Sabrina, the Teenage Witch / Grosse Pointe

by Tracy McLoone


Grosse Pointe
Creator/Writer: Darren Star
Director: Andrew Fleming
Cast: Joely Fisher, William Ragsdale, Lindsay Sloane, Irene Molloy, Bonnie Someville, Kohl Sudduth, Alfredo Santos, Kyle Howard
Regularly scheduled: Fridays, 8:30 pm EST

by Tracy McLoone
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Baby, you can turn me on

cover art

Sabrina, the Teenage Witch

Creator: Nell Scovell
Cast: Melissa Joan Hart, Caroline Rhea, Beth Broderick, Trevor Lissauer, Elisa Donovan, David Lascher, Nick Bakay


Remember when The X-Files was on Friday nights, and geeks like me had something to do? Those were the days. I was well into my 20s when I turned on the television one Friday night and found The X-Files. The weeks wore on and it became more difficult to hide my secret desire, to stay home with my TV. Soon, however, The X-Files became an acceptable group activity: people started gathering to watch it. I could no longer be home alone nurturing my inner-nerd. Still, I felt abandoned when the series moved to Sunday nights. My longing for Fridays was a throwback to those Saturday nights when my babysitting charges were asleep and it was time for The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I realized then that I wanted cheap entertainment.

Recently, it came to me that what I really want is a combination: the wit of The X-Files and the spectacle of The Love Boat, with the cast and soap opera plots of Beverly Hills 90201. I want adolescent-minded shows, shot through with enough sarcasm and parody that I can feel smart when I watch them. While I may not have all my wishes granted, it seems that at least somebody is trying to accommodate me. The WB is currently fine-tuning a Friday night lineup, apparently aimed at stay-at-home teens. Or perhaps teens who don’t go out until after 10pm. Or perhaps older viewers desiring some eye candy laced with irony.

It starts at 8pm with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, a refugee from one of the big three networks. While the September 22 WB season premiere of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch garnered a substantially smaller audience than it did previously on ABC, the WB had its best Friday night ever in terms of numbers. Variety reports that Sabrina attracted 3.36 million viewers, about a third of what ABC had garnered for the series premiere last year, but an excellent score for the WB. Viewing dropped off for Grosse Pointe, but remained decent by WB Friday night standards. The WB rarely attempts head-on confrontation with the big three; instead, the Frog quietly poaches a few select audience members at a time, getting advertising dollars interested in reaching teens and black Americans, two groups often dismissed by other TV stations. On Fridays this fall, the WB is aiming for the former, which has proven favorable for the network in recent seasons.

Melissa Joan Hart (who plays Sabrina) has longer hair this season than last, and it’s a bit redder. However, Sabrina is otherwise quite in league with the currently popular young blondes — Mandy, Britney, Christina, et. al. — judging from her pleather hip-huggers and crop tops. I mean, it wouldn’t be the WB without the display of some teenage flesh. The opening credits show Sabrina barely managing some choreographed dance moves. I couldn’t help but think of Britney skipping around in a her red jumpsuit for the “Oops… I Did it Again” video, long blonde hair extensions flying, when Sabrina cavorted through her opening credit dance moves. Sabrina is just a little bigger and a lot goofier-on-purpose than Britney. (Perhaps some of Britney rubbed off when the singer appeared on Sabrina last year.)

Thank goodness, Sabrina Spellman has finally graduated from high school and is starting to grow up, because the 20something Hart was looking a bit out of place among the 16-year-old extras. She has moved out of her aunts’ house and, more importantly, her home on the far more staid ABC. On the WB, Sabrina attends John Adams College in her home town and lives in an off-campus group house. Her new roommate is none other than Punky Brewster (Soleil Moon Frye), except on this show, her name is Roxie. Frye’s acerbity and raspy voice are a welcome contrast to Hart’s irritatingly sparkly energy; and as Roxie, Frye looks and behaves much like an angry, early-‘90s Alanis Morissette. Roxie refuses to let Sabrina in to what is supposed to be their shared room and criticizes the little witch for being too annoyingly perky. But if Roxie talks tough, she’s ultimately revealed to have some soft spots, agreeing to help Sabrina move in when she discovers that Sabrina is less perfect than she looks. But here, the show takes a moralistic, “be yourself” attitude, with Sabrina declaring that she should not have to prove her freakiness in order to be accepted by Roxie. One other housemate is Miles (Trevor Lissauer), who has his own room and is obsessed with the “unexplained.” Miles is kind of a Mulder-in-training, perpetually paranoid and expounding conspiracy theories. In the September 30 episode, Miles refuses to eat the bacon and eggs Sabrina has cooked because he contends the pigs and chickens were raised in government facilities and therefore potentially harmful: instead, he eats sugar cereal.

In this new environment, Sabrina has the problem of keeping her powers secret from her roommates as well as the outside world, but I wonder how long this will last. While I’m fairly sure Miles won’t figure it out for a while — he is spacey and clueless — it might be fun if Roxie were let in on the secret. But perhaps I am thinking too Buffy-wishfully: Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s hour-long serial format is better than Sabrina‘s half-hour, for dealing with intricate, ongoing relationships. The half-hour sitcom is more suited for jokey situations based on secrets — demonstrated back in the ‘70s by Bewitched, from which Sabrina is directly descended. The first week of Sabrina on the WB: Sabrina has to decide whether to use her magic to live comfortably in her new house. Week 2: Sabrina has to decide whether to use her magic to live the total college experience. I see a pattern, and it’s not a new one.

