When I first watched Popular last fall, it seemed too stupid for words, except maybe one: “sophomoric.” But is that so wrong in a show about high school students? But, after tuning in for a full season, I came to realize that the series’ humor is more sophisticated than I first believed and that it actually raises important issues in ways that are more complex than they first appear.
Back for a second season on the WB, Popular‘s sarcasm is now abundantly clear to me. Consider a moment from the 2000 season premiere: a close-up shot of laundry detergent called Clean Teen. The camera pulls out to reveal Samantha “Sam” McPherson (Carly Pope) and her mother Jane McPherson (Lisa Darr) side by side at a washing machine, talking about boy-girl relationships and their own family problems. The caricature of a 1950s-ish product is juxtaposed with what appears to be a more up-to-date mother-daughter representation. Their lives are certainly complicated: Jane is romantically involved and living with Mike McQueen (Scott Bryce), father of Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb), lead blond in the most popular clique at Los Angeles’s Kennedy High School. This makes Sam and Brooke de facto sisters, even while they remain rivals at school. While talking to her mom, Sam is concerned about this and other issues, thinking that some of the McPherson-McQueen problems are her fault. In fact, they kind of are, as Jane and others point out: at the end of last season, Sam reunited Brooke with her birth mother (played by Peggy Lipton), who wants to make up for leaving Brooke and her father, eight years earlier. As you might imagine, tensions have emerged.
Perhaps the bravest aspect of Popular is that it takes such teen concerns seriously but also sets them in context: it’s set in a teen-centric universe, where teenagers do cause families to split up, and students actually are under attack by the school administration. The new season has even evolved like teens might, shifting the sister-dynamics, so that Brooke and Sam have moved from last season’s head-on conflicts to a relationship that involves more mutual appreciation and respect, and have even come to love one another as sisters, despite remaining in different high school camps. Brooke is a prototypical homecoming queen: thin, blonde, sweet but somewhat vacuous, a leader of Kennedy High’s cheerleading squad the Glamazons (the football team is the Amazons). She is indisputably the most popular girl in school whatever that means. Her closest friends are two other Glamazons, Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman) and Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels), and boyfriend Josh Ford (Bryce Johnson), the football team quarterback. Sam is just as lovely as Brooke, but is dark-haired and pale, and adopts something of a gothic look. Sam is the editor of the school paper and always fights for the underdog. Her group includes radical environmental activist and feminist Lily Esposito (Tamara Mello), Carmen Ferrera (Sara Rue), who is overweight by popular high school standards and has long yearned to be a Glamazon, and cute but dorky Harrison John (Christopher Gorham).
That this latter group is entirely brunette is no accident. Rather, their hair color is displayed like a team jersey as are the blonde heads of Brooke’s set. In fact, in one episode last season, the two groups switch hair colors to find out if they will be treated differently. What they find is that doors are opened for the fair-haired ones, while the darker crowd gets no special favors and basically gets the shaft. Not only do blondes have more fun, they just plain have more. While the “natural” brunettes ultimately have the moral high ground, this does not change the idea that materially, things are better for the fair ones. Further, nothing in the episode indicates possibility for change, or even that there is anything horribly wrong with this situation—just that that is the way things are and the non-blondes of the world must either assimilate or accept their subordinate roles.
Popular‘s look is highly stylized and the scripts are self-aware, and the series tends to resemble Fox’s Ally McBeal in its mixing of obvious fantasy with more realistic situations. The dialogue among the teens of Kennedy High is complex and filled with cultural references. In the September 2000 season premiere, “Timber,” Glamazon Nicole declares of one of her schemes: “This gives my ferocious will to power room to dominate and devour.” Who really talks like this? Nobody I want to hang out with and certainly no high school cheerleaders I have met, even the really smart ones. By contrast, situations which in real life do constitute serious problems are often made light of. Bulimia and mental illness come up in Popular, as jokes rather than melodrama, suggesting the writers understand these problems to be integral to and common in high school, rather than unusual events. Even with this self-awareness, the show still stars kids who, by and large, do conform to mostly unachievable ideal body types. But that might be part of the joke, too.
The show walks these thin lines between satire and disrespect repeatedly. Also in “Timber,” a subplot involves a situation where student activism proves to be futile. Lily Esposito (one of the “unpopular”) joins forces with Michael “Sugar Daddy” Bernardino (Ron Lester), a member of the in-crowd, to save a 200-year-old tree that evil science teacher Bobbi Glass wants to cut down because it offers comfortable shade and she feels students should suffer. Lily has environmental reasons for saving the tree, and Sugar Daddy fears that if the tree comes down, his romance with Exquisite Woo (Michelle Krusiec), which he immortalized by carving their names into the tree, will end. The teacher literally attacks the tree-sitting students with DDT, pigeons, and loud music. Of course, teachers can not really spray students with poisonous chemicals that would be illegal. However, thinking about the increased restrictions on student freedoms in all schools (dress codes, suspensions for bringing over-the-counter pain killers to alleviate headaches onto campus), the situation can and often does seem this dire, especially to those who are in it every day.
Perhaps Popular‘s primary lesson is useful for all of us, teens and older folks alike life isn’t fair. Adults may hold all the cards, but they really do not know how to play them: mom and dad are as clueless about relationships are as their seventeen-year-old progeny. Rules seem arbitrary and power is abused. Beautiful blonde skinny people have it easier. It would be nice to look at Popular and say, “Thank god I’m not in high school any more.” But the truth is that life in the adult world is no less absurd or difficult.