One Tree Hill

Since the Socs rumbled with the Greasers–and probably before that–storytellers have posited the kids who have against the kids who have not. One Tree Hill tells the story of two half brothers from opposite sides of the tracks. Since then, it has told the stories of marriages, pregnancies and a high school shooting, but the brotherly duo is at its core. The pilot centers around their relationship. Continue reading

Square Pegs

Sarah Jessica ParkerGiven the current surge in nostalgia for the 80s, it’s a good time for Hulu to reintroduce the world to Square Pegs. From 1982, the show centers around two geeky high school girls trying to fit in. It stars Sarah Jessica Parker, even before Footloose and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Her co-star is Amy Linker who, according to IMDB hasn’t done anything since 1985. What I remember about this show is that the two lead actresses were on the cover of Dynamite magazine. Anyone? Dynamite magazine?

The show begins with the two of them talking, in voiceover, about their intentions to infiltrate the right cliques. “This year we’re gonna be popular,” the one with a slight Northern accent declares, “Even if it kills us.”

The pilot opens, as you might expect, on the first day of school. As the opening scene unfolds, at a pep rally, we learn that the one offering popularity instructions was braces-wearing Lauren (Linker). Glasses-wearing Patty (Parker) is her willing follower on the road to coolness. (See that? Glasses and braces are universal shorthand for geeky. Apparently Linker was also wearing padding to make her look fat, but she is only Hollywood fat, if anything.)

Lauren’s superior knowledge of who’s who gives the audience a chance to learn some names and ranks. The dreamiest guy in school is Larry Simpson. The most popular girl is Jennifer (Tracy Nelson – one of those Nelsons), who has a Princess Diana thing going on. Being popular also means talking with a Valley Girl accent, peppered with ‘like’s and ‘ya know’s. “Gross me out the door” she declares in once scene, prompted by nothing.

The pep rally scene also introduces Jami Gertz as Muffy Tepperman, the Patty Simcox of the group, and the token black student, L.D. The latter performs a song-and-dance number with the hideousness only the 80s could conjure.

For some reason the kids are dressed like it’s February, but forgetting that, the fashion paints us squarely in the 80s. Not in the send-up way that shows depict the 80s today, but realistically. )Seriously, we didn’t wear Madonna gloves and stirrup pants every day.) There are some really specific references to pop culture of the time too, like to a particular Budweiser commercial.

It takes a few scenes to get a feel for the tone of this show. Although it’s a half-hour comedy, it doesn’t feel like a sit-com. It’s single camera, with a lightly used laugh track. There’s a weightiness to it that would be seen in later shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life, and still later, Glee. It’s nice to see high school girls drawn as intelligent and articulate, even if they do still turn to butter in the presence of dreamy senior boys. Although Patty is heartbroken to learn that Larry isn’t into her, she responds with, “Larry, you needn’t reproach yourself.” Actually, much of the episode’s humor derives from her intense seriousness.

Oddly, we never see any of the characters’ home lives. In a show of this kind, we expect to see fights with parents, rule breaking and groundings. The pilot takes us from the pep rally, to lunch, to gym class, and finally to a school dance. As a side note and further sign of the times, the Waitresses appear as the band playing the school dance. It’s as if the writers are letting us know that school is these characters’ whole world, which is how it often feels at age 14. “My life is over,” Patty observes at the end. And we know her life will end in some little way every week, because that what happens in high school.

My So-Called Life

I pretty much missed the 90s as far as TV is concerned, so once in a while I “discover” a show that other people raved about back then, but I’ve never seen. That was the case with My So-Called Life.

The first thing you notice is all the darkness and slow-mo. That’s how this show paints high school—full of deep feelings and crucial choices. It’s easy to laugh off, but if you think back to how life looked through teenage eyes, it’s pretty accurate. I knew I was interested in this show when, two minutes in, the main characters says, in her deep, almost bored voice-over: “Cheerleaders… can’t people just cheer… on their own?”

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) is the poster child for grunge-era angst, a teenager who ends sentences with “…because if I didn’t I would die, or something.”

As the show begins, she has just changed best friends, a sea change moment in a teenage life, from a quiet, mousy, yearbook club type to a loud, nervy, club-going type. On advice from the new BFF, Rayanne (A.J. Langer), Angela has dyed her hair red. Her new hair color stands for her new outlook on life, rebellion against her mother, and her determination to get The Guy, the gorgeous Jordan Catilano (Jared Leto).

The use of narration, which sounds so realistic, eliminates the need for a lot of exposition. (Too much exposition sinks a pilot fast than anything. Case in point, the new Jenna Elfman show that premièred this week. I couldn’t make it past the first two minutes, let alone remember the title.) Since teenagers have this self-reflective inner monologue running a mile a minute anyway—at least I did—the voice over thing works perfectly.

“Lately I can’t even look at my mother without want to stab her repeatedly,” thinks Angela. The show is great at capturing familial awkwardness. Mom tiptoes awkwardly around Rayanne and the apparently gay Ricky. Dad mutters awkwardly at the sight of his pubescent daughter emerging from the bathroom in a towel. “My boobs have come between us,” Angela observes.

There are so many quote-worthy lines in this one episode, I could just transcribe the whole thing. It’s so edgy and honest, even 15 years in retrospect.

“My parents keep asking how school was. That’s like asking, ‘How was that drive-by shooting?’” I don’t know if they hired actual 15-year-olds to write this or what, but I love it. Seriously, though, Winne Holzman was the creator, and she went on to write the book of the musical Wicked, about the ultimate female misfit.

And god, the clothes. Flannel and plaid everywhere. Big, dumpy dresses with boots. I had these clothes. Maybe it’s better that I’m enjoying this in retrospect, as a piece of nostalgia. Maybe in 1994 it would have seemed blasé. Who knows? But in 2009 I’m glad it’s available on Hulu.

UPDATE: This show begins airing on the Sundance channel April 25, 2011