Once upon a time, there weren't really any teenagers on TV. People of the pre-adult persuasion were forced to go see "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" and even "Porky's" in the theater to get a look at their peers. Where else could you see the mixed-up, hormonally crippled shenanigans of teendom, without the delicious angst of John Cusack in "Say Anything" or Patrick Dempsey in "Can't Buy Me Love"? Unless you were perversely excited by the G-rated foibles of Vicky on "The Love Boat" or those perky sisters on "Eight Is Enough" -- you know, the ones played by actresses in their mid-30s who looked nothing like each other, but still squealed and giggled about boys like the first-rate prudes in a Beverly Cleary novel? -- you had to drive to the movies to see a halfway reasonable reflection of teen life.
That all changed around 1996, when the fast-talking, know-it-all teens of "Scream" hit theaters with a vengeance, and suddenly everyone wanted movies and TV shows populated by sophisticated, witty teenagers -- ones with perky boobs, of course. First came "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," then "Dawson's Creek" (from Kevin Williamson, who penned "Scream"), followed by an unruly gaggle of shows, peaking this year with a massive glut of teen dramas, including "Gilmore Girls," "Smallville," "The OC," "One Tree Hill," "life as we know it," "Jack & Bobby," "Joan of Arcadia," "Veronica Mars," "Everwood" and "Tru Calling." What's most remarkable, though, is how far the characters on today's shows have evolved from the giggling innocents of the '80s.
Wide-eyed looks and double takes have been replaced by snickering, sideways glances, snide asides, and over-it eye rolls. Instead of encountering brand-new situations with innocence and naiveté, TV teens make out with their teachers, swill vodka from flasks, and run to the corner store for ribbed condoms. Instead of slogging through the confusing mire of soupy emotions, repression and the little betrayals of high school, these teens trade rapid-clip witty banter, drop the names of the coolest alternative bands, and float through school like it's just a pretty backdrop for their highly evolved psychosocial dramas. Instead of stuttering nervously, then running home to fill their diaries with earnest entries about their deepest, darkest secrets and wildest dreams, these kids rail off their issues with lighthearted aplomb, then pull on strapless, bias-cut silk cocktail dresses and race off in their convertibles, off to another night of the kind of sophisticated socializing that used to exist -- still fictionally, of course -- only among Harvard faculty and clever Manhattan elites.
Naturally, today's TV teens see right through their parents. In fact, parents on teen shows tend to pick up where the "Eight Is Enough" girls left off, with lots of wide-eyed staring and confusion, a complete inability to communicate, and a very high chance of wandering astray, either by threatening someone, hiding the truth, cheating on their spouses, or just by giving really, really bad advice. Far from the saucer-eyed simpletons of yesteryear following Daddy Stubing around the big boat or begging Mr. Drummond for a chance to stay up past their bedtimes, today's TV teens are the rulers of their universes. They move freely through the world, throwing elaborate parties and getting their nails done and moving to another state on a whim. It's their parents who mess up, mostly by failing to trust the sage young demigods in their midst.
Take Ben on "life as we know it," who's having an affair with his teacher, Ms. Young. Naturally, Ben is utterly blameless, acting on teenage animal instinct, boisterously and boldly stating his desires, while his teacher is the confused, overwhelmed one.
Ben: I wanna kiss you so bad right now!
Ms. Young: So badly.
Ben: Maybe we could go to your place after school and I could show you how badly.
Ms. Young: I can't. I think I have a meeting.
Ben: Ditch your stupid meeting!
Ms. Young: I'll let you know.
Ben: (to camera) I have lived my entire life to get to this day, to have this exact feeling. God, I love school!
Yes, you heard right. Ben just instructed his very attractive young teacher to ditch her stupid meeting. That kind of talk, which would win you a smackdown with a 12-inch wooden ruler back in the day, is apparently the bread and butter of today's Über Teen.
Or witness pretty Courtney (Jessica Pare) on "Jack & Bobby" (Sundays at 9 p.m. on the WB), whose dad spews commands and ultimatums that are utterly misguided and beneath her, while she wisely dodges idiot boys and does the hard work of cooking for the family and raising her little sister.
But beyond their brazen disregard for the rules of authority figures, today's TV teens have an ultramodern way of digesting the world around them. Their banter is laced with bits of popular culture, the same little phenomena you've been chatting aimlessly about with your friends for the past 10 years. Take this somber conversation between hot teen Jack (Matt Long) and his hip mom (Christine Lahti) on "Jack & Bobby," about little brother Bobby's crush on an older girl, which moves seamlessly into an ironic/earnest discussion of mac and cheese:
Jack: I think he's better off. He has to be, right?
Grace: He'll be OK. He's stronger than we give him credit for ... I think. Oh, God (picks up Mac & Cheese box). What ever happened to real cheese?
Jack: Went the way of the tape deck.
Grace: Yeah. There was even that cheese in a can, remember? Even that seemed like cheese.
Jack: If you think of it as cheese, it'll freak you out. It's just cheese flavor.
Grace: Yeah. I'm comforted already.
Of course, such talk is supposed to make these characters lovably arch, but all it really does is fill most of us with self-loathing; we've had the conversation about the bright orange cheese powder at least 15 times before, and it started to seem mundane around the third time. This isn't charming, quirky dialogue; this is today's version of small talk, the modern equivalent of "Hey, can you believe this weather?"
