Does television allow for a unique coming-of-age story?

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This semester we have been looking at television as a unique storytelling medium, allowing extensive character and plot development beyond anything film could give to an audience.  In this post, I will specifically look at the way teen dramas are affected by television as a medium, and how its audience has responded to their existence.  The 1990s brought a boom of teen shows to the airwaves.  Shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer received major attention from an eager teen audience.  Not since Happy Days was there a show that featured a large, ensemble teen cast.  Beverly Hills, 90210 was Aaron Spelling’s revolutionary show that promoted high drama situations that American high school students faced in the 90s.  In my opinion, it was one of the first shows in history to fully use television as a medium to tell unique coming-of-age stories.  Over the 10-year run of the show, the audience was able to see many of the original cast blossom from awkward high school teens to mature career-driven adults.  The situations are exaggerated and the circumstances are seldom as simple as they may appear in real life, but the audience still buys into the characters and empathizes with their situations.

With teen shows as an influential driving force in the 90s, one must wonder why they have taken such a drastic turn only one decade later.  For instance, Beverly Hills, 90210 was debatably the most successful teen show ever created, however its current spin-off, 90210, has held up only sub-par ratings since its launch last year.  Having watched both shows, I can tell you that both of them have similar characters, similar situations, and the exact same location.  So what is the magic touch that separates success from failure?  I believe that most of the low teen ratings in the 00’s are a direct result of the internet boom.  Audiences are not forced to stay at home to watch these shows anymore; they can access them on their computers at anytime after the show airs that week.  However, I also feel that recent teen shows are being created from an untruthful place.  Teen shows like 90210 are letting their ratings dictate the content they share.  Writers are more concerned with ratings boosts, as opposed to telling a heartfelt coming-of-age story.  From a network standpoint, though, this can only be expected.  Shows that have attempted to create a genuine coming-of-age tell, such as Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life, only last to see season, sometimes two.  If the show cannot last more than a season, how will it ever get the chance to show the transition from adolescence to adult?  Perhaps shows are only allowed their proper airtime when sticking to the teen formula.

The formula for teen dramas is quite simple: new kid comes into town, shakes up the social scene, and sets off a domino effect of problems into the surrounding characters.  This formula was used in successful shows like 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and The O.C. Even in Gossip Girl, Serena mysteriously comes back to stir up trouble on the Upper East Side. In the case of 90210, Brenda and Brandon Walsh move from Minnesota to California.  Their charmed Midwestern innocence, at first, was not appealing to the in-crowd at West Beverly High School.  But soon enough, the twins became corrupted by the city, where they faced pregnancy scares, gambling problems, and cheating.  The show functions so well because of the roles the teens play to each other.  Brandon, throughout most of the series, serves as the anchor of the group.  He operates as the most believable character of the bunch and looks to solve situations more often than create them.

Brandon Walsh serves a vital role in the teen world.  Most successful teen shows revolve around the moral character who is only susceptible to a small amount of corruption.  He serves as the “responsible one,” who will always stay faithful to his own code.  When he strays from the code, he is caught and punished immediately; and afterwards he swears that he will never break the code again.  He is the Dawson Leery on Dawson’s Creek, the Sam Weir of Freaks and Geeks, the Richie Cunningham of Happy Days.  His morality is a driving force in the course of the narrative that gives the plot and the characters that surround him depth.

In the new version of 90210, Dixon Wilson is supposed to serve as the parallel Brandon Walsh character.  Dixon is the African-American adopted “twin” brother of Annie Wilson.  Dixon’s role in the Wilson family is in no way a mirror to that of Brandon’s in Walsh family.  He is often deceptive, conniving, and more concerned with his own affairs than those of the people that surround him. At times, Dixon is too much like real life, whereas Brandon is something we all hope to believe. Though he is still portrayed as a gentleman in the show, his Kansas upbringing is not carried over with him when he hits Beverly Hills.  In the original BH90210, Brenda Walsh becomes one of the least likable characters in teen history.  Through even her thickest drama, Brandon stands by her side, even if it is from a distance.  He never denies her as a friend of sister, even when he doesn’t agree with her shady behavior.  His tolerance for her proves his stand-up character.  In this clip, Brandon pushes aside all of Brenda’s high drama to help her with her problems.  She literally insults everyone of her friends in the process, but Brandon still wants to make things right.

In the 90210 remake, Dixon and Annie have only spoken a handful of sentences to each other in the entire second season.  Dixon has become more involved with himself, his friends, and his girlfriends than he has with any member of his family, hardly paying attention to any one of them.  Dixon also plays the race and adoption card far more often than a moral character would stand for.  As an audience member, I do not feel inclined to see his coming-of-age journey on screen.  His role on the show has been compromised, and his actions feel ingenuous.

In the original 90210, Brenda Walsh made waves as the girl you love to hate, so much so that there was even an “I Hate Brenda Walsh” newsletter and even today a variety of websites dedicated to the character.

I Hate Brenda Walsh Online Newsletter

The new 90210 has tried desperately to turn Annie Walsh into Brenda, giving her the same hobbies and habits of her predecessor.  However, Annie has rapidly become one of the most forgettable characters of the series. Her amoral behavior has ostracized her from her friends and family beyond the point where any audience member can care about.  If her character were written off after this season, the plot would hardly be affected at all.  This is extremely shocking, given that she is supposed to be one of the few central characters to the plot.  In attempting to make a Brenda clone, the writers have lost sight of who Annie actually is, what she stands for, and where her morals lie.  People were driven to Brenda for her actions; even if their feelings were spiteful they were intensely devoted to the character.

The most sincere coming-of-age stories are told from the heart.  They are not dictated by ratings, networks, trends, or boundaries.  Many teen dramas today lose sight of the most important aspect of a teen drama: the storytelling and compelling characters.  The high intense situations only seem plausible to the audience when they have genuine empathy for a character.  Most teen shows in history have exposed their characters to drugs, eating disorders, pregnancies, abuse, and suicides.  The only thing that sets the stories apart is the way the main characters handle the situations.  Teen shows of the 90s had a way of making you love a character through their highs and lows of their adolescent years.  Only in the last handful of episodes has 90210 began to establish character depth in their leading men and women that would allow an audience member to take that journey with them.  Other current popular teen shows, such as Gossip Girl, have completely ignored the greater story arcs of their characters.  Even the most watched teen show on television, Vampire Diaries, was only created to jump on the Vampire bandwagon.  I firmly believe that television is one of the best mediums to tell a coming-of-age story, exposing its audience to a variety of relatable situations occurring between childhood and adulthood.  However, many television shows abuse the medium and fail to properly demonstrate a genuine story of growing up.  If the writers of these teen shows gave more attention to the quality of their characters rather than their Neilsen numbers, I feel that television could be properly recognized as a legitimate story telling medium and leave behind the lowbrow stereotype which it has been branded.

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