So, like, okay. It's the first day of boarding school, and you're the new kid. Not only that, but you're not like these other boys. You're on scholarship. Your name is Will Krudski, and you feel guilty because you bought the school's entrance exam on the Internet. You know this was wrong, but you didn't know if you could pass the test on your own, and you had to. Your father hates you and he scares you, and you need, more than anything, to get out of his house.
At your new school, Rawley Academy, all the kids are rich, including your roommate Scout. He's a decent guy, but he has his own issues: He's falling in love with a townie named Bella, and some heavy stuff is about to land on them. In the meantime, there's new-kid hazing to contend with, and you end up standing in the center of town in your underwear. Luckily, you're good looking--you and Scout look better in your boxers than most people look dressed--so when the girls in town laugh at you, it's, like, no big deal. Welcome to the world of the WB Network's latest teen drama, Young Americans, which premiered July 12, for an eight-episode summer run.
For those of you who have managed to avoid the hype that has surrounded the WB since its inception three years ago, here's a primer: The WB specializes in shows for and about teens and young adults--that small but prized demographic we've been hearing about since advertisers discovered how much money they spend. And although other networks occupy particular niches--CBS is known for its older audience and NBC for its must-see sitcoms, for example--no network is quite as distinctive as the WB. If you were to come upon Young Americans (or Dawson's Creek or Felicity or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Jack and Jill or Roswell), while channel surfing, you would recognize WB-land immediately. The girls, played by actresses at least a few years older than their characters, sport flawless skin and a trademark faraway look in their slightly glassy eyes, as if they are looking ahead to a time when they will no longer have to play teenagers, and the boys are, well, pretty. The scenery has a luminous, unreal quality, whether it's the New York in which the title character of Felicity is filmed crossing the street in slow motion or the fictional, unseasonably mild Cape Cod town of Dawson's Creek. In short, the teen years are portrayed on the WB not as they are (more realistic portrayals like ABC's critically acclaimed and quickly canceled My So-Called Life and last season's Freaks and Geeks proved that too much reality is too much to take on a weekly basis), but as we adults would like to remember them. On the WB, the teen years are bathed in soft, flattering light, a time when your friends looked at you as if you meant the world to them, and even misery, when accompanied by the right soundtrack, had an enticing beauty to it.
The uniformity of production values and plot lines (boy meets girl, boy meets another girl, boy gets one or both of them, except in Buffy and her spin-off Angel, in which adventure occasionally trumps romance) makes choosing a WB drama a lot like shopping in the no-surprise franchise stores of an American mall. Indeed, the titles of the network's series read like a list of perfume scents. Are you more turned on by the aura of Felicity (wide-eyed co-ed seizes the day in New York City) or 7th Heaven (minister's family finds happiness through being good to friends and neighbors) or Safe Harbor (canceled this season, so I guess not) or Charmed (sexy witches sacrifice to protect their fellow citizens) or Popular (the name says it all)?
It's all too easy to make fun of, and the critics have done so--at great length. What they seem less likely to notice is that WB shows tend to be well-written and populated by interestingly (if not too believably) articulate teenagers. And in spite of a healthy dose of melodrama--in the pilot of Young Americans alone, the ensemble cast faces cheating, incest of Greek tragedy proportions, adultery, and a Shakespearean girl-masquerades-as-boy plot all at once--there is something at the core of these shows that is worth noting. While WB-land is certainly not real, it has a breadth of focus that's far more true to life than the so-called reality-based shows like MTV's Real World and CBS's summer hit Survivor. Unlike the participants in these shows, the teens on the WB are characterized by both conscience and moral concern.
In this way, the WB features a conception of teenhood that is also markedly different from the big screen's. In supposedly era-defining films like Risky Business and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and last year's hit American Pie, teenagers are self-involved pleasure seekers with little more on their minds than sex and occasionally love. In contrast, the teens of Young Americans, like their WB predecessors, are preoccupied with navigating their way into adulthood within some (albeit vague) moral framework. Don't get me wrong: The WB is neither preachy nor intellectual, and it never transcends the sanitized morality of network television. But what does distinguish WB teens from other pop culture teens is a sense that doing the right thing is hard but worthy work.
