Reflections on perhaps the most derivative, melodramatic, and unoriginal, genre of television.
In a bit of a change for this blog, today I’ll complain about popular culture.
In time as a high school student, I had trouble finding a show that “spoke to” my experiences in any sort of realistic manner. I was always mildly surprised by the size of the “reality gap” between teen shows and my own life.
Were I to create a teen show that accurately portrayed something approaching my own adolescence, I would strive for a sense of realism, as close to verisimilitude as possible. The show would begin with the character waking up and leaving his house, taking the short bus ride to the subway station, only to miss the train as he comes down the stairs and as a result wait another 10 minutes. The lunch period would be the focal point of each episode, and each story arc would revolve around some myopic, asinine social conflict stemming from each lunch period conversation.
The table would bring most, but not all of the main characters together. An aspect that would be played for further conflict are situations in which those at the lunch table would talk about someone not at the table. To preserve realism, all drinking, drug use, and sex would happen off-screen, but be discussed at the lunch table (to convey the relative rarity of excitement in the lives of the characters). In the proud tradition of The Wire, each season would have a series of story arcs pivoting back to a central topic, so one season would be about adjusting to high school, another one would be about the characters dealing with the important moment/money grubbing racket that is the college process, and so on.
(Perhaps) fortunately for network television executives, I am not in a programming development position. However, there are 3 major shows that I want to discuss in terms of their realism and general artistic value, starting with a program that might have renewed cultural currency in light of the Occupy movement.
Gossip Girl (2007—present), that is. The show (based on the hit YA series) follows the exploits and adventures of what are mostly the children of the “one percent,” as a certain movement has imprinted into our discourse. I was only able to get past the first 3 episodes before deciding I had better things to do with my time, but a few things about the series stuck out to me. Firstly, the almost total disconnection of the lives of those portrayed to any sort of objective reality—at least for the rest of us. The series began with one of the characters returning from boarding school—apparently she behaved in a manner her parents found unsavory—and adjusting to the friendships made in her absence. Aside from the obviously opulent lifestyles of most of the characters, the show painted, perhaps accurately, the parents of the characters as particularly manipulative; a character having relationship troubles with his girlfriend is advised to “make it work” because of business dealings he was having with her father. Still, the show, like most teen shows, is entertaining escapism because its so clearly different from reality. I just didn’t see the point in the escapism here.
Degrassi [The Next Generation] (2001—∞ [technically present, but don’t discount the possibblity of the show running forever]) is perhaps one of the few Canadian television shows to make a major impression in the United States. The “next generation” in the title comes from the fact that there was a previous series several decades ago that involved the same universe, with some of the characters from then sprinkled through (among the show’s massive cast) as parents and teachers in the current iteration. Anyhows, this show comes closest to portraying a “normal” adolescence; the kids are average, not too smart or stupid, and the high school is “only” a high school; not a backdrop for some other fantastical setup. That isn’t to say the show wasn’t melodramatic at times; to keep it interesting enough with a group of normal kids (and to be able to claim that the show provided “teachable moments”) many story arcs involved the realistic handling of relatively unusual situations; there was a school shooting, a student was stabbed, several characters got pregnant, etc. One episode that sticks out to me is when a character working at the local cafe is taken hostage (on her shift, of course) by a gun wielding student. Still, the program was generally interesting and it seemed as if the producers were making an honest effort to reflect reality. Unlike in the other two shows, teachers and parents seemed to actually care about the kids and their well being. That’s not to say that they were always right, just that they weren’t completely uncaring.
Whether or not that can be said for the British import Skins is less certain (I did not waste my time with the reportedly mediocre US version). I first found out about the program from a piece in the “Sunday Styles” section of the New York Times several years ago when it was making its US debut, and came around to watching it. While I applaud the show for having teenaged actors (similar to Degrassi) and being written by people young enough to have actually experienced adolescence in this day and age, I’m still uncertain whether they intend to portray reality or an caricature of it. I put intend in there because the latter is what I actually see in the program. As flagged in the Times piece (and as easily observable in the first generation of characters) the show portrays a very anti-adult sentiment; the parents are too busy obsessing over each other, or fighting with each other, or simply not giving a shit to pay attention to their kids and their rather medicated lives. In a completely different context; such as the old Cartoon Network program Codename Kids Next Door, such a cartoonish portrayal of adults would be vaguely charming. Here the inattention parents show is pretty disturbing. The unavoidable other aspect of the show is the sex and drug use. The question is, are they an example of art imitating life (as the creators/writers claim), or is it leading to life imitating art? Do most teens actually live as the show portrays, or does the show “glorify” (as the moralizers at the Parents Television Council would have it) such a lifestyle? I come down in the middle. Sure the kids don’t “die” from their bad habits, but by the same token watching the show can also be an “outlet” for seeing these things played out in a risk-free, at one’s viewing pleasure sort of environment. Either way, as a piece of entertainment it’s an entertaining watch. As a guide to how teenagers today live, I’d leave the moral outrage at home.