Before I took this gig as interim TV critic, I spent five years reviewing movies -- which means I got to see almost every teen movie of the late '90s. Some of them were good (10 Things I Hate About You); some were uneven, but likable (She's All That); some were uninspired retreads (Whatever It Takes).
But many followed the same formula: Water down a piece of classic literature (The Taming of the Shrew, Pygmalion, Cyrano de Bergerac), wrap it around a character who's just enough of a maverick to stay on the good side of popular; give that character a platonic friend who's obviously the perfect romantic match; insert lunchroom scene, party scene and prom/dance scene in the appropriate places.
On TV, though, things are different.
Network shows -- especially on the WB -- are sprinkled with smart, funny teens with a knack for making pop-culture references that reach beyond the most self-satisfied Dennis Miller rant. And although they still have dances and parties and romantic troubles, TV's teens have more depth than movie teens and seem, well, more genuine.
Part of it is the nature of the beast; at its best, a TV series will do a better job with character development, simply because it has more time to develop the character.
"You can really hit the nuances if you're striving to," says Greg Berlanti, creator of Everwood, which features an emotionally tormented teen in Ephram Brown (Gregory Smith), a kid who continually tangles with his widowed father (Treat Williams) and with his own rocky love life. "You can be hamstrung with the same notes or the same set of expectations from networks and studios and whatnot, but if you challenge yourself … you can explore whole realms for periods of time that you don't get to explore on film."
Berlanti says Ephram was inspired in part by the 1992 series My So-Called Life, which Berlanti considers the best depiction of a teen-ager in TV history. But Life lasted only a season on ABC, while the WB seems to have a commitment to teen characters. The trick, Berlanti says, is that the shows aren't just about teens; the adults have significant plotlines, too.
"I don't believe that it's a big audience draw . . . to just go back and experience high school as it was in actuality and do just that every week," Berlanti says. "I think you want some heightened elements to the show and some other wish-fulfillment elements to the show."
These observations, of course, are coming from adults -- Berlanti is 30, but a veteran of several years of TV writing, most notably on Dawson's Creek, which helped launch the late-'90s teen boom. But although teens enjoy shows like Everwood, Gilmore Girls and Smallville, they're not buying teens on TV hook, line and sinker.
"I don't think either [TV or movies] does a very good job, but TV is a little better" says James Comfort, a Fort Worth 16-year-old. "Most of the shows with teen-agers on 'em, they all live in this little perfect bubble that's nothing like the real world."
Berlanti, whose Everwood is set in a storybook Colorado town, says that Comfort has a point.
"I think he's very astute," Berlanti says. "But you have 42 minutes to tell a story, and you're still trying to tell a story that hopefully hits some great story beats. So things are pretty squished sometimes. . . . It's almost like we're trying to get the story lines more emotionally correct than . . . factually correct when it comes to teen-agers."
It can be a tricky thing for an adult to write story lines for a teen character, especially those like Ephram or Gilmore Girls' Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel). Both characters, despite having teen problems, seem wise beyond their years, and their emotional depth comes mixed with dialogue that is strikingly good. Sometimes too good.
Jeni Eatman, a 16-year-old from Azle, says she enjoys Gilmore Girls but doesn't quite accept Rory Gilmore's relationship with her free-spirited mom, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), who gave birth to Rory out of wedlock when she was a teen-ager. The mother-daughter duo are best friends who share the same tastes in almost everything -- and who talk in witty, fast-paced dialogue.
"I like it," Eatman says, "because it seems really cool that they can talk like that, but realistically, I don't think people are like that."
Tracy Gamble, creator of ABC's 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teen-age Daughter, says he has a couple of built-in story editors who check the dialogue for his show, which features John Ritter as the befuddled father to two teen-age girls and one teen-age boy.
"I pretty much do my research at home," Gamble says. "I have two teen-age daughters and a teen-age son, and I know their friends as well as I can know them. My brothers are high-school teachers, so that is my world and my universe. I write from my perspective from what I see, and what I fear I don't see."
Gamble adds that he also lets his children read his scripts to keep him in check. "They will tell me, 'We would never say that!' "
Rules is one of only three ABC series that feature teen characters, who are largely missing in action on CBS, NBC and even UPN and Fox. By contrast, the WB has shows featuring teens nearly every night of the week. This has worked out well for the WB, which has seen its ratings rise among younger demographics this season. More important, the network seems to trust its producers and writers, rather than interfering in their story decisions, says Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.
It's this lack of interference, she says, that is helping TV separate itself from movies, and not just in the way it treats teens.
"There's a lot of really good work being done on TV right now across the board," Sherman-Palladino says, citing Six Feet Under and The Sopranos as two examples. "I think some of it does surpass feature films. . . . It seems like there are cleaner voices on TV -- one person with a vision, two people with a vision."
TV teens -- and their turmoils
Here's a noncomprehensive look at some of television's brighter teens. (Note: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch has been disqualified for being a teen too long.)
Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), Gilmore Girls
Age: 16 or so
Personality traits: Addicted to coffee, burgers, talking fast and boys -- in other words, a lot like her single mom, but smarter.
Teen angst: Father never married mom and blew their chance at reconciliation; torn between two guys -- and that's just this season.
Love interests: Nice-guy Dean (Jared Padalecki); James Dean-type Jess (Milo Ventimiglia)
Friends: Lane (Keiko Agena), music-obsessed Korean-American with strict traditionalist mother; Paris (Liza Weil), intense, intelligent misfit who somehow manages to have wit without humor.
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