NEW YORK — Finding an identity is hard enough for a 16-year-old girl without learning that life as you know it is based on a lie.
That's the premise behind a smart new MTV drama, "Finding Carter," that debuts Tuesday (10 p.m. EDT). The title character, after being thrown in jail with her friends following a night of mischief, is told the woman she thought was her mother abducted her at age 3.
Immediately, she's sent "home" to an alien world: a hard-edged mom, an author-father, a twin sister, a new school and community.
"Even though not a lot of people have been abducted and found safe, a lot of people have been through some kind of trauma and it has changed the way they think about the world," said actress Kathryn Prescott, who portrays the title character. "They have to become comfortable with a different kind of world than they thought."
Prescott, a Londoner, ditches her British accent to play the American teenager. Terri Minsky, creator of "Lizzie McGuire," writes and produces the series from a script bought by MTV from another writer. Since Minsky just sent her own daughter to college, she found it appealing to write about a mother and daughter — two mothers, really.
Minsky packs the debut episode with details and twists that set up a season's worth of possibilities. Carter's mom is a cop who comes off as cold and untrusting of Carter and, oh, is cheating on her husband. Dad is a struggling writer who wrote a book about the search for his daughter, and his agent sniffs a lucrative sequel. Carter is a wild child with a boyfriend from her old life, but she comes on to a new guy that her twin is interested in.
"I wanted to have something that was deeper than 'we're the family who got our daughter back,'" Minsky said.
Carter's instant return to a family she doesn't remember, with a younger brother born after the kidnapping, is the series' one false note. In reality, you'd expect a more gradual transition.
In the debut, Carter's mom suffers from comparison to the woman Carter believed was her mother, who competes with the girl over who can say "I love you" the most. It's not that simple, of course. Carter must come to terms with the fact that "mom" is a criminal.
"Here was a chance to split the mother into two personalities, which is what most mothers are," Minsky said. "You want to be your daughter's best friend, but you have to be their parent."
Minsky's vision of "Finding Carter" was informed by her own station in life. As a mother, the former journalist gives more attention to the women involved than the original, younger developer of the idea, who had a greater focus on Carter's rebelliousness.
Minsky's character development attracted actress Cynthia Watros, a mother of twins in real life who plays the parent of twin girls in "Finding Carter." ''You don't have to go far as a mother to tap into those feelings of how unbelievably painful it would be if one of your children went missing," Watros said.
As the series proceeds, a fuller portrait of her character, Elizabeth, emerges. How would it change a woman to go through such a nightmare, particularly when you know your husband was in the house when your daughter was abducted?
MTV has high hopes for "Finding Carter," part of a new emphasis on scripted series signaled by the hiring of Susanne Daniels as programming chief two years ago. Minsky said friends in the industry often said she'd find a kindred spirit in Daniels, a veteran television executive best known for her time at the former WB network.
MTV's audience is packed with teenage girls, but Minsky is shooting for more.
"My fantasy is that mothers and daughters will watch it together," she said.