Before Judd Apatow finally found commercial success re-hashing the same, tired loser-centric take on the romantic comedy genre; before Seth Rogen became the unlikeliest of Hollywood-by-way-of-Canada leading men since Mike Meyers; before Jason Segel took some comedic respite in How I met your mother‘s prime time laugh track; before James Franco was making out with Sean Penn; before Lizzy Caplan was tripping on V with Jason Stackhouse or serving hors d’oeuvres alongside Martin Starr; before Rashida Jones was an Office/Parks and Recreation regular; they were all involved in Paul Feig’s amazing, one-season-long Freaks and geeks.
I’ll concede the possibility that at least some of my affection for the show derives from the fact that it was set in suburban Detroit circa 1980, say, half a generation before I myself was a skinny, prepubescent high school student obliviously fascinated with Stars wars (not to mention its mid-nineties equivalent, Magic:The gathering). Independently of my regional prejudice, however, I’ll maintain that Freaks and geeks was far and away the best teen drama ever to grace the small screen — beating out even that first spectacular season of Friday night lights FTW.
What made the show so exceptional, especially when compared to its more popular (populist?) peers, was the banality of its storylines, and its adamant refusal to be organized episodically (and ideologically) by adult-approved and/or Nielsen-whoring Teen Topics. During the all-too-brief 18-episode series, we’re not subjected to a single untimely teen death — no Johnny falling drunk from a cliff, no Marissa getting killed in a drunken car chase (and consequently no angry teen cage fights). There are no “diet pill” addictions. There are no teacher-student romances. There is no hot lesbian action.
The show’s minimalist approach to verisimilitude is nourished entirely by the kind of suburban teen microdrama that (I imagine) dominated the high school years of much of (lower) Middle (class) America through the 80s and 90s: the uncertainties of disassociating yourself from one group of friends in order to gain membership to another; boyfriends who kind of almost cheat on you with your best friend; the minor emasculations perpetrated by bullies, who in turn have their own emotional and familial problems; the physical confusions and insecurities associated with puberty, and with growing up more generally; the regimes of consumption that begin defining social groups after junior high; etc. etc. etc.
None of this is to say that teens don’t die in drunk driving accidents, or that there are no unprofessional student-teacher relationships in high school, or that teens can’t have hot lesbian sex — just that these sorts of storylines are cheap, easy, unfulfilling drama. It takes a sensitive observer of adolescent strife to produce a successful narrative without resorting to soap opera storylines. All the more disappointing, then, that homeboy Paul Feig hasn’t been able to direct that sensitivity toward equally successful analyses of young adulthood or beyond.
In closing, an incidental post-script, since I seem to have a thing for bashing P.T. Anderson lately: Freaks and geeks also deserves some serious respect for its very clever camerawork (showcased nicely in the clip above). It actually succeeds — as a meaningful, communicative device — where Anderson’s gimmickry (both in Boogie nights and Magnolia) failed.
Who could forget one of the most memorable teenage tv moments of the 90’s? The year was 1991, and Donna Martin had just been caught drunk at the West Beverly prom and was consequently banned from her own high school graduation. Because Donna, played by Tori Spelling, daughter of Executive Producer Aaron Spelling, was the learning-challenged virgin that every character on the show inexplicably adored, the whole school walked out on finals in protest and chanted in demand for her freedom: “Donna Martin Graduates!” And she hadn’t even gotten a boob job yet.
This moment of triumphant teen rebellion marked the peak of the ten season run of Beverly Hills 90210, a show that spanned the entire decade of the 90s. In its first three seasons, the show enjoyed some admittedly great tv moments (Brenda Walsh’s Cherry Pop at the Spring Fling, Brandon Walsh’s accidental “Euphoria” trip, Color Me Badd’s goateed serenade.) Make no mistake, Seasons 4-10 were nothing short of horrendous, each season progressively sadder and balder than the one before. But the show sparked my love affair with teen tv dramas, and everyone who knows me recognizes that I have a hard time letting go of the things I love. I watched the gang through college, and grad school, and colonoscopies.
It would be easy to say that this show stays with me because it came of age when I did. But, 90210 was not relatable in any way to my teenage life or probably anyone’s. (But that doesn’t seem to be the draw of teen dramas.) The show’s main characters, Minnesota twins Brenda and Brandon, were sorting out their mid-western identity clashes with their new Beverly Hills lifestyle. Maybe it mirrored my own East meets West drama, maybe I wanted a moody alcoholic boyfriend that looked ten years older than my friends, or maybe I thought Jason Priestley’s Canadian tuxedo was hot.
At the same time, I found the overpowering moral compass of the show, the Walsh family’s dogmatic ideals of right and wrong, so irritating. The first few seasons were driven by an issue-of-the-week plot line—dealing with issues regarding teen sex, diet pill addictions, drug and alcohol abuse, accidentally shooting yourself in the stomach, or dating your Mexican maid’s daughter, with each episode ending with some form of a bedside chat where the twins learn the difference between right and wrong. The parents, Jim and Cindy, who were far too average-looking to ever make it on tv now, always steered their gratingly earnest kids in the right direction and provided three nutritious meals per day.
