MTV’s history with scripted series has been spotty at best. They return to the one-hour teen drama with Finding Carter, their first real attempt at defining high schoolers since the god-awful Skins adaptation series in 2011 (supernatural shows not included). The premise, from showrunners Emily Silver and Teri Minsky, centers on Carter Stevens (Kathryn Prescott) finding out that the person she thought was her mother was actually her kidnapper; she was taken at three-years-old and raised by said kidnapper. Now her mom/kidnapper is on the run and she’s living with her biological parents and the siblings she never knew she had. The concept works thematically, tied to the idea of the uncertain self-identity teens face, along with the nascent fear and strange longing we all have to be someone else.

The execution is soapy, though given the concept, it’s probably the way to go. Love triangle become love pentagons, friends get made and lost in short order, and drugs are purchased and abused. The two-hour premiere consisted of the pilot and the second episode, so there were as many revelations as there were characters introduced, and it can become a bit dizzying. To their credit, the actors do a decent job with the stock dialogue, and the dialogue does become better in episode two.

The problem resides in the tone of the series, which is a little too poppy, a little too soft considering the big emotions and dark concept Silver and Minsky are dealing with. The Wilson family is obviously more than a bit screwed up. Mom (Cynthia Watros) is a control freak cop who was having an affair and was ready to leave her family when Carter returned; dad (Alexis Denisof with his permanent five o’clock shadow) is hiding absolute financial destitution, and recording Carter’s conversations for his next book; sister Taylor (Anna Jacoby-Heron) is repressed in every way imaginable, a victim of her mother’s fears of losing another child, and baby brother Grant (Zac Pullman) is severely neglected. This is all heavy stuff, and as over-wrought as it is, it can make for pretty good drama; the only problem is that most of this is played for laughs.

Carter and her friends use burners to fool mom and the FBI (the method may be a loving homage to The Wire but kids outsmarting the police and the Bureau is ridiculous). Taylor drinks herself half to death following an outburst about being forced to be a virtual nun, and Grant repeatedly says “No one cares about me” and “I do things and nobody notices” and we’re meant to laugh at all of this. It’s cheap and unfulfilling. The family therapy scene was a good idea to get all of this out in the ether, but was eventually just shown to be a plot convenience for a pair of twists later on.

The actors do their best with the cheap comedy, though they don’t seem to really buy it and it shows in their awkwardness. Denisof seems to be the most uncomfortable with the writing and one can’t help but see him thinking only of his check. At times he, nearly off-camera, reacts with an almost meta wincing to some of the scenes, which is actually the funniest thing in series so far. When allowed to be dramatic, he and almost everyone else seem to be able to exhale and breathe a little easier.

The mix of campy coming of age comedy and soap opera style conceits gives something of a throwback nature to the show — in its big premise and melodramatic leanings — and it attempts to attract fans through a strange method of casting a group of celebrity look-alikes. Kathryn Prescott resembles Emma Stone, Jesse Henderson (Gabe) resembles Rider Strong, Vanessa Morgan (Bird) resembles Stacey Dash, Alex Saxon (Max) resembles Rory Culkin. It’s cartoonish, yet it somehow lends credence to the proceedings, like a shorthand to credibility and familiarity. It was actually a surprise to not hear Dido or Paula Cole sing the opening credits.

It is hinted that there is a larger conspiracy at work, involving the reason why Carter was abducted, though the season preview clip following the pilot didn’t really focus on it. What’s to come appears fairly standard — sex and mayhem — though the real story is of Carter and her attempts at finding her way with the Wilson family. If focused on Carter and the family, the series could become a strong primetime soap. So far Finding Carter more akin to a fish-out-of-water comedy, which undermines the wealth of big emotions involved in the dark concept of knowing your entire life has been a lie and that your family is fatally damaged.

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