[7 October 2002]
There’s a generation gap at the heart of the WB’s new sitcom, What I Like About You. As gaps go, it’s pretty narrow, but the show makes good use of the slight schism between X (born 1965-1983) and Y (born 1979-1994). The two hottest demos—if you believe the marketing propaganda—clash as 16-year-old Holly (Amanda Bynes) adjusts to living with her 28-year-old sister, Valerie (Jennie Garth), in New York City. Their father has gone overseas and left his youngest in the hands of her big sister. Of course, the 10-plus year age difference doesn’t help the two get along. Typically, Holly, the freewheeling, let-‘er-rip sister, is always upsetting Valerie, who’s very good at following rules. Perhaps too good, as an early episode suggests.
As a vehicle for reaching multiple segments of the consuming public What I Like About You is a success, with laughs for aging young adults, 20somethings, teens, and tweens. The show plays on Gen X nostalgia (can people in their 30s be nostalgic already?) and Gen Y pop obsessions, that is, boy bands, personal tech, and wheels (Rollerblades, skateboards). From the cover of the Romantics’ “What I Like About You” (just try saying the title without singing the song it references) to a brief demo of robot and wave dance moves, the show tries to spark ‘80s memories.
The cast choices are the big sell, though, with Jennie Garth from the trashy, addictive Beverly Hills, 90210, and Amanda Bynes from Nickelodeon’s The Amanda Show and the Frankie Muniz movie, Big Fat Liar. The creators are likely relying on fans of both women to come to the set for this new venture. And it’s a obvious that they hope to catch the eyes of male viewers as well, even though the show is officially part of the network’s “girls night in” promotion.
Watching the show, I couldn’t help but think of how the sisters seem like a live action Barbie and Skipper—they even have their own Ken dolls. Except that Holly’s African American friend Gary (Wesley Jonathan of City Guys) isn’t really a romantic interest. They’re just buds. Does it matter that he’s African American? Since X and Y are both hiphop generations and more used to diversity than their parents, it makes sense that Holly would have a black friend. And this is smart marketing too, as corporate America is taking full advantage of black-originated music, language, and style: as they say in that Pepsi commercial, “You know how we do.”
Placing Holly with a black friend extends her cool quotient for the Y generation, since that group has been quick to pick up on the music and style spun by the likes of P. Diddy, Ashanti, and Ja Rule. However, what makes Gary’s character work within the show is that he isn’t so easily drawn. In this early episode he is just her skating buddy who’s good with a computer and more than a little competitive. This is a better path than if he’d been written with only “black” mannerisms and language. He clearly fits in Holly’s world, and race isn’t the focus just now. Still, for a show set in New York City, it would be odd for race not to come into play.
For the moment, the show depends on Bynes’ saucy and sharp one-liners, as well as her knack for physical comedy, for the big laughs. Garth, more often than not, follows the younger star’s lead, with more subtle humor, as when she assures her boyfriend that she’s not assuming an angry “tone,” then minutes later gives him a warning that the dreaded “tone” is coming. In addition, the Valerie character is sometimes the straight woman to Holly’s antics.
In the second episode, Holly, as is her pattern, screws up. On the day she is supposed to spend at the spa with Valerie, she is skating with Gary. To appease big sis, she agrees to go to the spa the following day, only to have Gary remind her that she already has plans with another friend to meet and photograph JC Chasez of ‘NSync. This poses a dilemma, since Holly and her pal Liz have been taking pictures of celebrities “since we saw Carrot Top come out of Bed Bath & Beyond.” And this is a rare opportunity, as she tells Gary: “I have a picture with every member of ‘NSync except JC!” Gary: “Well, he is the elusive one.” Here Holly and Gary represent for Generation Y with their knowledge of the boy band personalities. It’s just the kind of thing a teen girl would know. I’m not sure what it means that Gary is in on the boy band mania, but maybe it’s just a side effect of being a good guy pal.
When the “elusive” JC appears, he wonders aloud if Justin has to put up with teens as crazy as Amanda. Moments like those hit the mark and make us laugh at what’s popping in our culture. The fact that Valerie doesn’t recognize JC (and doubtless other icons of teen mania) yields opportunities for more laughs. Now that the marketing gods have segmented the population into such small, distinct groups, the Gen-Xer is more likely to be clueless about the younger set’s preferences. Part of the fun is laughing at our culture’s ever-lower measure of “youth” and the absurdity of the late 20s and 30s as now past youth.
Of course, Valerie is doomed to hear about her ignorance again and again, or what would we have to laugh about? Beyond the broad comedy of their uncommon ground, there’s also the little matter of what Holly has to teach Valerie about standing up for herself and having fun. Valerie is a happy, successful woman who can also be timid at times. For instance, instead of setting the snooty spa receptionist straight, she is put off by the woman. Holly, however, gives attitude right back to the snob. By the end of the episode, as the two are being kicked out before the end of their spa day, Valerie pulls a Holly move and pushes the woman into a mud bath. By no means a moral lesson, the scene does show that each sister has something to learn as well as teach.
While the two young women are getting pampered (before the unfortunate ejection), Valerie’s boyfriend Jeff, played by Simon Rex (former MTV VJ, Felicity), and Gary fall into a generation competition. Their battle is sparked when Gary is able to log onto Valerie and Holly’s PC after Jeff fails. Gary: “A lot of people your age have problems with the technology.” Jeff decides to prove he’s older, but not lesser.
The boys-on-the-side scenes are full of arm and thumb wrestling, tug-of-war, and other competitive silliness. Unless the writers can come up with better things for the guys to do alone, it’s silly to take screen time away from Bynes and Garth. Thus far, when it comes to pop laughs, this show is fueled by girl power. It’s worth sticking around to see what else there is to like on What I Like About You. And who knows, if Holly and Valerie get closer, maybe they’ll get a picture together with Justin.
Whether they snag that picture or not, it will be interesting to see Valerie and Holly come together, particularly as they discover how their cultural lives are related (like how ‘NSync is the new New Kids on the Block, which was the white New Edition). Perhaps this show will also be a little cultural barometer, mirroring X and Y tastes and giving both generations one more home in primetime.