[13 February 2007]
When Grosse Pointe debuted on the WB in 2000, it caused a bit of a stir. Sure, teen shows like Dawson’s Creek and Melrose Place have been parodied before, but a whole series on the backstage antics of a teen show hadn’t been attempted – especially on the reigning teen-drama king, the WB.
Created by Darren Star (Beverly Hills 90210, Sex and the City, Melrose Place), Grosse Pointe falls in line with other self-reflexive shows of the early 2000s, but unlike Sports Night, Grosse Pointe seems less concerned with realism and realistic characters than it does with archetypes and teen-specific drama. Trying to be a Dawson’s Creek for ironic tastes, Grosse Pointe has the same character stereotypes that a 90210 would have, but attempts “truth” based on its “real” setting of a Hollywood backstage. And though Grosse Pointe steadily gained fans throughout its run, it was ultimately unable to capture an audience large enough to sustain it, and was cancelled after its first full season.
The show follows six “teens” on their voyages making the Dawson’s Creek-modeled show “Grosse Pointe”: The underwear-modeling surfer, Johnny; the insecure glutton, Marcy; the two-faced diva, Hunter; the 30-year-old, balding ladies’ man, Quentin; the naïve new-girl, Courtney; and the mooch, Johnny’s best friend, Dave. All playing stock, small-town high-school characters on the show-within-the-show, these actors grasp to find some semblance of an identity in Hollywood and, as a result, show their glaringly obvious negative traits off-screen.
To a Hollywood insider, the show is a wonderful send-up. Situations and jokes can almost always end with the punch-line, “Oh, Hollywood…!” and everyone laughing into the sunset. For example, the head writer/producer knows nothing about movies and constantly consults the film-schooled PA for ideas. Also, during one episode, Quentin’s backstage-brags about his sexual vivacity cause him to be written into impotence. These situations are genuinely funny and are able to carry the show through some of the slower parts. In addition, almost every scene on the set during shooting is fantastic. The dichotomy presented between the personas on the show and the personas of the actors are brilliant. Hunter will deliver a wonderfully tacky lovey-dubby scene with her on-screen mother, all the while giving death stares to her real mother behind the camera.
But these laughs are throw-aways. Throughout my viewings there’s an overall conceptual issue with the show that never resolves: Instead of presenting complex characters and contrasting them with their simple-minded counterparts, the actors are all stereotypes and are extremely similar to their on-screen visages. Comparing the show and show-within-the-show becomes difficult when these dumbed-down portrayals of real people are used. We’re supposed to laugh at the two-dimensional persona of Hunter Fallow’s goodie-goodie character, Becky, but we’re supposed to believe her equally shallow, two-faced-diva character off-screen? When Johnny’s character can’t act, we giggle, but what about when the actor playing Johnny can’t act?
Regardless of how en- or un-vogue self-referential writing is, it can explore themes and ideas thoroughly, completely, and often contain overarching humor to keep even the heaviest of topics a bit lighter. However, there are pitfalls to this approach, and lapsing into gimmicks without legitimate reasons seems forced, uncreative and trite. Self-reflexive entertainment has always been paradoxical in its execution, and Grosse Pointe is no exception.
By making a show reflexive, the creators must prepare for a whole new set of criticisms because, in a way, they’re aggrandizing their show by pointing out fallacies and absurdities within that genre. It was easy for Sports Night to overcome that same hurdle because the show within the show was a non-fiction, sports talk show. But Grosse Pointe is a teen-comedy about teen-comedies—both victims to the same shortcomings. In an early episode, Johnny says, “Dude, the traffic’s so gnarly on the PCH! I just can’t stay at my Malibu house during the week anymore.” Though I admire the compact elegance of the sentence, it sounds like a line from “Grosse Pointe” – a line to be mocked for its disconnection from reality – just not a realistic portrayal of a person.
Yes, the show has humor when the actors mirror the shallow facades of their characters, but that doesn’t draw me from week to week. Sure, it’s cute and self-referential, but the stoic, unchanging characters and ephemeral storylines are no better than what it mocks. I feel no more attracted to these characters than the ones on Beverly Hills, 90210 or any of the others. And just because it’s the next step up on the conceptual staircase doesn’t give the show critical exemption.
Grosse Pointe was fun. The episode when Hunter gains weight to audition for Oliver Stone’s Lewinsky is a riot, as is Jason Priestly’s guest spot as a recovering-sex-addict version of himself. It’s not exceptional, but if you’ve grown a bit tired of the standard teen fair, but still secretly desire that baby-soap-opera feeling, try Grosse Pointe. Otherwise, find Sports Night in a used DVD bin somewhere.