethnic slurs while depicting an Asian classmate giving RJ oral sex.

RJ’s best bud Miles gets a girl drunk, then videos her cleavage and kisses her (after she vomits and passes out). RJ’s inebriated parents openly make sexual overtures to another couple and later the teen listens to the sounds of their group sex.

Sleazy puns and innuendoes are woven into nearly everything—including the T-shirts the kids wear, which blatantly evoke sex acts. A handful of f-words and an s-word are partially bleeped. “D‑‑k” is censored and uncensored. The latter designation applies to several uses of “a‑‑hole” and “g‑‑d‑‑n.” RJ jokes about doing drugs.

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Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.

Steven Isaac

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