VC Star: Personal Demons

This is an article in my local TV Star section for this week. It’s from The Ventura County Star and there’s a picture Nick, Shiri, Jason and Majandra in caps and gowns and Adam and Katherine in the background. The caption reads: “Alien and human students are graduating in the series finale of ‘Roswell’ this week, but are they ready for the real, cold world? Starring from left are Nick Weschsler as Kyle Valenti, Adam Rodriguez as Jesse, Katherine Heigl as Isabel Evans, Shiri Appleby as Liz Parker, Jason Behr as Max Evans, and Majandra Delfino as Maria DeLuca.”

Personal demons
Growing up isn’t easy on young angst shows

By Dave Mason
May 12, 2002

— Buffy Summers has saved the world many times, but she can’t turn all her bills into dust.

— On “Smallville,” Clark Kent has to keep his abilities a secret from his high school buddies while trying to learn who the heck he is.

— On “Felicity,” the title character is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life.

Whatever your abilities – or superpowers – it isn’t easy being young.

That fact attracts young viewers to teen and young-adult angst programs. They relate to these characters. And that’s good news for advertisers whose favorite demographic is the young and the uncertain. After all, teen-agers’ and young adults’ buying tastes haven’t been shaped yet, and advertisers know it, said Robert W. Gustafson, director of the entertainment industry institute at California State University, Northridge.

Teen angst built a network: The WB. Never mind that it isn’t the No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 network; frankly, the executives there aren’t having angst over that. The WB is achieving its goal of luring young female viewers. UPN, meanwhile, is succeeding in drawing its primary target, young male viewers, and has gained female viewers with its acquisition of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Teen angst is enough to make Hollywood’s Spidey sense tingle. “Spider-Man” is a comic book metaphor for a teen-ager suddenly getting the power to achieve all his dreams (professional and romantic). The movie version is the first film to gross more than $100 million in its first weekend.

“The fantasy is you’re seeing independent young people,” CSUN’s Gustafson said. “They’re so eloquent and so professional. These people never say, ‘What? I don’t get it.'”
Russell Stockard Jr., assistant professor of communciations at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said the teen angst phenomenon has been around a long time. He cited the James Dean movie, “Rebel Without A Cause.” That film showed a teen-ager wrestling with his identity and his relationship with his parents.

Teen angst gets viewers to watch and endlessly debate shows. Hundreds post messages every day to Internet chat lists devoted to shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Fans have expressed disappointment that Buffy (SarahMichelle Gellar) is so miserable this season. Her worst demons currently are her personal ones.

Well, fear not, Buffy will be back to staking vampires next season, Executive Producer Marti Noxon said. “Next season, the Buffy character will be at a more heroic place. She’ll be more in her girl-power element. It won’t be quite so dark.”

But sacrifice goes with being a hero, a lesson that comes with growing up.

“There’s a long, long tradition. The hero is alone,” Gustafson said. “A person who is very strong and independent is alone.”

And that’s one reason kids can relate to characters like Buffy, Gustafson said. “Even though kids are in families, they think of themselves as alone. They can’t relate to their parents. They see themselves as essentially alone, even though they’re not.”

Gustafson added that Buffy also appeals to viewers because she shows the smallest person in the room can defeat the big, bad guys.

Teen-agers often feel like they’re picked on and are too small or too powerless to do anything about it.

That feeling of a David taking on Goliath draws viewers to shows like “Buffy” and movies like “Spider-Man.” When insecure Peter Parker gets his Spidey powers and can fight the bullies, it’s a victory for every kid who has ever been teased. Teen angst shows and movies are about empowerment, literally and metaphorically.

Never a big ratings hit, “Roswell” has kept a loyal following of fans by showing kids becoming more independent from their families, school and society. Tuesday’s series finale features a graduation ceremony unlike most. It’s a metaphor for the fact high school can’t shelter us forever from the cold, real world.

“By the end of the day, this show has been about growing up,” Executive Producer Jason Katims said.

On “Felicity,” star Russell and the writers have shown the title character becoming more independent from her father, who has disapproved of her career choice to be an artist. He threatened to cut off his financial help for college.

Felicity said that was fine with her.

“That was really a strong move for her, to say, ‘I’ll pay for college,’ ” Executive Producer Matt Reeves said. “I think she’s matured a lot. She’s become a lot more self-sufficient.”

During a break in shooting, Russell talked about her character’s evolution.

“In the beginning, so many of her choices involved getting away from her parents and discovering who she is. She’s making choices, not all good choices. It’s learning to take responsibility for those choices. It’s having the courage to own your mistakes. I think it’s great she’s had to pay for school and work a million jobs like college kids do.”

Reeves said that trial has been crucial for Felicity. “You find out more about yourself when you’re tested.”

Felicity and the other characters are graduating from college and entering the real world for the first time. “The stakes increase dramatically when you get out of college,” Reeves said. “I think there’s a message in having the courage and commitment to follow your dreams.”

The two-hour series finale of “Felicity” will air May 22 on The WB.

Gaining independence from parents plays a key part in the proposed WB series “Prep.” The pilot episode of the boarding school comedy was recently filmed at California State University, Channel Islands inCamarillo.

The WB will announce this week whether the show will air next season.

Sure, independence is great – or is it? There’s no running away from your angst at this school, and Mom and Dad aren’t around to give you the answers.

“The person you have problems with in chemistry class is the person you see the next morning in the bathroom,” said James Storeraux, one of the show’s creators and co-executive producers.

Many teen-age viewers prefer to see their problems presented in a supernatural format, Noxon said.

Which perhaps is one reason for the success of “Smallville.”

Kids relate to Clark Kent (Tom Welling) on “Smallville” because they too feel like they have to keep their real identity a secret or risk being criticized or laughed at, Gustafson said.

Not yet Superman, Clark is trying to figure out who he is, why he has these powers and what they mean. Why is he here?

Buffy has asked herself that question a lot. She’s died twice and lived to tell about it.

Her friend, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), inadvertently dragged her out of heaven to face her responsibilities on Earth.

“I think she (Buffy) is showing she has become more responsible for herself,” Noxon said. “She called (her relationship with the vampire Spike) off because she has become more grown up.”

And Willow has had to overcome her addiction to witchcraft. It’s an obvious metaphor for recovering from drug abuse, but Noxon said the symbolism goes beyond that.

“To my mind, what we’re saying is, ‘You can take the girl out of the nerd, but you can’t take the nerd out of the girl.’ Power corrupts us because we don’t think of ourselves as beautiful and wonderful in our own right.”

The storyline was about Willow finding out she’s cool without her magic, but that plot is a bit sidetracked by last Tuesday’s episode. Willow ended up looking for revenge after Warren of the Legion of Nerds – at least, that’s what I call them – shot and apparently killed her lover, Tara (Amber Benson).

If Willow doesn’t rise above her understandable anger, Warren isn’t safe.

Her eyes have turned red, and the dark magic is stirred up in her. I can feel the cold, fierce wind blowing. And I think she’s about to float off the ground. Egads!
Never underestimate the power of young angst.