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ROB BROWN--THE WB

JUST HOLD ON: This season's adolescent dramas need some time to mature

All in all, 1999-2000 was a pretty good season to be a bitter old person, which is to say, as defined by TV advertisers and the Internet economy, anyone over 27. Not only did dotcom whippersnappers get spanked by the NASDAQ, but TV's youthquake--when networks unleashed a hot-bodied army of Dawson's Creek clones to capture young audiences--triggered an avalanche of zit fatigue. The teen cop (Ryan Caulfield), the earnest young politicos (D.C.), the sexy prepsters (the never-aired Manchester Prep)--all were dead on arrival, while older-skewing dramas thrived.

For much of the new crop, DOA was not a moment too soon. But the backlash also caught three of TV's brightest, most heartfelt programs--Felicity, Roswell and Freaks and Geeks--each of which happens to feature protagonists not yet old enough to drink, and each of which is counting on creative fan support and deus ex machinas to keep it from becoming a teen angel.

Or, in the case of Freaks, to help it rise, Carrie-like, from the grave. The final episode of the comedy-drama, about high schoolers fixated on Dungeons and Dragons and Led Zeppelin in 1980, may be the most elegiac, exuberant and inventive finale of the season. But you'll have to go to a museum to see it. When NBC axed the series in March--after shelving and relaunching it so many times viewers needed a divining rod to find it--the Museum of Television and Radio made the unusual offer to screen its six unaired episodes at its New York City and Los Angeles locations, on April 29 and May 13, respectively. As creator Paul Feig notes, the museum honored the show earlier at its annual William Paley Festival, an ironic comfort as the ratings flagged. "The running joke on the set was, 'We're doing it for the museum.' As it turned out, we actually were."

Freaks' strength, and perhaps its ratings liability, was that it resisted easy pigeonholing. It captures the joy and miseries of adolescence but from a wry, adult perspective, without easy nerd jokes, implausible sex scenes or a single false moment. "It's closer to Welcome to the Dollhouse than to Dawson's Creek," says executive producer Judd Apatow. "And as much as I liked Welcome to the Dollhouse, it didn't make as much money as Scream." Indeed, the closest analogs to Freaks are not TV shows but independent films--Dollhouse, Rushmore, Dazed and Confused. Unfortunately, there aren't as many outlets for indie TV as for indie film. So the show's studio, DreamWorks, is making a last-ditch effort to sell it to a broadcast network, arguing that the show's fiercely loyal fan base indicates room for growth.

Such Lazarus acts, while rare, have become less so lately, with six networks looking for content. CBS picked up its hit JAG from NBC, and the WB just spirited off ABC's teen-witch com, Sabrina. (ABC's psych-ward drama, Wonderland, and on-hiatus Sports Night may also shop themselves around.) But Apatow admits the re-Freaking of TV is a long shot. "If anyone needs to fill an hour with NBC's lowest-rated show," he cracks, "they'll buy it!"

No network has felt the teen fallout more than the youth-heavy WB, home of both Felicity and Roswell; it has fallen to sixth place, behind UPN this season. CEO Jamie Kellner defends the network's focus: "You have to be able to define yourself, like any good brand, so when you see the logo, you can taste it." But clearly the network has felt pressure; the teen-alien drama Roswell has upped its focus on science fiction to stand out. "One thing the WB wanted us to do less of," says creator Jason Katims, "was scenes in the school, because there are so many shows on the air where you see high school or college hallways."

"The youth-zeitgeist factor didn't work for any of these shows," says J.J. Abrams, creator of Felicity (Wednesday, 9 p.m. E.T.). "There was definitely a glut." The college comedy-drama, much praised in its debut year, has struggled as a sophomore, prompting the risible and vaguely sexist criticism that the ratings dived because star Keri Russell cut her flowing, curly hair. (Would that Billy's dye job had done the same for Ally McBeal.) "It's something that a girl of that age, having gone through serious changes, would realistically do," says Abrams, who blames the drop-off on the cutting of a narrative strand instead: the co-ed protagonist left a long-term relationship at the start of the season. Whatever the problem, it hasn't been the dry-witted scripts--including a pitch-perfect Twilight Zone imitation--or the cast, which, with beautiful comic timing and depth of character, is now one of the most charming crack ensembles this side of Friends.

Though the show's ratings have perked since a time-slot change, it's still uncertain for renewal, as is Roswell (Monday, 9 p.m. E.T.), which just last fall was riding high on a 22-episode commitment. The triumph of Roswell is that it takes what sounds like an SNL skit--teen UFO-crash survivors in New Mexico--and plays it straight, with an eerie, noir beauty and stately pacing rare on today's chatty dramas. (Few series do pauses better than Roswell, thanks largely to Jason Behr, who plays alien Max like a junior Duchovny.)

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