Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Buffy to Live On in Whedon-Authored Comic

Entertainment Weekly posted this cover art and information for a new comic book series continuing the post-seventh season adventures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer written by series mastermind Joss Whedon. I can't wait for this bit of "transmedia," though I fear the comic book form has become, for many media makers, merely a way to more cheaply continue stories that are no longer viable in their original form (whether due to production expense or cast non-availability), rather than stories built from the ground up for the new medium. But perhaps Whedon's the guy to prove me wrong. One thing seems certain, Buffy fans will have high expectations, and the comic is unlikely to satisfy our desire to see new stories realized with the original cast.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How Great/Terrible Was Your High School Experience?

Watching and reading a lot of media about teens, I almost take for granted that everyone's high school experience was traumatic and sad. That's certainly the favored representation: embarrassment in front of peers, apathetic or authoritarian teachers, mean girl cliques, stilted romances. There are several ways to explain this. First, everyone's high school experience was awful, in its own way (remember the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy can read everyone's thoughts?). Second, it's just more dramatic that way, i.e. happy stories are boring (Freaks and Geeks mocks happy high school stories in its opening shot, craning away from a budding jock/cheerleader romance on top of the bleachers to the social rejects down below). Third, insofar as good art grows out of suffering, the artists who make teen narratives give accounts of high school based on their own unhappiness during adolescence. Though they indeed frequently produce "good art," it perhaps biases our view of high school, maybe even making us remember it as worse than it actually was (worse relative to the rest of our lives, of course). And if high school dramas show the experience as miserable for a few alienated outsiders, does that mean that it really was great for most people?

I ask because I'm currently watching two teen TV series which were cancelled due to low ratings before they even finished their first season--Freaks and Geeks and My So Called Life--and I wonder if the adolescent misery factor had anything to do with their lack of success. Of course, TV shows fail to gain an audience for tons of different reasons, so I don't want to read too much into this. But compare these shows to a few recent teen series that have done well in the ratings: The O.C. (last season notwithstanding) and MTV's Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Both have drama and conflict, certainly, but both also celebrate the adolescent years and show their kids having a grand old time. Maybe the wider television audience remembers their high school favorably, and it's only the artists (and critics) that were perpetually unhappy.

And, frankly, all this teen angst is wearing on me. I find Freaks and Geeks amazing and totally watchable, but only because it tempers its characters' constant mortifying embarrassment with extremely funny moments. Its tone is not melodramatic but sardonic, like a lot of the best stories of adolescence, going back to Dickens. In contrast, My So Called Life, while compelling "quality television," sure takes itself seriously. I was enthralled with the first few episodes, finding them prescient, intelligent, and sensitive. After watching several in a row, however, I felt myself drawing away from the characters, wishing they would just get over themselves.

Thinking back to my own high school experience, it was a mix of joy and anguish. I wasn't popular, I was painfully shy, and I hated being patronized by the institution. But I also met friends that I still have to this day with which I had all kinds of fun, and I began all manner of intellectual pursuits under the tutelage of some very devoted teachers. It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't constant suffering, either.

So, how was high school for you?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

What American Idol and Freaks and Geeks Have in Common

One of the most satisfying aspects of studying adolescent narratives is watching ideas about childhood and society proliferate across radically divergent texts. Take the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and American Idol. The former was a critically acclaimed but underwatched period teen drama cancelled by the Fox network after only 18 episodes (3 unaired), which went on to build a cult following. The latter, of course, is the mega-hit talent competition pitting young performers against each other for a recording contract.

What these shows have in common is a concern with innate talent or competence, and self-evaluation. More specifically, they represent a reaction against the popular psychological maxims of the preceding era which endorsed promoting "self-esteem" as a kind of panacea for adolescent problems.

