“Coming of Age”
December 14th, 2009
[This is Part Two in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]
I don’t intend to go into too much biographical detail in these pieces, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that I made the transition from teenager to adult in the past decade (which, yes, makes me fairly young as far as television critics go). As a result, shows that appealed to this period of my life (like, for example, the aforementioned Gilmore Girls transitioning from high school to university around when I was doing the same) often connected with me over shows that, well, didn’t.
However, when I sat down to craft these pieces and lumped these three shows together, the idea that they are important because they chronicle the lives of high school and college students (the two most dominant identifiers in my life over the past decade) proves to be an overly simplistic one. In fact, the more complex (and more meaningful) connective thread between them is the emotional center that parents (or the lack of parents) provide to each series. And while Freud would likely argue this is some unearthed family anxiety (which, since my parents will probably at least read the opening spiel of a few of these pieces, is fundamentally untrue), I think it’s more proof that shows about the most fitful and tempestuous times in our lives require something stable, something almost unfailing, to ground them in an emotional reality.
And that those of us who watch them want to see, simultaneously, a reflection of ourselves, a mirror universe in which we are quite the opposite, and some element of truth which cuts through those expectations to either break our hearts or convince us that there really is hope for the geeks, hope for the private dicks, and hope for the underdogs.
On the surface, Josh Schwartz’s The O.C. is all gloss, but beneath that surface there is something more, something that very clearly distinguishes the series from the reality brethren it spawned (See: Real Housewives of Orange County). It was a perfect escapist teen soap opera on some level, but by debuting in summer (when teenagers were out of school) and featuring a more grounded entry point in both newcomer Ryan Atwood and geek Seth Cohen the show was designed to lasso “kids” like me alongside those who were waiting for “their” 90210. For kids (okay, I was 17, so maybe kids doesn’t work here) like me, however, you did not have to know anything about Orange Country to relate to Ryan Atwood feeling isolated from his environment, nor did you have to full grasp comic book culture to understand how Seth Cohen did not fit into this world. That first season is almost perfectly designed to simultaneously familiarize and disassociate the eponymous community from the audience, making it a location that viewers want to visit but yet will always view at least somewhat critically (at least if you’re me, or at least if you’re paying any attention at all to the character of Seth Cohen).
Yes, the show fell apart in its second and third seasons, but while much of the blame is placed at the feet of Mischa Barton’s troubled Marissa Cooper the larger problem is how the element that elevated the show in its first season (the stability provided by realistic, complicated parents like Sandy and Kirsten Cohen) became part of the show’s soap operatic mess of sorts. While Kirsten’s alcoholism led to a scene (Seth, confronting his mother about her problem) that makes me tear up every single time, seeing Sandy and Kirsten’s marriage fall apart due to adultery and substance abuse felt as if the show was losing its heart, the absence of which led to uneven story elements remaining uncontained (which is what saved the first season from Oliver).
Perhaps The O.C. would have remained a footnote in the decade had it gone out on a note of lost luster, but the show’s fourth season was downright triumphant. Acknowledging that Marissa’s death had taken Ryan and the show to its darkest point (thematically, however, as when considered creatively killing the character was intelligent if hastened by Barton wanting to depart the show), Schwartz chose to return the show’s equilibrium by resisting melodrama and delivering something both more comic (See: Bullitt) and, at its core, romantic. Potential love triangles emerge but never materialize, and Autumn Reeser takes an underdeveloped sadsack classmate who was actually jealous of Marissa Cooper and turns her into an unexpected engenue. The season ended with a finale that, with time and cheap DVD sales, those who abandoned the series in the dark period will come to see as an emotional and fitting end to a series that personifies the ebb and flow inherent in crafting television drama in the decade, and that not surprisingly finds its emotional core more in Sandy and Kirsten (who spent the season happily shmearing bagels) than in the drama of teenage existence. Schwartz rediscovered the heart of his show, and it maintained The O.C.’s position of importance in the decade’s stable of “teen” television.
And yet for those who felt that the glitz of the Orange Country lifestyle was too much to handle, a show emerged that captured teenage drama amidst a film noir rather than soap operatic construct, a safer coming of age alternative. Veronica Mars is, by all logic, a show I never should have discovered. I didn’t watch much television before 2004 (the year it debuted), but that Fall I was in my first year of university and discovered the wonders of the internet both in terms of informing me about new series and, well, “facilitating” television viewing. Airing on UPN, Veronica Mars didn’t even have a Canadian simulcast deal until after the first season had finished airing, which meant that this low-profile show on a low-caliber network (it’s hard now to imagine a network being more low-caliber than The CW, but see UPN pre-merger) was literally off of my radar. And yet, through some positive buzz on the internet and the wonders of DirectConnect, I found the story of a teenage private detective seeking big answers while solving small cases in her spare time.
