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Television: Their Major Is Alienation

7 minute read
James Poniewozik

Talk about school overcrowding: as if in a communal anxiety dream, TV has returned en masse to high school, offering a quartet of new takes on socialization and its discontents. On NBC’s 1980 period piece Freaks and Geeks (scheduled for a Sept. 25 debut, 8 p.m. E.T.), the pencil-necked latter scurry from gym-class bruisers wielding dodge balls. On Fox’s Manchester Prep (not yet scheduled), the tormentors are the rich preppies in the secret society the Manchester Tribunal, their weapon psychological cruelty. And the WB’s Popular (to bow Sept. 29 and 30; regularly Thursdays, 8 p.m. E.T.) has outsiders alienated by social castes and beauty-magazine standards; the network’s Roswell (Oct. 6, 9 p.m. E.T.), UFO-crash orphans alienated for being alien.

The business motive behind these shows–and other new series with major teen characters, or spin-offs of teen hits (The Parkers, Angel, Time of Your Life)–is simple enough: success breeds imitators, and the large (about 31 million), fickle 12-to-19-year-old demographic draws ad money. But the economics alone don’t explain the high school vogue, nor why the shows include a couple of the fall’s better premieres. True, high school programs are still often mired in soap-opera plots–see the randy Manchester, whose early glimpses just miss so-bad-it’s-good status–but they are also attracting writers and producers seeking to make statements and referencing hot-button issues and carrying credits like The Larry Sanders Show, The X-Files and My So-Called Life on their resumes.

“Adolescence is a great period of time to write about,” says Jason Katims, once a writer for MSCL and creator of the acclaimed but short-lived romantic drama Relativity, whose brooding alien-human love story Roswell follows three teenage aliens as they evade discovery and seek their origins. “It’s where so much of you is formed and the themes that will follow you your whole adult life are born.” And doing a show about it is a great means of getting noticed. TV has fed the teen beast before, but these programs now enjoy cultural prominence, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek becoming emblems of post-feminist girlhood, sex, violence, name your issue, in a way that Saved by the Bell never did. Today you hardly hear the word teen without angst following, but what these series display is adult angst with perkier buns and better clothes, grownups positing kids as canaries in the societal coal mine. Whither the world of tomorrow? these shows ask. And what designers will it wear?

Columbine High, where social-outcast status turned to murderous outrage, didn’t create these series, but it lent them urgency, focusing as each does on that basic high school and Hollywood concern: popularity. Set in America’s laboratories of tyranny, empathizing with misfits, the shows purvey the myth that much as there were suddenly no Nazis in Germany after V-E day, there are now apparently almost no former popular high school kids. “I very much identified myself as an outsider [in high school],” says Katims. “I was king of the geeks,” says Manchester Prep creator Roger Kumble. “I totally think I’m a geek,” says Leslie Bibb, who plays a knockout cheerleader on Popular.

And what, after all, is popularity? Popularity–basing cliques on money and genes and je ne sais quoi–is class with training wheels. In a country that pretends it is entirely middle class, high school series serve as surrogate examinations of social barriers. (Or certain ones: while the great dramatic potential of high school comes from its throwing together kids whose parents don’t work or play together, these shows are almost uniformly white.) This In crowd-obsessed setting comes as close as is Nielsen-feasible to admitting that class is still in session: that it does matter where you were born and what you own, that there are invisible psychological obstacles to moving outside your circle, that social mobility is hardly frictionless. When school brain Lindsay Weir on Freaks, for instance, mixes with a crowd of rebels, she is dallying with kids who, as one puts it, “shoplift in [her] daddy’s store.” Roswell, likewise, explores nature-vs.-nurture questions through its teen aliens–two were adopted by a well-off family; the other grew up poorer in unloving foster homes–though Katims is cautious not to come off as issue oriented: “If you have a message,” he says, “send a telegram.”

Whereas Popular–in which a gorgeous, blond teen goddess and a gorgeous (but brunet) rebel become stepsisters-to-be–appears to have Western Union on speed dial. The original pilot (which is being expanded to two hours) takes on body image, eating disorders and virginity, just for starters. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews talk excitedly about future theme issues: cheating, fame, the social pecking order (Bibb’s cheerleader is named Brooke McQueen–get it?). They aim to make, as Murphy calls it, “a Zeitgeist show” that nails the teen experience du jour with rapid-response precision; they repeat “reality” and “real” like mantras.

But can adults create a realistic high school show? Does anyone want them to? High school shows succeed by offering sexy fantasies (Dawson) or outlandish stories that ring psychologically true (Buffy). What may save Popular is not its pandering to hipness but its willingness to skewer social haves and have-nots and its satiric, Heathers-ish flourishes (the popular girls, e.g., hang out in a velvety school powder room called “the Novak,” as in Kim). Freaks, a sweet and funny character study, is probably the “realest” of the bunch and the best fall drama aimed at any demographic. But it is two decades removed from the way teens live now, with good reason: “We couldn’t recreate high school today,” creator Paul Feig cheerfully concedes. “All the slang would be 10 years old.”

The irony is that Freaks, the least strenuously hip of the shows, may stand the strongest chance of controversy. The “freaks” of the title are Led Zeppelin-listening Midwestern burnouts who smoke–not just tobacco, of course. “The show will never be pro pot,” executive producer Judd Apatow avers. “But every time a kid smokes pot, you can’t show him coughing and retching and losing his mind.”

The variety of genres the high school-show class of ’99 covers may be attempts to stand out in a crowded field. Garth Ancier, president of entertainment at NBC, helped set off the teen explosion while he was programming head at the WB, but says a shakeout could be due. “Generally, the originators of these trends succeed, and maybe one copy.” Perhaps for this reason, it is difficult to get high school-drama creators to admit they’re creating high school dramas. Freaks, NBC insists, aims more “mature”; Popular, says its co-creator Murphy, is “a comedy…we don’t look at this as a high school show.” Manchester Prep is Dynasty; Roswell is Beauty and the Beast.

One doubts, however, that the teen connections hurt at the pitch meetings. Three seasons ago, Katims’ wonderful Relativity had class consciousness, star-crossed lovers and an odd, appealing ensemble–and it bombed. This year the WB gave Roswell a 22-episode commitment. Explains WB entertainment president Susanne Daniels: “What Relativity lacked in a hook or an angle, Roswell offers in spades.” That and a gold-plated audience. Much has been made of TV’s slavish emphasis on the youth demographic (which makes young-skewing shows “hot” out of proportion to their total ratings), but it could at best allow a talented writer to succeed with a well-crafted story of limited appeal. As long as he or she learns how to tell it through 16-year-olds in tight jeans.

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