The lead character on Freaks and Geeks, Lindsay Weir, is a smart high school junior from a good home going through a kind of existential crisis following a death in the family. Formerly an academic overacheiver, a "geek", she begins to hang around with a group of apathetic stoners, the "freaks." Though she tries to conform to their laid-back attitude, she can't help but try and save them from themselves, and the series is a chronicle of her perpetual failure in this regard. In an episode entitled "I'm With the Band," she encourages one of the freaks who is an aspiring drummer to try out for an open space with a local rock band. Of course, though he is obsessed with building his drum kit and creating elaborate fog and strobe light staging, he has never seriously studied or practiced his playing. But Lindsay's advice will be familiar to anyone who grew up during that time: "you can do anything that you put your mind to." At the audition, however, he can't keep up with the band and is humiliated. Like much of the series, the scene simultaneously evokes pathos and humor. We feel bad for the character, who has a serious psychological investment in his dreams for superstardom, and little else going for him. But the idea that all one needs to succeed is a belief in himself is exposed to ridicule, and there's a sadistic pleasure in his failure.

Sadism is a good word for what many fans of American Idol feel when watching that show, especially the episodes that open each season. While the show touts itself as a talent competition, the audition episodes are more of a search for the most deluded amateurs, and America pretty much eats it up (ratings consistently taper off after these early episodes before picking up again once the field of finalists starts to narrow). There is certainly a rubbernecking aspect to watching really bad singers who don't know any better, but just as important is what comes after: the judicial smackdown. Simon Cowell has gained fame for putting poor performers in their place. He's a fantasy of the authoritarian parent who will not coddle over-confident adolescents.

And perhaps Americans believe themselves unable to discriminate between earned self-confidence and labored self-delusion. Nary a reality competition show on the airwaves lacks a hard-nosed judge with some sort of European accent. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the Brits and Australians are also compulsory in infomercials. An American trying to sell us a product can't be trusted, he'll exaggerate from his inflated sense of self-worth. But those Brits, they lack artifice; they'll give it to you straight.

The similarities between the shows end there. American Idol goes on to reestablish a notion of born competence--you either have it or you don't--whereas Freaks and Geeks complicates matters. Lindsay does seem to have benefited from a stable and supportive family life, and her parents affirmations contrast strongly with what we learn of the other freaks' filial relationships and dysfunctional households. But other things simply can't be helped by talking, such as her younger brother Sam's lack of physical development. When he's intimidated by the thought of taking a shower after gym class, his mother tells him to pronounce, "I'm proud of my body." Which, of course, only causes him more embarrassment.

The high school of Freaks and Geeks is something of a nightmare of multiplicity: students of highly varied socio-economic backgrounds, stages of physical development, innate talents, and learned competency trying in vain to cope using universal rules espoused by parents, peers, and guidance counselors, rules that never fail to make things worse.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Fox's O.C. Shake-Up

Variety first reported last week that Fox has scaled back its order for new episodes of The O.C. to 16, instead of the 22 customary for prime-time dramas. It will also face steep Thursday night competition from a few other hit shows very popular with teens, CSI and Grey's Anatomy.

There are several ways of interpreting this news. The most pessimistic evaluation, and probably the most likely, is that Fox has lost confidence in the show's longevity after a third season that was disappointing in both ratings and reception. They're simply hedging their bets, and if the show fails to perform better this season, so long Seth Cohen.

However, there are a few points that make me moderate my disappointment. First, as reported in Entertainment Weekly, is that series creator Adam Schwartz has been enticed to return to the series full time and take a more hands-on approach to guiding the show. Second, Fox has yet to resort to the true sign that a show is circling the drain, they haven't moved it to another time slot. Finally, the show has never had a typical season order. As you may recall, the show was introduced during the summer months and, after it became a big hit, picked up for a full fall season. The first season subsequently had 27 episodes, season 2 had 24, and this recent season had 25. A couple extra episodes a season may not seem like many for the viewer (although it's likely to fatigue some), but it's likely very taxing for the production company. 22 episodes a year is already a major undertaking, giving cast and crew little time to work on other projects or find time to for a creative recharge. If I thought anything was wrong with the last season, it's that I could have done without half of the episodes. A smaller season order, coupled with the return of the show's creator, gives me hope for a tighter and more effective season arc. I even wonder if the reduced order may have come out of a request from the producers, with the intent of giving the crew more time to do higher quality work.

If television weren't in such a transitional stage right now, with networks experimenting with new models of production and distribution (something the success of the summer launch-pad approach pioneered with The O.C. has encouraged), I would totally discount the second option. There is a glimmer of hope out there that television producers are starting to realize that quantity at the expense of quality is not the way to maintain viewership.