Despite all of its lameness, the show enjoyed a period of brat-pack fame, and frankly, touched a place deep inside. But why? Was it that Darren Star wrote characters that I somehow cared about, even if I thought they were painful and embarrassing and stupid? Brenda and Brandon did seem to have a touching closeness. Dylan and Brenda’s relationship is one of the more heartfelt teen love affairs ever to be illustrated on the small screen, with all the drama and significance of your first boyfriend. Just think of the inadequacy of modern day comparisons – TheO.C.‘s Ryan Atwood and Marissa Cooper enjoyed a strong start but fizzled out because she died (and they didn’t even have sex until the third season), Gossip Girl’s Serena VDW and Dan Humphrey’s on and off-screen relationship could not be more tedious; and don’t get me started on the trash-whores on One Tree Hill, who always seem to be knocked up. (Does anyone even watch that show?)
One of the biggest differences between teen dramas of the 90s and the 21st Century is the swap of focus: where Aaron Spelling provided moralistic life lessons with a side of sex and back-stabbing and scandal, today’s shows focus entirely on the hyper-sexualized good stuff without the tiresome finger-wagging and pedantic conclusions, and even give the adults the same sex-driven plot lines as their kids. To be clear, I would much rather watch the MILFs on Gossip Girl sleep with a new guy every 6 episodes than listen to Cindy’s Walsh’s recipe for pot roast and clean living. But, the loss of a moral center seems to come at the expense of my not giving a crap about what happens to the characters on Gossip Girl, Privileged, or on the new 90210. Maybe it’s good to let go of one’s overwrought past and just enjoy the network filth.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
90210 v. 2.0 aired on the CW in late 2008, going for a stylishly updated take on the original. But, like Bobby Jindal’s national address which was meant to put a younger, fresher, browner face on the GOP, Version 2.0 is an unmitigated disaster. Like the original, the new incarnation follows a family of four from the mid-west that moves to Beverly Hills, with a son and a daughter of the same age. This time around, though, one of them is the puny, cutesy, and insipid Annie, who sounds like she smokes a pack of Winstons every day, and an adopted black son, Dixon, an unacceptable new role for The Wire’s Tristan Wilds (though it is funny to see him calling Full House’s Lori Loughlin “Mom” and Arrested Development’s Jessica Walters “Grandma.”)
The adopted black kid is a pretty fascinating update of the original. Did 2.0 choose this direction to make the mid-westerners seem less like hicks and more like benevolent, color-blind liberals? But color-blindness is so 90’s. Perhaps it is a purposeful and stark departure from the original, which sported just one black character in the first few seasons, who incidentally dressed like Malcolm Jamal Warner, (which was mitigated by his being admitted to Yale, dating the ugly chick Andrea, and only being on two episodes.) Despite being less obvious about his blackness, Dixon’s race isn’t completely ignored either, as he feels a bit odd in this new Whitey McWhiterson World (which has to be more diverse than Kansas, I would think, but whatever, I’ll take it for the actual race recognition.) Most likely, in ‘Jindal v. the Pork Volcano’ fashion, making a person of color a main character is so pioneering that it automatically makes a show (or a party) seem like it is in a new, hip, and politically relevant era. This way, the engineers of the re-branding can rehash old characters and tired story- lines and think no one will be the wiser because we are so mesmerized by inter-racial relationships, blogs, sexting, brown guys, and tea-bagging.
Along with the rehashed story lines, the key component of the failed comeback (and the reason I keep watching) is the return of the West Bev, circa 1990, BFFs. Kelly Taylor is now the guidance counselor who has mothered deadbeat dad Dylan’s baby, Brenda Walsh is the drama teacher who has returned from England where she was exiled after the fourth season of 1.0, and Donna Martin just arrived on the scene this week as a fashion designer, only big in Japan, and if possible, seems even more drag-tastic and mentally challenged than her younger self. Jennie Garth has held up kind of well, but the rest, including Nat who still runs the freaking Peach Pit, look like they should have stayed out of the California sun and not spent so much time at Botox Betty’s. At least they haven’t gotten Andrea Zuckerman out of her nursing home to play the gym teacher. At this point, the show is starting to seem like fan fiction, and just like with the crazy people who write that weirdness, you wonder what these writers are smoking.
(Or for those who don’t rely entirely on bittorrent for their TV habits…) January 2009 is going to get hot. The new season of Friday night lights — which is airing now on DirectTV, set to air on NBC in January — is back on track. Last season’s unfortunate detour has been disavowed like a bad Nyquil overdose: Landry is rightfully among the supporting cast again; Saracen’s Guatemalan nanny has returned to her people; Riggins isn’t distracted by the MILF next door; and Lyla has left Jesus in the dust. With the O.C.isms foregone (last night’s Ben Gibbard lead-out aside), the show’s central conflicts are being worked anew. A community’s systemic poverty and its totally fu-cocked set of priorities aren’t really things you can resolve in a single season, y’know?
I never would have thought a show about high school football could be so nuanced, but there you have it: my pick for best show on network TV. It’s so good it makes me forget, momentarily, that Explosions In The Sky are such monumental douchebags.