Wednesday, April 18, 2012


          I sometimes watch truly awful TV. At the end of a day of teaching, my brain is probably not that much snappier than my dachshund’s (sometimes on a Friday she seems a little quicker on the uptake than me, actually). So mindless entertainment is just the R/x sometimes. So I watched the pilot for a new show on the CW, L.A. Complex (which is a really ironic title, is all I’m gonna say). I watched it mostly because Jewel Staite, Kaylee from Firefly, was in it, and she was the last of that cast to find a new job in anything visible, so I was curious to see how she’d fare without Joss.
Not very well.
            The protagonist (it’s not Jewel—she’s playing the older character—kill me now) is a human female, and that’s about where my ability to identify with her begins and ends.
            This delightful character, Abbey, spends the first five minutes of the episode breaking into her own apartment because she can’t pay the rent, in a gambit that was sort of tired when it played under the opening credits of Pretty Woman in 1990. She then lucks into another place to live (with no down payment, no credit check, and no first and last month’s rent, because they don’t have those in telereality). She then goes to a party and accepts a hit of ecstasy in an alarmingly casual way. When I was growing up, that kind of thing constituted a Very Special Episode of 90210, and there were always terrible consequences and lessons learned by the epilogue.
            Abbey goes on to miss an audition (she’s an aspiring actress, natch) miraculously get another audition for the same role (consequences also not part of TV land), and then when she blows the audition she verbally vomits all over the director, telling him all the sordid details of her life: her eviction—everything (suffice it to say the e was not even the naughtiest part of her night).
            Thank God the show didn’t depict her getting yet another chance at the role, although I didn’t finish watching it. The thing that struck me most about this character (beyond her questionable morals) was how she felt the need to over-share every sordid detail of her life with everyone she met. Her own bad behavior became an excuse as she tried to talk her way into what she wanted.
            There isn’t much of a filter on language or behavior these days. And I can’t help but think that TV is a big part of why.
            Is it good news that the teens on television and in movies are no longer Hollywood-ized, sanitized versions of the real thing? In the eighties and nineties, teens on TV and in movies were sometimes so far removed from reality as to be almost laughable. One truly terrible movie that always stood out to me was Drive Me Crazy, which was made in 1999. Melissa Joan Hart, who is elementally not cool, played the “cool” girl who gives Adrian Grenier a makeover. She takes him from looking like a normal, messy guy in a T-shirt and jeans to a complete dork with slicked-back hair and a cheesy leather jacket. In no high school in 1999 was that ridiculous get-up going to land him a spot in the popular crowd. And to prove it, Grenier went on just four years later to play the very cool Hollywood actor at the center of Entourage—wearing the same ratty jeans and T-shirts that some delusional filmmakers thought he needed to ditch to move up the social ladder.
            I don’t think a misstep like Drive Me Crazy would happen today. But a part of me misses this brand of fiction. As seriously uncool as Melissa Joan Hart’s character was in that movie, she was ambitious, a control freak, a good student. I’d rather my students idolize someone like her than Abbey from the doubtless soon to be cancelled L.A. Complex. When I think about these characters as an influence on the real kids who are watching, I miss the Hollywood gloss, even when it was unrealistic.
            Hollywood kids still look unreal, but their behavior is often pretty common (sometimes as in lowest common.) On The Jersey Shore, for example, nothing is filtered out. Behavior that used to happen behind closed doors is no longer off limits—even the bathroom and what happens there are shown and discussed.
Is there shame, anymore? Kids today are often exposed early to everything. In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman pointed out that the very existence of a separate phase of life that can be called childhood is predicated on there being separate spheres for child and adult. An important part of what separates these spheres is the keeping of adult secrets. We don’t really do that anymore.
            There are certainly those who would argue that the Afterschool Special tone of teen shows from ten or more years ago were puritanical, preachy, and maybe even disconnected with most kids’ reality. But I’m just not sure about some of the messages taking their place. In most adult jobs, a filter is still required. You have to show up, dressed properly, say the proper things (and avoid saying improper things), and you have to do it every single day. I sometimes worry that the culture of it’s-okay-because-it’s-how-I-feel has led to a generation with no filter. And I really kind of think we need that if we’re going to continue to pursue the whole civilized-society thing.
            In the meantime, maybe that show will be cancelled and Kaylee can find a show that seems less like a harbinger of the end of civilization as we know it. 

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