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Teenage Circus: Teenagers on TV

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Friday, Nov 27, 2009
Michael Hewes (Zachary Booth) of Damages
The teenagers of television are a limited breed at the best of times, usually pigeonholed to fit into the storylines of their parents or significant others. Where are the complex representations that the majority of writers can achieve with their adult characters?

All teenagers on TV at this current moment seem to fall into one of two very distinct categories. They are either the rebellious troublemakers who wreak havoc on their parents (see the Scavo twins in Desperate Housewives or Michael Hewes in Damages), or they are the intellectual, well-behaved children who act as foils to their immature and irresponsible parents (see Julie Mayer in Desperate Housewives or Becca in Californication).


Even shows that could once be relied upon to provide us with relatively normal young characters, such as Law and Order: SVU (see Detective Stabler’s recurring spawn), have fallen into this trap. Recently we were given “Swing”, an episode that detailed the life of Stabler’s daughter, Kathleen, and her fall into delinquency because of bipolar disorder. Even the once well-behaved children have been shown to have their moment of rebellion; consider Julie Stark’s (of the legal drama Shark) improbable pingponging between “sweet, smart heart of the show” and “criminal source of personal drama.” They just can’t make up their minds.


Julie Stark (Danielle Panabaker) and Sebastian Stark (James Woods) share a father/daughter moment.

Julie Stark (Danielle Panabaker) and Sebastian Stark
(James Woods) share a father/daughter moment.


My question is: why? Is it impossible to depict complex teenage characters? Writers seem to be almost seduced by the ‘easy drama’ that wayward teens provide, but spend precious little time developing them as people or exploring their motives for such actions. It is not the actions themselves that I resent, but the apparent laziness of the writers while creating such characters. We can have complicated hard drinkers and adulterers like the titular Grace of Saving Grace as the leads when they are adults, but when such qualities are present in the younger generation, they are reduced to mere cardboard cut outs, excuses for more drama in the lives of their frazzled parents.


Take the aforementioned Michael Hewes of Damages. Despite having everything he could possibly wish for given to him by his rich and successful mother and stepfather, he is—apparently—unhappy. He is portrayed as a budding sociopath in the first season of the legal drama, shown sending a bomb to his mother’s workplace and pretending to the school psychiatrist that his mother’s unsettling dreams are his own. Why? It is inferred that Michael longs to see his icy mother lose her cool, to “rock her world”, as Andrew van de Kamp did to long-suffering mother Bree through the second season of Desperate Housewives, yet nothing is confirmed or truly developed. Little of a maternal bond is shown between Patty and Michael, but nothing is shown to suggest that there would be anything else.


I am not saying that I wished for one of those spectacular, Lifetime-esque scenes in which Patty and Michael screamed and sobbed at one another, exorcising demons and unearthing skeletons, but I would have liked to see… something. This subplot was introduced and then rapidly dropped, as commonly happens with subplots that concern a show’s teenage characters. These teens are, mostly commonly, plot devices, but they are very rarely developed people. Why not? Just because adults are a show’s main focus, it doesn’t mean that their teenagers cannot be developed and well rounded.


Veronica Mars is an example of this. It may be aimed at teens, and primarily about teens, but each of these characters are superbly written, flawed, and detailed. Nobody is all good or all bad. For example, even ultimate villain and abusive father Aaron Echolls presents a genuine desire to reconnect with estranged son Logan and love for daughter Trina. Our heroine has her own faults, including a particular bull-headedness and tendency to judge far too quickly. The good guys have their quirks and complexities, while the bad guys are not nearly as two-dimensionally psychotic as they might once appear. I am not holding the Veronica Mars writers in a place above gods; they are not perfect, either, but this is one angle in which they excel. What is stopping their fellow powers that be from following their example?

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