Coming of age, that period of the teenage years that can be either fun or painful – or often both. Whatever it meant to you, it’s something everyone had to go through. Shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks try to tap into that common experience, make us sympathize with the characters. It didn’t work so well for me; my high school experience was completely different. It was almost the reverse of the usual TV portrayal of high school. People could care less about the cheerleaders and the football team. Maybe it’s because pretty much everyone was a geek or some sorta freak there – I went to a specialized science high school in Brooklyn. Plus, with 4500 students, who cared about what the cheerleaders were doing? We all had better things to do.
Watching the shows, I spent most of my time cringing. Mostly I was just embarrassed for the characters. Was teen life ever like that for anyone? I felt more alienated than interested. Why should I give them my sympathy? I found Freaks and Geeks non-compelling. I think it failed in its most basic function: entertainment. I don’t want to spend an hour of my life feeling sorry and embarrassed for these kids. My So-Called Life was better, but I was more interested in the side plot involving Angela’s parents. Maybe because it was a bit unusual her father must deal with unemployment and trying to find a new sense of direction. Not surprising for a teenager, but it is for an adult. I liked that. Skins was more interesting and less painful to watch. It worked better for me. There was more emotional distance, with the setting going from an America of decades past to a more modern Britain.
The episode “Life of Brian” reminded me of those sappy movies from the 1980s. There’s a scene, about 10 minutes in, that’s supposed to be romantic. Beat 1: Brian is about to leave. Beat 2: Delia comes out to see him. She offers him a drink, and in the next beat, rather heavy, dramatic romantic ‘80s-sounding music plays over the close-up of their hands caressing around the cup. Beat 4: Brain watches her leave, and then ponders his life. In those films, things usually turn out all right. It’s gratifying to see that things don’t always go that well in TV shows. They can go much more in-depth with characters than a movie limited to a time span of about two hours. In film, characters are revealed by their major actions. TV can take a more nuanced and varied approach – a show’s characters can perform many actions, large and small that slowly reveal new aspects to their self.