The twist on MTV's newest drama "Finding Carter" sounds like the premise for a Lifetime made-for-TV film: a teenager girl finds out her mom had kidnapped her 13 years earlier and is forced to live with her biological parents. On top of that, her biological mom is a cop who wants to track down the kidnapper, now a fugitive.
But the execution of this show, shot in Atlanta but set in Virginia, isn't quite that grim.
The teen in question, Carter, is sharp and savvy. She has had a strong relationship with the woman she thought was her mom Lori. The opening scene of the first episode airing Tuesday night has a bit of that kinetic, best friend "Gilmore Girls" feel as Carter and Lori debate romantic comedy tropes over frozen yogurt. (Not coincidentally, the current MTV president of programming Susanne Daniels oversaw the "Gilmore Girls" back in the day when she worked at the WB.)
For "Finding Carter" writer and executive producer Terri Minsky ("Less than Perfect," "Lizzie McGuire"), this series gave her an opportunity to mine her own life with her teen-age daughter.
"Carter is very much like my daughter, the way she talks," Minksy said. "My daughter and I have movie and frozen yogurt nights. We've had that exact same conversation about the fault of romantic comedies. The lines, 'I love you. No. I love you more. Not possible' is something I say to her all the time."
After Carter is caught by the cops for a minor infraction, she discovers that Lori is not who she says she is. And she is thrown into a family she doesn't remember: a twin sister, a younger brother and two parents who are strangers to her. The mother Elizabeth, played by Cynthia Watros ("Lost"), is now a cop tormented by Carter's absence.
Elizabeth, burdened by sadness and anger, struggles to connect with Carter, who views her with suspicion and sees her as a controlling robot. Minsky wrote her as a woman who spent the past 13 years desperately trying to hold on to her remaining family and not fall into an abyss.
"The cop mom is the part of me I wish I had more of," Minsky said. "I'm not a disciplinarian. So you have these polar opposites. It's a tremendous amount of fun to write."
Carter gets to know her fraternal twin sister Taylor, who is as straight laced as Carter is free spirited. Taylor has been weighted down by the loss her sister and her mom's overbearing control issues. Until Carter shows up, Taylor had never been to a party, much less gotten drunk. "Taylor grew up trying to be good enough for both twins," Minsky said.
Carter herself is resentful of her biological family and has no authority figures she can respect. She's a loose cannon and makes poor decisions in coming episodes, Minsky said. "She wants to get back to the life she used to lead but that life is gone," Minsky said.
Prescott plays Carter with a sardonic edge balanced with a likable level of sweetness. Watching the British actress during an audition, Minsky was instantly captivated: "She did this perfect American accent. She was adorable. She looks like a young Emma Stone."
The central mystery is why Lori (Milena Govich) kidnapped Carter. Minsky said that won't be resolved immediately. While Carter is very much supportive of her kidnapper/mom in the pilot, she will ultimately face those questions herself.
The first few episodes are set in the fall and the 12 episode season is supposed to end around November. The problem is shooting began in the spring and continues well into the current sweltering Atlanta summer. "We're supposed to be losing foliage but verdant Atlanta kept getting greener and greener," Minsky said. One way to deal with this is to minimize references to time so people don't focus on such details.
Minsky's primary goal is to create a show that mothers and daughters will watch together, something "Gilmore Girls" accomplished a decade ago.
Early reviews have been mixed though they are written by folks well outside the MTV demo. Variety's Brian Lowry said "what sounds like a highly provocative concept quickly devolves into a standard-issue, ABC Family-style soap." Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wonders how the show will balance the mystery and the teen drama plot lines, dubbing it "a harder-edged, less child appropriate version of ABC Family's 'Switched at Birth."
On the more positive side, Diane Werts of Newsday gave it an A-minus, saying ' "Finding Carter" isn't some teen show. It's a stellar drama." And the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts says " ' Finding Carter' stands out by avoiding the obvious."
"Finding Carter," 10 p.m. Tuesdays (starting July 8), MTV
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.