01 October 2009

TV for Children. But not really.

Threat Quality Press | On "Glee"

The problem with writing for teenagers is this: you either a) write them like adults, in which case it’s unbelievable and no one wants to watch it, or b) you write them like teenagers, in which case they’re a bunch of idiots and no one wants to watch it. Or, at least, I don’t want to watch it.
Bingo.

I think that's one of the reasons I like Friday Night Lights. Most of the teenage characters are struggling to be adults, so you actually can write them like adults. They aren't "struggling to be adults" as in wearing slutty clothes and staying out late and smoking cigarettes to prove how mature they are, they're struggling to be adults as in Mom split town and Dad is a contractor in Iraq and now you're stuck taking care of your demented grandmother. (I'm not making that up. That's what the star quarterback has to deal with when he gets off the field.) Three other characters are dealing with only very slightly less dysfunctional families. Two are struggling with life-altering injuries, and one of those has also fathered a child before he's twenty. Only two characters, Landry Clarke and Julie Taylor, are dealing with relatively "normal" teenage problems — in her case, overprotective parents who don't want her to grow up so fast and also happen to be the principal and football coach of her school, and in his case a disinterested father and unrequited love for a largely unattainable girl, coupled with geeky social outsiderness. The three other main characters actually are adults, so for a high school-centric show there's a lot of leeway to write the characters like adults.

I think Freaks and Geeks succeeded despite having teenage characters because it didn't try to make the standard high school problems any more or less than they really were. Typical adolescent problems are, in the grand scheme of things, not important. And yet to the people they affect, they are the entire world. I think Freaks and Geeks succeeded because it treated them about as seriously as they deserved, no more and no less. I'd call this the John Hughes approach. Sure, the characters are adolescents, but the problems of who you want to be, and how you define yourself, and how much you value social acceptance, and how much control other people have over your life are problems we don't grow out of when we get a diploma. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is about three high school kids (well, two really — Sloan is just along for the ride) skipping school, but you could have written the same movie about two 28 year old guys skipping work one day. Replace Dean Rooney with a gung-ho middle manager (or Dwight Schrute), replace Ferris' clueless mother with a clueless wife and his jealous sister with a jealous sister-in-law, replace Cameron's overbearing father with ... actually just leave him as an overbearing father. Done. You could have a nice Apatow bromance comedy, you could have a Mike Judge working man humor thing, you could have a decent mublecore indie flick. You choose.

But I digress. (As always. It's part of my charm.) Other than those two shows, I can't think of any other shows I like with predominantly young characters. I hear Buffy dealt with this matter well, but I've only seen the pilot. Gilmore Girls is nominally 50% about a child, and is much less in actuality. Anything I'm missing?

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