Monday, August 28, 2006
High School Confidential
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been getting wrapped up in the Every Degrassi Episode Ever Marathon on The N network, which is Nickelodeon’s primetime line-up for kids that have outgrown the tweener fare I made fun of in my Teenage Girl President post. That post, by the way, still gets the occasional comment by deluded underage LostGooglers™ that think I have anything to do with the casting of real shows. A Degrassi overdose made me think of my on-again off-again relationship with television shows about high school and how bad the writers and producers often get it wrong.
Degrassi: The Next Generation. As the name implies, this show is the sequel to the series from the late 80s that was filmed in Canada and became a cult hit on PBS. The new series follows a cast of a dozen or so high school students as they encounter various social problems such as drinking, drugs, sex, bullying, school violence and the like. My wife thinks the subject matter is a little too mature and explicit for the target audience, but it is a lot tamer and less sudsy than other shows in the line-up like South Of Nowhere and Beyond The Break. The Degrassi kids are fairly active sexually, but onscreen it’s mostly lip-locks and knowing glances. It tries to get the high-school experience right, unlike most shows about teenagers.
Welcome Back, Kotter. I was in grade school when this show was in it’s heyday. If you didn’t know the jokes and cut-downs from the latest episode the next morning, you were hopelessly uncool. I could do a pretty good Horshack laugh, which is probably not a good thing. Like all bad TV shows, the class had maybe ten “kids” in it played by actors well into their twenties and beyond that never seemed to graduate or even take any other classes.
Square Pegs. I’ve talked about my love of this show before. Sarah Jessica Parker and her equally nerdy friend keep trying to infiltrate the cool kids, who never seemed all that cool. As an 80s time capsule, the fashion and music need to preserved forever for the day when people doubt that high school kids once wore skinny ties. The plots veered from edgy to hopelessly dopey depending how just how high the writing staff was that week (and I’m not sure which way the correlation goes).
21 Jump Street. This show the Fox Network’s first hit. In it, the undercover narcs were the heroes. Every week they infiltrated some school where the criminal masterminds running the place never compared notes with the school that got busted last week. It was probably less hokey than most Stephen Cannell productions, but it took a lot suspended disbelief just to get through the opening credits. The actors were way too old and the plots seemed like CHiPs leftovers. It did have some good points. Dustin Nguyen was the first Vietnamese actor on television I’m aware of that didn’t wear a karate belt all the time. Peter Deluise was hilarious and Holly Robinson was always easy on the eyes. The show jumped the shark when it tried to emphasize Richard Greico as the heartthrob instead of Johnny Depp.
Head Of The Class. Howard Hessman (aka Johnny Fever from WKRP) was the substitute teacher for four years to the dimmest class of geniuses ever. These kids took five years to graduate, never took a higher level social studies class, and were never in the classroom for the full time between commercial breaks. I liked the show, but my judgment may have been clouded by how hott Robin Givens and Khrystyne Haje were. The stories were sitcom thin and each character was a “type” – nerd, poet, greaser, preppie, etc., but the jokes were occasionally funny. I even think Billy Connolly as Hesseman’s replacement brought some freshness to a show that had gotten stale. Ironically, the most successful people to emerge from the show were Brian Robbins and Dan Schneider who played the tough guy and the chubby slob respectively. These two teamed up to become very successful television and movie producers. Robbins is responsible for Smallville and One Tree Hill and Schneider has had his finger in about anything funny on Nickelodeon.
Freaks and Geeks. My fandom of this show killed it. As far as verisimilitude goes, the writers must have been following me around in the early 80s. While the show, as the title implies, mostly focused on complete and total nerds and barely-escaping-expulsion stoners, the overall social dynamic was real and subtle. I knew real people that were like everyone in the show. Heck, I was a few of them. It realistically depicted a lot of the various cliques that make up a high school and was more nuanced than the silly us-vs-them set-ups in movies like Pretty In Pink. Freaks and Geeks tried to get it right and mostly succeeded, which is what doomed it to cancellation after one season.
I can’t watch the high school soap opera shows now on primetime that are the spiritual descendants of 90210 and the like. The melodrama of The O.C. is just Dynasty on the beach. It’s a big time investment to get involved in these shows and the pay-off is slight. It seems when televison goes back to school, it usually fails.
Blatant Comment Whoring™: What other shows about high school get it right and which just miss altogether?