The Kids Are Not Alright and Deep in Scandal in Netflix’s ‘Baby’

Netflix’s “Baby” is another one of those series about how in TV land high school can become an arena for sex and depravity. Netflix’s most recent European import, this time from Italy, falls somewhere between serious and trashy, never fully knowing which one it wants to be. It’s not poorly produced, with exceptional performances and moments that could have made for guilty pleasure viewing. Maybe it’s because we are so used to this kind of content being set in boring old American suburbia that switching to those ancient Roman streets automatically gives it more glamor. But take away the Tiber and switch it to English and we’re left with just more kids being really, really bad. It also seeks to play around with a real dicey topic, underage prostitution, without truly taking into account the implications.

Benedetta Porcaroli plays Chiara, who attends private school and dreams of going on a trip abroad to run track in the United States. Her best friend is Camilla (Chabeli Sastre), who is unaware that Chiara is secretly sleeping with her brother. Chiara has been getting close to another girl, Ludovica (Alice Pagani), an outsider who gets singled out for being caught in a sex tape with an ex. New to the campus is Damiano (Riccardo Mandolini), the moody son of the ambassador to Lebanon, but apparently born from an Italian mother, now deceased. Needless to say these kids have some real baggage, made worse by the fact that their parents tend to be clueless, authoritarian or moral hypocrites. Ludovica begins pulling Chiara into her own nightlife of nightclubs and drinking. A recent lover of Ludovica, Fiore (Giuseppe Maggio), starts scheming with a shady nightclub figure, Saverio (Paolo Calabresi), to start making money off the girls’ good looks.

It can’t be denied that “Baby” is actually quite watchable in a junk food for the brain sense. This first season is composed of six episodes smartly spanning 40 to 48 minutes in length. Surely it is aware it’s a soap opera made with the glossy look of modern teenage TV angst. The writers and directors, Andrea De Sica and Anna Negri, might have been inspired by the 2013 “baby squillo” teen prostitution scandal that rocked the Italian ruling class. But if that’s the case they should have been a little bolder. “Baby” spends most of its first episodes delivering a combination of “Thirteen Reasons Why” and “Riverdale,” yet lacking the literary seriousness of the former and trashy madness of the latter. We have seen these characters before in countless American melodramas. Chiara is the good girl slowly being lured into the dark side by Ludovica, Damiano is the outcast who instantly attracts Chiara because he’s, well, dark and mysterious. Their world is compressed into one of Rome’s elite zones, so the villains tend to either be street gangsters or spoiled rich kids. As you can already guess there are several teen parties that turn sour, most memorably one where Ludovica’s sex tape is screened for everybody. You also cannot have a series about the hell of high school without a few bathroom scenes where secrets are shared or threats made. Pop songs inevitably score everything, hoping to defeat the curse of bad aging as time will go by.

What does make “Baby” slightly better than some of its American cousins in the CW is that it tries occasionally to flirt with real drama amid all the sexed up intrigue. When the characters deal with down to earth problems the show can feel more authentic. Chiara’s parents are separated and she catches her father with another woman, prompting tension that can erupt over something as simple as a permission slip to travel. Ludovica has one of those mothers is a nervous wreck. When she visits her own father’s wedding she overhears a devastating conversation about her as a failure that would shatter anyone’s self-esteem. In general this is a good cast, with Alice Pagani almost evoking early Winona Ryder. Paolo Calabresi oozes underworld corruption as the pimp in the making Saverio.

What “Baby” lacks is just more edge. The whole prostitution angle barely registers even near the end, almost as if the showrunners want to tease the audience with its potential for scandal. They might suspect this material isn’t designed in a serious enough fashion to even explore such a topic, but then they should have conjured some better, scandalous twists and turns. It’s a mixed bag that only succeeds in confirming that it’s not just an American trend, but that everywhere the kids are not alright.

Baby” season one premieres Nov. 30 on Netflix.