Best and Worst from Teen Screen

This is an older article I found in the NY Daily News.

Best and Worst from Teen Screen

October 11, 1999
by Eric Mink

Television just can’t resist teenagers: If you’re the writer/producer of a drama, making teens part of your ensemble gives you instant access to adolescent angst, the search for identity and, of course, raging hormones. Those exact same qualities make teens equally irresistible as targets of sitcom jokes that are all-but-universally understood.

And if you’re a network looking to sell ads to soft drink and snack-food manufacturers, to marketers of trendy clothing and to movie distributors, you’re much more likely to attract the teenage viewers they want if you have teenage characters in your shows.

The just-launched TV season includes six new shows in which teens and their principal area of combat, high school, figure prominently, if not exclusively: NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks,” ABC’s “Odd Man Out,” Fox’ “Get Real” and the WB’s “Roswell,” “Safe Harbor” and “Popular.”

There would have been a seventh, a nasty little concoction for Fox called “Manchester Prep,” but the show developed grave problems in concept and production. After a couple of postponements, it was canceled last week before it ever got on the air.

And that doesn’t count other new shows in which teens and their troubles figure as important supporting elements — ABC’s “Once and Again,” for example.

Even six shows qualifies as a minitrend — the apparent result of networks inexplicably trying to mimic such hotly hyped but lowly rated teen-oriented WB shows as “Felicity” — but it’s a long way from unprecedented.

Take the current crop’s ostensible ancestor: the teen soap “Beverly Hills 90210.” Hailed — mistakenly, I think — as breakthrough teen programming when it premiered on Fox in 1990, “90210” was only echoing a TV tradition stretching at least as far back as the ahead-of-its-time “Room 222” (1969) and the cosmically dumb “Welcome Back, Kotter” (1975).

And if the bones of many a forgettable teen show litter the TV-show graveyard, the gleaming reputations and warm memories of others persist. Among them: “The White Shadow” (1978), “The Wonder Years” (1988) and “My So-Called Life” (1994), arguably the best coming-of-age drama series ever.

This year’s batch is all over the map, from the sublime to the pathetic. Now that we’ve sailed past the premieres and into the season, here’s a critical assessment:

“Freaks and Geeks” (Saturdays at 8, NBC). This is a beautifully written and acted show, set in 1980 and sensitively attuned to the fragility of teenagers in high school. On the surface, the show pits categories of kids against one another, but it’s clear that most differences are just that: superficial. Honest, heartfelt and funny.

“Get Real” (Wednesdays at 9, Fox). It’s not getting much of an audience, but this distinctive, quirky and very smart family drama shows unusual respect for all its characters, adults included. A terrific cast and a fresh, invigorating sensibility.

“Roswell” (Wednesdays at 9, WB). The fact that three of the high-school kids are space aliens isn’t played for cheap laughs but, rather, underscores the outsiders’ nature of teenage perspectives on life. A deft blend of drama, humor and suspense.

“Popular” (Thursdays at 8, WB). Despite occasional moments that ring true, this show is undermined by an impossibly beautiful cast of actors who look 15 years too old to be the high-schoolers they’re playing.

“Odd Man Out” (Fridays at 8:30, ABC). It’s appropriate for ABC’s waning TGIF lineup, but otherwise this is an unwatchable sitcom about a lone teenage boy living with sisters, an aunt and a widowed mother.

“Safe Harbor” (Mondays at 9, WB). Another attempt at family drama by the creator of WB’s fine “Seventh Heaven,” but this one just seems to be going through the motions.

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