Tyro Mania

ANY TIME IS A GOOD TIME TO BE YOUNG, ELSE Ponce de León would never have left Spain, but rarely has it seemed so necessary. Even as boomers strive to sweat, cut or simply define "middle age" out of existence, the chronological ideal -- as expressed through TV and movies, fashion spreads and music videos -- slides further and further back into adolescence, so that to be a teenager now is to be the quintessence of what counts. It is not wisdom born of long experience that rocks the house in these last days of M2, but innocence -- or rather, a kind of knowing innocence, or bruised innocence, innocence just lately lost or about to be. (Welcome to American Beauty.) And good unworried skin is always a plus.

While the worst cultural expressions of this trend are virtually pornographic (cf. Calvin Klein, Larry Clark,
Britney Spears), there's no denying that the years 'twixt 12 and 20 are the stuff of high drama and wildflower poignancy, and that much can be made from them for the entertainment and ennoblement of younger and older gens alike. Television is well on that case: It is, verily, the teen omphalos, star-making central, the cauldron from which Sarah Michelle and Melissa Joan and Jennifer Love and Neve and Katie and Keri, teenstars if not all strictly speaking teens, have emerged to bewitch the world --
a victory that has the strange effect of making Calista Flockhart look matronly. Though in broad social terms this is disturbing -- I've seen Wild in the Streets -- I am certainly as susceptible as the next old fossil/fart/fogy to the bright young faces of television (Willow 4-ever!), if overwhelmed by their mounting numbers; you can't tell the players without a scorecard. This season adds not only such teencentric shows as Freaks and Geeks, Popular and Roswell (the latter two set down directly on the big shoulders of Buffy and Dawson), in which adults are tangential to the action, but also whole-family series, like Once and Again (check it out -- it's good -- before NYPD Blue reclaims its time slot), Safe Harbor and Get Real, each of which comes with multiple teens prominently attached. Are you ready to party?

TO MY MIND, ANY SERIES ABOUT ADOLESCENCE must be measured against the DeGrassis -- DeGrassi Junior High and DeGrassi High, Canada's great gift to the youth of America 'long about a decade back. (I wear a wrist bracelet engraved WWCD: "What would Caitlin do?") Despite its study-guide foundation and the astonishing array of calamities that befell its principals, DeGrassi was never less than believable; none of the kids, who represented a satisfying range of color, size, type and level of maturity, ever seemed for an instant to be acting or was made to act as a kid would not. So when the 16-year-old Kennedy High student played by Carly Pope on the WB's new Popular looks over her just-pierced nose at groovy teacher Chad Lowe and thinks in voice-over, "If he saw me naked would he laugh?" and then "I wonder if implants hurt more than my piercing" -- that is not what I would call a DeGrassi moment.

Pope, who's got kind of a Gina Gershon­as­Alanis Morissette thing going on, plays a character smart and good-looking, yet socially restless and at envious odds with tall, blond, wafer-thin Leslie Bibb, the cheerleader whose money, beauty and good manners cannot mask her pain; these two, who in real school would probably not know one another's name, are here thrown together via the Brady Bunch expedient of the engagement of their single parents. I am not laying money on a quick mutual understanding. Meanwhile, all around seem to be losing their heads: The quarterback tries out for, and scores the lead in, the school musical ("Are you gay?" asks a friend), while great big Sara Rue (last seen torturing the much-missed Selma Blair on last year's Zoe, Jack, Duncan & Jane) goes out less successfully for cheerleader -- acts of cross-clique pioneering that upset the clockwork constitution of a neurotically self-conscious student body.

