The Hard Times of RJ Berger

The Hard Times of RJ Berger focuses on the title character RJ, a scrawny highschool kid at the bottom of the highschool social ladder. He’s picked on by the jocks, in love/lust with the most popular girl at school who is dating his chief tormentor, and his parents seem well-meaning but are weird and out of touch. Pretty typical highschool drama formula right? Oh, I forgot to mention one other thing: he has an incredibly large penis. Yep, the title of the show is a pun. This could have been a really bad taste teen-sex comedy. Surprisingly, the show rises above this and delivers something more – heart.

As I started watching Hard Times, I was concerned that this was going to be just another American Pie, with a bunch of nerds trying to fulfill their sexual destinies. And the opening scenes follow this paradigm to the letter, with RJ’s mum walking in on him masturbating followed by RJ talking with his best mate Miles about their quest to become popular and get with hot girls. There’s the sexually explicit language (and yes, it is pretty explicit), the bleeped out swear words, and the pre-requisite fantasy sequence where the object of RJ’s desire slow-walks towards the camera, with wind machine blowing and strips down to sexy underwear. We’ve seen all this before.

But as the first episode unfolds, we begin to delve into RJ’s life. He isn’t a single-focussed dweeb with nothing running through his brain but sex sex sex. The show is more about his search for acceptance. His desired to be liked, to be popular. To no longer be on the outskirts, the wastelands of highschool society. And no matter what happens, no matter how many steps forward he takes, even when the whole school accidentally finds out about his massive appendage, he still can’t catch a break. As RJ notes “They still find a way to tear me down.”

We care for RJ. We care that he feels alone and unwanted. And we know that this is temporary, that he’ll be fine once he grows up and leaves highschool. But that’s the future and doesn’t change the fact that his life is difficult now. We’ve all been there. We know things will get better but that doesn’t mean that what’s happening now is any easier. I hated highschool. Things got a lot better. But at times it was hard to see the big picture. Which makes RJ’s pain my pain. I empathise with the main character and I’m sure many other teenagers will too.

RJ is seeking acceptance and popularity. He has a deep longing for these things. Parallel to this is his pursuit of sex. He’s bought into the lie that sex is the only thing that’s important, that it will fill the holes in his life. RJ is looking in the wrong places. He wants to belong, to be part of something. However, because of the damage sin has done to this world, we’re always going to be searching and never finding. Our self-worth cannot and will not be fulfilled by being popular with the cool kids, being accepted by our peers, or having sex with beautiful people. These things are broken and flawed and will not last. You want true acceptance? Look to God. He doesn’t care if you’re one of the cool kids. He doesn’t care if you’re awkward and scrawny. He doesn’t care what size your penis is. God wants you to be part of his crew. He’s opening up his arms and saying come on in. Hanging with the cool kids won’t solve your problems. Hanging with the creator of the universe will.

“Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:12-13)

The Hard Times of RJ Berger surprised me. I was expecting a smut-filled gross out comedy. Instead I got a show about the difficulties of adolescence. That doesn’t mean that the explicit language isn’t there. It is. But I’m willing to look past it and see where this is going.

Hard Times begins tonight on MTV Australia. Go! will pick it up later in the year.

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