The WB's "Gilmore Girls" is the worst offender in its use of this kind of banter, with every one of its characters partaking of it in the same exact tone, at the same impossibly swift speed, in the same awkward, irregular, unrealistic way. Take Rory and her friend Lane discussing Lane's crush on the lead singer of her band:
Lane: There's a danger here. The band thing. Need I mention the rock 'n' roll casualties from intraband dating? Not that there's not success stories. You've got your Crafts, your Yo La Tengos, your Kim and Thurstons.
Rory: Sonny and Cher, the early years.
Lane: Plus, you've got your bands that survived breakups, no doubt.
Rory: Wish they hadn't.
Lane: X, Superchunk, the White Stripes. But in the negative you have ...
Rory: Sonny and Cher, the later years.
Lane: Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac. I know of two country music stars whose backup singers shot him in the groin.
Such dialogue amounts to a list, an extended résumé of references meant to telegraph cool. The worst is the referential shortcut, whereby, instead of saying something original or offering some fresh, specific way of presenting him or herself, a character merely draws on some known quantity to make his or her point. Here's a scene from "life as we know it," where the lead character, Dino, meets a sexy stranger.
Adam: This is Zoe. She goes to Lincoln.
Zoe: Did you know the first full-on sex dream I ever had was with me and Tom Cruise? We were doing it in a car, but then it turned into this boat with wheels.
Zoe: You know, Dino, you look just like Tom Cruise.
Of course he looks just like Tom Cruise -- he's the studly star of a high school drama! They all look a little bit like Tom Cruise.
Unfortunately, instead of developing memorable characters, the writers of today's TV dramas create one fun, snarky character and a bunch of bland stereotypes, then slowly but surely, all of the bland ones start to revolve around -- and talk just like -- the snarky one. Witness Seth Cohen, snarky teen of the year from "The OC," bantering with his once-spoiled, once-dim bulb, formerly out-of-reach girlfriend, Summer, about the reconciliation of Marissa and Ryan:
Seth: What is it with those two? The Pacman and the getting along and the happy times?
Summer: They're playing video games. It's not a Mandy Moore movie.
Of course, the referential small talk is also used as filler in scenes where something heavier is happening.
Seth: If you drink it too fast, you'll get a brain freeze.
Summer: So sip it slowly.
Ryan: That's good advice.
Marissa: OK, guys, I can drink a cold beverage. I'm telling you, I'm really ... (spots Mom with ex-boyfriend) so not OK! (runs away)
Seth: I guess we'll skip the Razzmatazz.
Light, filler dialogue can be found in any number of plays since the dawn of time -- the difference is, there was usually another layer of meaning encoded in such digressions. When the alcoholic and his neglected wife are arguing about how long to cook the spaghetti in a Raymond Carver story, the quavering noodles represent their expiring love for one another. Now, comparing teen dramas to Carver stories may be about as useful as comparing Beethoven's 5th to Nelly, but the empty references often serve to turn a scene into a cartoon frame, filled with familiar objects, but leaving it flat and weightless. The more we relate to the shared references in a scene, the less we experience its inhabitants as existing in their own, separate world. Instead of being a sentimental outcast who likes to control his surroundings and uses his sense of humor to mask his feelings, Seth is merely a fan of comic books and Jamba Juice, Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes.
But then, if you browse the online personals, you'll find the same sorts of self-descriptions: Consumables are acceptable substitutes for everything from personality traits to our deepest hopes and dreams. Nerve.com doesn't ask you how you feel about honesty or fidelity or commitment, it asks you what five items you can't live without and which celebrity you most resemble. Such commercial shorthand is decades old by now, but the speed with which it has moved into the mainstream and come to seem a reasonable substitute for substantive exchanges of ideas and emotions is remarkable.
When Ryan teases Seth for knowing about Care Bears and their "Care Bear Stare," he's basically calling him a fruitcake; when Seth says, "My gramma wears Uggs!" he means his grandfather's new wife is a hot little number. Is this clever, snappy dialogue, really, or just a lazy little shortcut?
Then again, maybe it would all be fine if the heavier exchanges took us further. After years of simmering attraction, Luke and Lorelai of "Gilmore Girls" find themselves in a relationship with nothing more to discuss than Red Twists, Pippi Longstockings, and what time Luke likes to get to bed at night. On this week's premiere of "The OC," Ryan is supposed to convince Seth of something, but instead of a conversation, we get a lot of "Ums" and "OK, mans," with the soaring alt-rock soundtrack doing all the work in trying to capture the scene's emotions.
It's tough not to suspect that, as fun as these shows actually are to watch, they're a lot more fun for the viewers in their 30s, whose cult references match those of the writers, than they are for actual teenagers. The Über Teen universe depicted therein is an echo of a certain generation, with all of its irony-masked self-consciousness and identity issues -- struggles that aren't likely to be quite so real for today's kids, who appear to struggle far less with earnest, honest, straightforward communication than those who are charged with re-creating them for the small screen. Read a few pages of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" or some short stories by Matthew Klam or a few essays by David Foster Wallace before watching one of these shows, and you'll see the earliest tones of this deeply conflicted voice, this flinchy self with its desperate need to stand for something, but its utter inability to take on any of the risk or the naive taint or the vulnerability that naturally comes with standing for something.
TV teens are a reflection of an older generation's chosen pose: snide, endlessly referential, self-conscious, and über-cool. Let's just hope, for their own sakes, real teenagers are far cooler.