There are a number of elements of this show that would easily rank it amongst my favourites of the decade, whether it’s the revolution that is Kristen Bell (thus far wasted in her post-Veronica film/television career) or the way the show manages to upend its initial characterization of Logan Echolls (with the help, of course, of Jason Dohring’s performance) to the point where he feels like the perfect match for Veronica while maintaining his bad boy image. And the first season’s plot, with the suspicious death of Lily Kane having quite literally torn a family apart, was a compelling mystery that drove so many character motivations that the show felt deflated once it was solved, as if some characters no longer had a primary function. The show faded in its second and third seasons, never quite finding the same fire it had in its initial mystery, but Bell’s performance never wavered and the show continued finding angles from which to consider Veronica’s place in life more carefully even if the show around her became less polished.
But what truly grounds this show is the relationship between Keith and Veronica, the sort of parent/child dynamic that seems idealistic until you discover just how much is unspoken, bottled up within their relationship. Enrico Colantoni and Bell have a rapport that makes their witty banter a series highlight, but in those moments where Keith Mars loses his temper or where Veronica’s emotions surrounding her mother’s departure take over you begin to see the cracks. I will admit that I started watching Veronica Mars on Episode Five, as it was the first episode available to me, and even with no idea what was going on there was something about that relationship, and the world as a whole, that felt complex without feeling unfriendly, which welcomed even while warning that something went very wrong here. The show never lived up to the season where it balanced rape, abandonment and murder with its bitter comic tone, but it never devolved to the point where that initial connection faded to the point of disinterest, and delivered a finale that gave us, rather than a hopeful conclusion, a glimpse of another event that reminds us both how important and how complex Keith and Veronica’s relationship is, and promises (without being able to deliver, unfortunately) the sort of father/daughter interaction that never faltered throughout the series’ run.
And yet, as important as these parents were to their respective shows, there was no single set of parents in television this decade that feels more important to the show in question than Eric and Tami Taylor. Friday Night Lights was not on my radar in the least when it debuted in 2006, the movie having been an unknown property and the idea of a movie being turned into a television show serving only to limit my interest in the project (after all, how often has that really worked?). And yet, I watched the pilot near the beginning of the period where I started to think myself a television expert, and it worked in a way that I don’t think I expected it to work. It was very simple, delivering a predictable tragedy turned celebration with Jason Street’s injury followed by Matt Saracen’s triumph, but it worked because the show wasn’t about that moment. The show was about what happened to the star quarterback once he was paralyzed and nearly his whole life was taken away from him, and what happens to the Dillon Panthers when his absence creates a vacuum that one hail mary pass from a kid who’s never been off the bench won’t fill.
From that point forward, Friday Night Lights created a sense of community that went so far beyond football that when those scenes started becoming mere footnotes in later seasons it felt almost natural (if, at times, a bit reductive). And at the heart of that community are Eric and Tami Taylor, whose relationship is perhaps the most realistic one ever depicted on television. As great as Kyle Chandler is as “Coach” Taylor, and as amazing as Connie Britton is as a mother concerned about her daughter(s), there is nothing more powerful about this show than seeing these two characters talk their way through complex situations in a way that never feels like dialogue. There is something so natural to the way they interact, and like Keith and Sandy/Kirsten before them they ground the series even at times (see: Season 2) when other characters are falling off the rails.
This is not to suggest that the stories of Matt Saracen, Tim Riggins, Jason Street, and Smash Williams are not worthy of mention, nor that the show’s other half (Julie Taylor, Tyra Colette) haven’t been similarly complex and heartwrenching. In the show’s third season, saying goodbye to Smash and Street helped set new emotional high points for the show, and Julie’s relationship with both Matt and her parents has been a steady source of great television drama. But as the “I’m still surprised it exists” fourth season has demonstrated in its efforts to create new players to relate to, Eric and Tami are the part of this show that cannot change. Much as high school football, with its Buddy Garrities and its Friday night ritual, forms the foundation for the small town Texas communities, their relationship forms the foundation for the show’s community, and has helped elevate the series to a worthy place on numerous Top 10 lists.
Shows which focus on “teen drama” are often maligned, placed into a separate category from “adult” drama. And yet, these three shows (at their best) captivated me during my transition from teenager to adult primarily because of how interested they are in the relationship between those two spheres. While The O.C. was soapy, it was soap with both a brain and a heart (and I guess courage if we want to got for the Wizard of Oz metaphor), and all three of these shows went beyond how their were perceived to deliver starkly human drama. They were shows that I related to, yes, but shows which eventually upended those expectations and constructed new expectations for the depiction of both parent/child relationships and teenagers that will prove mighty hard to live up to in the decade ahead.
Your Turn: What was the one show that, for you, most defied expectations over the past decade, moving beyond its genre’s pre-established stereotypes to deliver something more complex or simply more enjoyable than you first imagined?