Into each generation a series is born, one show, in all the world, a Chosen One. That series ended in May and I marked the occasion, along with what seemed nearly every resident of the San Francisco East Bay Area by watching the finale on the big screen at Oakland’s Parkway Theater, where we were free to cheer and groan and applaud. The experience reminded me of something people forget when they’re hunched in front of their televisions, volume turned down low, shades lowered, and phone off the hook: for every misunderstood sci-fi show, high school horror film, or dreamy teen idol you can’t help loving, there are oodles more out there just like you. And they’re not all 12-year-old girls. So bust out the Justin Timberlake CD hidden in your pajama drawer and put on the Charmed T-shirt you bought on eBay late at night. Here are my picks for 2003’s most entertaining guilty pleasures.
1. One Tree Hill (The WB)
As in Dawson’s Creek, the supposed social outcasts on this show also happen to be the hottest kids in town. Lucas (Chad Michael Murray), rejected son of prominent resident (Paul Johansson) and half-brother to golden boy Nathan (James Lafferty), is picked on by the entire basketball team and called “bastard” in public. He’s also the star basketball player and every girl in school wants to sleep with him. The Shakespearean premise works for one simple reason: nothing appeals to girls more than really good-looking, deeply wounded boys, especially if they spend 75% of their screen time with their shirts off, so much the better. Every character here breaks free of his or her established status: the school slut (Sophia Bush) is surprisingly soulful; the head cheerleader (Hilarie Burton) misanthropic; and the brainiac (Bethany Joy Lenz) scores the school stud with her wit and kindness. This is high school fantasy fulfillment at its most satisfying.
2. The O.C. (Fox)
The O.C. is 90210 for a new generation, with wittier writing and less emphasis on “serious issues.” It embraces its status as trashy teen soap: characters change radically from week to week and “messages” are suitably heavy-handed and ineffective (Don’t drink! Don’t do favors for your jailbird brother!). Still, the Cohens are a genuinely warm, funny family who (almost) seem like real people. After Seth (Adam Brody) returns from an unsanctioned trip to Mexico, his mom (Kelly Rowan) says, “Let’s talk about that surprise little trip to Ti-a-wan-a.” He responds, “It’s pronounced Ti-juana… You’re so white, mom.”
3. Spike (James Marsters), Angel (The WB)
I can’t think of another character so often reinvented and so consistently delicious. James Marsters was born to play Spike, the bad-ass vampire turned reluctant good guy, turned lovelorn underdog, turned self-assigned hero, turned wisecracking sidekick. After going out on Buffy‘s last episode in a literal blaze of glory, he reappeared this season on Angel. Awash in contradictions, he’s both fiendish and vulnerable, heroic and villainous. Wherever he might be along the good/evil continuum, he is surely the pulse of the Buffyverse.
4. Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), Smallville (The WB)
The point of Smallville is to give viewers a glimpse at a journey with a preordained conclusion: teenaged Clark Kent (Tom Welling) becomes Superman. Even now, he’s heroic, geeky, and secretive. Lex Luthor’s future, on the other hand, is less clear. Though we can see within him the seeds of the villain he becomes, we also see his struggle to keep his darker inclinations under control. Michael Rosenbaum’s performance hints at the envy, rage, and sorrow that Lex suppresses beneath a surface of perfect composure. His desperate desire to understand, even to be, Clark Kent makes Superboy more interesting than he could ever be on his own.
5. Wrong Turn (Rob Schmidt)
As more and more horror films are gimmicky parodies, a simple “kids go into the woods and most don’t come back” tale is strangely refreshing. Director Rob Schmidt describes the film as a throwback to stylistic ‘70s horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Out of the first two couples to meet grisly ends, the boys are killed quickly and off-camera, while their girlfriends weep, scream, run, and suffer gruesome onscreen deaths. While it deploys familiar generic misogyny (one scene features tough girl Eliza Dushku tied to a bed and awaiting rescue), this film is unsettling and entertaining and, though its inbred, cannibalistic villains (don’t these kids know better than to venture into the West Virginian backwoods?) seem silly in the light of day, they’re creepy enough in the dark.
6. The Hot Chick (Tom Brady)
It doesn’t look like body-swapping movies are ever going out of style. Here, a self-centered teenager (Rachel McAdams) trades bodies with a 30-year-old petty criminal (Rob Schneider). It made me laugh so hard I was in pain. Does it matter that director Tom Brady seems to understand girls about as well as I understand mechanical engineering? Not in the least. It’s funny to see Schneider as a “chick,” and even better to see masculinity depicted as a gross indignity (“I’m like an ad for hair!” the girl-as-boy laments after nearly clogging the sink with nose, ear, and face stubble).
7. Blue Crush (John Stockwell)
Surfer Ann Marie (Kate Bosworth) loses her confidence following a near-drowning scare, then endeavors to reclaim her inner girl power, while also finding a boyfriend. Despite the plot’s formula and the surfer boys’ egregious acting (real surfers hired to ensure the film’s authenticity), Stockwell’s movie has a certain romance that makes you want to overlook its flaws. Ann Marie lives on the beach with her girlfriends, eternally sun-kissed and barefoot, surfing every morning: no commuting, cell phones, or extra foam lattes. Whether or not you have any talent or preexisting interest, it makes you want to surf, just like Bend It Like Beckham makes you want to play soccer and Bring It On makes you want to cheer.
We like us some more in 2004:
8. Jeremy Sisto
Sisto’s eclectic career (from Clueless to Six Feet Under to May to Wrong Turn, Thirteen, and the series finale of Dawson’s Creek) suggests that he can accommodate any type of project. He swaggers about, effortlessly filling plot voids with his lazy, boyish charm. As Eliza Dushku asserts in the Wrong Turn DVD audio commentary, “We like us some Jeremy Sisto.”