Ten years ago, viewers frustrated by the stream of summer reruns had an opportunity to tune into the FOX network for all new episodes of Beverly Hills 90210. It was a successful marketing ploy for FOX, leading to another nine seasons for that teen show, and it may be that the WB has the same hopes for this summer run of Young Americans. Early 90210 was also similar to Young Americans in its focus: Twin teen transplants from Minnesota to Beverly Hills were, like Will Krudski (Rodney Scott), less privileged than their new peers and struggling to maintain their moral center. But it was only a matter of a few seasons before the twins were as caught up as everybody else in the web of ways in which money corrupts. By then, the FOX network itself was evolving from its position as a pioneer of teen-oriented entertainment to a home for trash TV (Melrose Place; Models, Inc.) reminiscent of 1980s hits like Dynasty and Dallas, in which wealth and the backstabbing and conniving of the wealthy were glorified. That could be the fate of Young Americans, too, if imaginations at the WB succumb to temptation-- or to the pressures generated when a network finishes regularly at the bottom of the Nielsens. But so far, in contrast to what developed on 90210, the teens of the WB seem exceedingly mature. While 90210 heartthrob Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) struggled with alcoholism and fast cars, Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) and Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), the best friends and co-heartthrobs of Dawson's Creek, spend their time emoting, as often to one another as to their girlfriends.
On the WB, teens often talk--and talk like adults. They can approach relationships with a paralyzing self-awareness. In the pilot of Young Americans, Scout (Mark Famiglietti) and Bella (Kate Bosworth), after one kiss, discuss marriage. For the most part, the teens raise themselves; parents are silly and irrelevant (or, as in Young Americans, simply absent). This is a staple of the genre, of course, but here it seems to produce as much maturing as it does hell-raising. Will Krudski fears his father, but he isn't wallowing or acting out; he's trying to get away and get an education. These kids are nothing if not earnest.
Truth be told, their stolid and pervasive tolerance makes most of their problems less urgent than they might otherwise be. On 90210 you generally had to watch your back, especially if you had no money; on Young Americans, the person most bothered by Will's blue-collar poverty is Will himself. Similarly, when a gay character on Dawson's Creek was shunned by his father for coming out, he quickly found acceptance with a friend and her Christian grandmother, ultimately teaching his father a thing or two. On the one hand, this too is a remarkably sanitized version of real-life difficulties (on the WB, poor and good looking always go hand in hand, and it's easy to be tolerant when you're all beautiful and white). On the other hand, the difficulty of doing the right thing in the face of the real world's mixed signals is at least on the agenda.
Is this because of the times in which we now live? When 90210 came on the air, we were at the end of the Reagan era of vast greed among the few and economic recession for everyone else; a preoccupation with rich people and their stupidity may have been appealing to liberal Hollywood and frustrated viewers. Now, when money is more plentiful, is it possible we've turned to other plots because we have the economic luxury to contemplate--and value--moral behavior? The enormous popularity of this summer's Survivor proves that backstabbing still sells. But the WB's high ranking among teenagers (especially girls) suggests that earnestness also has a quite significant following. There is plenty of premarital sex on the WB and much else that wouldn't qualify as "moral" to many voters, but there is also something pure about the aspirations of so many of these teens to grow up and be a good person and to understand what doing so entails.
If Young Americans takes off, we may see townie-chic evolve in teen fashion. We will no doubt see the actors who play Will and Scout hit the big screen. And we will probably also see the furthering of another trend, a kind of morality play-lite, in which for every soundtrack moment, there is a little bit of Shakespeare. Will Krudski, with his self-doubts and good looks, is part Hamlet, part Backstreet Boy, and part the kid we all knew growing up and wanted to be. This is typical of the WB and probably explains why I have heard Rhodes scholars, mothers, law students, college professors, and Peace Corps volunteers regularly weighing in on the relationship between Pacey and Joey, the star-crossed lovers of Dawson's Creek, and will probably soon hear the same about Scout and Bella and Will Krudski. ¤
@authorbio:Jane Rosenzweig teaches at Yale University.
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