Sabrina’s aunts, Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick), remain heavily involved in her life, disguising themselves in the premiere episode as a teapot and waffle iron in order to spy on her. (I say “spy”; parents might say “make sure she’s doing okay.”) Salem the cat (voiced by Nick Bakay) is back, plumper and shinier than he was on ABC. Maybe they weren’t feeding him enough over there; then again, everyone on the WB is so pretty, why shouldn’t Salem be pretty too? While I kind of miss the more mangy-looking Salem, at least he retains his attitude. Salem still lives with Hilda and Zelda, but frequently drops in on Sabrina. It seems that while Sabrina is trying to grow up, her talking stuffed animal insists on following her to college. Sabrina’s high school boyfriend Harvey (Nate Richert) is out of the picture for now — the episode opens with Sabrina and Salem in witch group therapy trying to get over splitting up with Harvey. Sabrina is taking the breakup much better than Salem. In other words, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch is still too, too cute.

Sabrina is now followed by the totally new series Grosse Pointe, Darren Star’s parody of his own long-running, often self-parodic Fox series, Beverly Hills 90210. The opening credits of Grosse Pointe feature Tom Jones singing “Sex Bomb (The Peppermint Jam Disco Mix),” which is somewhere between scary and laughable, and also quite catchy. To a funky disco beat, he sings, “You’re my sex bomb, and baby, you can turn me on / Now don’t get me wrong, ain’t gonna do you no harm / No, this bomb’s for loving and you can shoot it far…” This sets the mood for the rest of the show — it all seems so familiar, just slightly off, maybe a little disconcerting. But it’s only the beginning. Grosse Pointe is a mean, mean show — and nobody escapes the knife. For me, mean is good, especially by the time I get to Friday night, after a week’s worth of humanity heaped upon me in my daily life, and especially after the saccharine sweetness of Sabrina. Watching Grosse Pointe is a way to vent aggression without having to go to the racquetball court (it’s no surprise that associate producer Todd London also worked on Action, which moved from Fox to Fox’s cable affiliate F/X, because it was just too mean for regular TV).

Grosse Pointe is a half-hour comedy about a teen-oriented drama, also called Grosse Pointe, on network TV (not ABC, NBC, or CBS). The latter show is about a group of teens attending high school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a wealthy suburb of Detroit. The former is about the vain and whiny Los Angeles cast and crew of the latter. There are reports that Aaron Spelling insisted that changes be made to one character: Marcy Sternfeld (Lindsay Sloane) is the daughter of the show-within-the-show’s producer and has a plum role on it; she is also neurotic and squirrelly (Spelling’s daughter Tori starred on 90210 and was/is famously neurotic and squirrelly). But these reports have only provided additional publicity for the Grosse Pointe, giving any 90210 fans who were skeptical of Grosse Pointe a reason to tune in.

The actors all look way older than high school students, but this time they are supposed to, in order to make fun of the convention that most actors playing high school students on TV or in movies are in their 20s, at least. By drawing attention to this device, Grosse Pointe suggests that it “knows that we know that it knows that we know…” As beautiful as they are, however, no one on Grosse Pointe — the framing show or the show-within-the-show — is trying to appear likeable. As is often the case with shows with an attitude, the most compelling character is perhaps the meanest. Hunter Fallow (Irene Molloy) is a mean, shoplifting bitch, who schemes to sow discord to maintain her stardom, especially against her chief nemesis, Courtney Bennet (Bonnie Somerville). Other cast members are Quentin King (Kohl Sudduth), a hairpiece-wearing tough guy probably born sometime in the ‘60s, and pretty boy Johnny Lane (Alfredo Santos). Johnny is frequently accompanied by his best friend, fellow surfer dude and Grosse Pointe stand-in Dave (Kyle Howard), and is the recipient of romantic overtures from the man who plays his father on the show. These characters seem standard — the nasty girl, the insecure girl, the earnest girl, the aging teen idol — but maybe that’s because they’re so ingrained in my consciousness from ten years of watching 90210.

The scenes between the fictional production team of Hope Lustig (Joely Fisher) and Rob Fields (William Ragsdale) are the most fun to watch. Their deep fear of unseen network executives, combined with their excessive self-congratulation, is cute and campy, even if their performances — like most of the acting in Grosse Pointe (both versions) — is a bit hammy. But wait — it’s supposed to be hammy. Hope and Rob’s interactions may be so enjoyable because they offer a glimpse into parts of 90210 I had only heard about before, but did not get to see. Again, I feel as though I am being let in on a secret joke, and best of all, I get it. I like being congratulated and included as much as the next person. I will keep watching Grosse Pointe in my quest for the totally satisfying television experience, hoping to find my own TV “sex bomb” to turn me on.. I’ll probably be disappointed, but I will be entertained.

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//Mixed media