When Carter Covington first heard the premise for the new MTV show Faking It, which premieres April 22, it seemed unrealistic — and maybe offensive. The show is about two high-school girls who pretend to be lesbians in order to become popular so that they can get elected homecoming queens; Covington worried that they would only be faking it “because straight guys find lesbians hot.”
But now, Covington is Faking It’s showrunner, and the plot is based partially on his own real-life experiences. “I said, if I tried this, I really wanted one of the girls to have genuine feelings for her best friend, and to explore what that feels like,” he tells TIME. “That’s something as a gay man that I went through in the closet in high school, to have crushes on my friends and not be able to say anything.”
And that’s not where the real-life inspirations stop. Though the fictional high school Faking It presents is a far cry from the stereotypical schools of pop culture — jocks and cheerleaders on top, with kids subjected to bullying for being different —Covington says that his vision of high school is just an exaggerated version of reality, not a fairy tale.
“It isn’t this monolith that we expect, that high school’s just this horrible place for gay youth,” Covington says, citing his experience working with the Trevor Project as the source for his knowledge of the wide variety of experiences among today’s gay teens. “There are places where you’re celebrated for being an individual. I decided to take that and run with it and turn it into a high school that is the most accepting and tolerant high school that we’ve seen on television.”
And, he says, high school is the right time to set a story like Faking It: characters are of the age when “experimentation and questioning” is normal and, for teens of every orientation, sexuality is being defined. Covington notes that, until Faking It, he had no particular desire to revisit high school creatively after working on Greek and 10 Things I Hate About You. “If you told me five years ago that I’d be doing another high school show I would have laughed,” he says; “I thought I’d said everything I had to say.”
In a way, those other shows led him to this one: he was first brought on by Mina Lefevre, who came to MTV in early 2013 as head of scripted programming from ABC Family, home of Covington’s previous shows Greek and 10 Things I Hate About You.
Covington raves about working with the network; he claims that the relatively low budgets available to him as a showrunner at MTV — compared to the budget for a big network drama — were a big help, and may be part of the reason why the network has become a reliable home of innovative scripted programming for teens (like Awkward). He was encouraged to cast unknowns, to reach out to crew from the indie film world and to work with people who might be dismissed as unqualified if there were more money to hire TV veterans. “Once everybody accepts that they have half as much money as a network show but need it to look the same [as a network show], people get creative,” he says. But also he knows that the MTV audience is picky and tough to impress. Still, though audiences have yet to decide whether they’ll actually watch Faking It, there’s one thing Covington isn’t so worried about: whether they’ll think it’s, well, fake.
“My hope is that the MTV audience will watch this and find it funny but also be like, we’re just now getting a show like this?” he says. “If you look around the country, attitudes are changing about LGBT rights, but they’ve already changed among young people.”