By now you’ve probably heard the premise of Faking It: Two best friends pretend to be lesbians in order to gain popularity at their ultra-tolerant high school. And based on that premise alone, you may already feel offended. Fair enough, since the concept of pretending to be an oppressed minority in order to access some supposed societal advantage has given us some of our worst cultural artifacts (apparently I Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is the most heinous offender in this category). It’s also just sort of dizzying to contemplate that in 2014, in the wake of an epidemic of gay teen suicides, this show doesn’t feel completely outrageous.
More than anything else, that speaks to the tolerance divide in this country, which is nearly as stratified as wealth. And we’ve yet to see a show capture the surreal experience of navigating this world of evolving values. Combine these sensitive cultural issues with high school drama and you could end up with either a saccharine mess (latter days Glee) or a black-hearted satire (Heathers) but Faking It is neither. It’s so of the moment that it might actually be a little before “the moment.” It’s like a sriracha donut; sweet and spicy combined in a way unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
So I’m aware the last paragraph was pretty glowing, but you really just have to trudge through the first five minutes, because they are awful. Amy (Rita Volk, aka the blonde one) is woken up by an early morning phone call from her best friend, Karma (Katie Stevens). You immediately sense that these calls are a daily tradition, because they are Best Friends. Karma wonders “How do blind people get dressed?” and at first I think this is just a charming non sequitur to indicate that she is “the quirky one”—her name is Karma, after all—but no.
The blonde leading the blind. (I’m sorry, I’ll stop.)
Karma is pretending to be blind, an idea that Amy calls “as crazy as Shia Labeouf’s Twitter feed” (This is exactly the sort of hip reference a teen would make). Karma explains her reasoning with the following voiceover: “We live in Austin, a blue oasis in the red sea of Texas. And our high school is so tolerant and accepting that the outcasts are the in crowd!” It’s incredibly heavy handed and I kind of hope they play it at the beginning of every episode, like the “in every generation a Slayer is born” bit in Buffy. (Teens: Buffy was a show from back when high school was about pretending you weren’t different. You wouldn’t understand.)
The pretending to be blind thing instantly made me feel like this show was everything I was afraid it would be. For one thing, in light of later events, it kind of equates being gay with suffering a physical handicap. Luckily, Karma catches a Frisbee, thus blowing her blind cover, and the storyline is forgotten. (Harder to forget is the fact that we now see Karma as a desperate social climber willing to do wildly unethical things in order to get invited to parties.) Amy, meanwhile, is perfectly content to sit at home with her bestie every Friday, working her way through Netflix. (Her top categories, we are given to understand, are White Guilt Documentaries and Heartfelt Dramas Featuring Intense Lesbian Subtext.)
Their debate on the relative merits of The Full High School Experience (Karma) and Transitioning Gracefully From Childhood Straight to Middle Age (Amy) is interrupted by the arrival of Lauren, the would-be HBIC.
Other than Amy, Lauren is the best character on this show; a blonde, corn-fed head cheerleader type who believes that these qualities endow her with the inalienable right to dominate her fellow adolescents. But since Hester High (shout out to our lady Prynne) is so evolved, everyone just laughs at her while she pouts around the sidelines of the action like a deposed princess. It’s a brilliant character, partly because of the unspoken anxiety that the age of Lauren is well within memory, and she possesses just enough Bible Belt tenacity to flip the social order back in her favor.
The first thing she does upon seeing Amy and Karma is insist they “get out of her light” (she is referring to the sun) and accuse them of being lesbians. This remark is immediately overheard by power twink Shane, and teen heartthrob Liam. They get a good laugh at Lauren’s outmoded prejudices.
Begone! Before somebody drops a house on you!
Just one glimpse of Liam’s face is enough to make Karma lose her lunch in a fit of nerves, but she and Amy still score invitations to Shane’s super cool party that night. In private, Shane rubs his hands together and murmurs “Leeesbiaaaans. At last I shall complete my Diversity Trading Card Set.” Shane, I have a real strong feeling that this season you are going to learn that people are more than the sum of their labels.