Although it wants you to know you can judge a book neither by its cover nor by its extracurricular activities, Popular nevertheless subscribes to the (audience-endorsed) Hollywood tenet that while inner beauty is nice, it doesn't photograph or sell nearly as well as the outer kind. (Those Mother Teresa posters don't exactly fly off the shelves.) The producers bow to physiognomy: gorgeous kids in the lead roles, not-quite-good-looking-enough-to-star-but-still-sort-of-cute kids as quirky sidekicks, and the fat kids played for pathos or for laughs. Everyone important is white. Of course, that much is just show biz; it's SOP. What most ails the show, besides the faulty premise that sophomores decide anything of importance, is that, in spite of generally good work by the actors, there are few true moments in it; the script and direction put the kids into artificial overdrive, like a Joan Crawford movie. I don't dispute that high school is high drama, but this lot are so busy truth-telling, philosophizing, unburdening and apologizing, I couldn't help but hope they'd find a minute to talk about clothes or cars or the stupid show they saw on TV last night. I did laugh when a girl at a party threw up in a washing machine; it was a small moment, but plausible, and something I'd never seen before. On the DeGrassi Believability Scale: 3.

THE TRUE PACE OF ADOLESCENCE -- MOSTLY HALTing, sometimes headlong -- is better re-created in NBC's wonderful Freaks and Geeks, from (nonfeatured) ex-comic Paul Feig and Larry Sanders writer-producer Judd Apatow, and the best reason since the $8 movie ticket to stay home on a Saturday night. A high school period piece set in suburban Michigan around 1980 -- right between That '70s Show and Square Pegs in the fictional high school universe, and not long before the dawn of John Hughes, smack in the fertile crescent of Midwestern teenage comedy -- it features Linda Cardellini as a college-track "mathlete" who, in a fit of Hughesian self-searching milieu-rejection triggered by the death of her grandmother, throws in with a small crowd of class-cutting, authority-ignoring, beer-drinking, soft-drug-abusing, Sabbath-Zeppelin-Floyd-loving "freaks." (We have come to that point in history where we can chuckle over stoned teenagers on network television -- in the family hour, even -- I can only guess because the TV business, like the TV audience, is now full of former stoned teenagers.) All of which, like much else in his own destabilized world, terrifies late-blooming, touchingly protective younger brother John Daley, a titular "geek" and functional straight man to his Hardy-and-Laurel best friends Samm Levine and Martin Starr (in a performance of great mouth-breathing dignity). Cardellini, approachably lovely with her lightly feathered dark hair and father's oversized old Army jacket, is a less operatic version of Claire Danes' Angela Chase, the good girl with the fuck-up friends (James Franco more or less holds down the Jordan Catalono chair here), but no less impressive for the modesty of the performance. This is a comedy, after all, and a gentle one -- set in an era Arcadian next to our own, though not without its heart-wrenching, ego-crushing miseries, lovingly recalled in excruciating detail. Never pedantic, rarely obvious, funny whenever it wants to be, unusually adept with negative space (conversational, perceptual) and as attentive to the edges of the frame as the center, if it's not the best new show of the year, there's at any rate none better. DeGrassi Believability Rating: 9.75.

WHERE THE CENTRAL METAPHOR OF BUFFY THE Vampire Slayer is high school as Hell, Roswell, set in the desert burg wherein 1947 modern UFOlogy began, literalizes teenage alienation: Three good-looking space kids with powers far beyond those of mortal men keep their otherworldly roots under wraps and suck down pints of Tabasco while they cope with high school, interspecies romance and a local sheriff who suspects something is Martian in the state of New Mexico. Extraspecial extraterrestrial Jason Behr (formerly of Dawson's Creek) is the sensitive one, with starry eyes for human heavenly body Shiri Appleby, another of this season's broody, brainy brunets, whose life he saves in episode one, setting off a chain of events that will play out as long as people are watching. While it is exactly the show you would have predicted from the collaboration of an X-Files alum (David Nutter) with a vet of My So-Called Life (Jason Katims), it is, in fact, based on a series of young-adult novels by Melinda Metz, and has the merits of that highly romantic genre, with a little bit of TV magic sprinkled on for good measure. Wholly agreeable if, on the DeGrassi Scale, naturally unbelievable.

The WB, 8 p.m.

Saturdays, NBC, 8 p.m.

The WB, 9 p.m.

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