[26 January 2009]
Despite growing up watching Punky Brewster, to see a network TV show focused around a girl and her world in 1991 was a novelty for me. Even more novel is the fact that Blossom dealt with a variety of social issues in a very real way and featured two girls who were not your typical blond, blue-eyed TV stars. Because many might remember Blossom for Joey Lawrence and his “whoa”, we might forget the ways in which this show brought us stories about a quirky, intelligent, likeable, struggling girl. Without the DVDs, it might be difficult to remember how groundbreaking and truly enjoyable this show was—and still is.
We might remember, or try to forget, the big hair, high pants, or purple cowboy boots of Blossom’s world, and this DVD set brings us there. But it also brings us straight talk about sex, family, drugs, peer pressure, and divorce. Blossom’s father is a single-parent after her mother takes off for Paris, an element that is a source of struggle for Blossom but not an act that is outright condemned by the characters or the show. With her father, Nick (Wass), a sometimes struggling musician who writes jingles to support his family, her oldest brother, Anthony (Stoyanov), a recovering alcoholic struggling to find himself and stay sober, her “dumb” but endearing brother Joey (Lawrence) whose primary interests include sex and sports, and a “sex-crazed” grandpa (Hughes), Blossom and her family provide a way of discussing issues that was unusual for its time.
Without hammering home a moral lesson, Blossom was able to address issues like economic hardship, drug abuse, and sex in real, often clever ways. As much as Blossom and her family were comfortably middle class, they also sometimes struggled to make ends meet, like on episode 25, “This Old House”, when the family faces the prospect of losing their house when Nick can’t make a balloon payment or episode 26, “It’s a Marginal Life”, when Nick has trouble providing for his family around the holidays. And in episode 29, “Three O’Clock And All Is Hell”, Blossom is paired up for a class assignment with “juvenile delinquent”, Lou, who shows her just how privileged she is when they have to come up with a budget for a family of four and he knows all the tricks.
In addition, issues about “broken families” are handled without moralizing the “broken” aspects, as when Nick starts dating (episode 3) and Blossom has to deal with it, or when the kids make a video letter for their mother’s birthday (episode 31) and the show ends with us watching the video’s conclusion before the camera pans back to show the back of Blossom’s mother’s head, which cocks to an angle of sad reflection just before the credits roll.
But more than these issues of economics and families, Blossom tackles the issues surrounding drugs and sex in a way that other shows of the time didn’t. In fact, within the first few seconds of episode one, “Blossom Blossoms”, Blossom is buying tampons and trying to deal with becoming a woman without a mother in the house. And in several episodes, like episode 17, “I’m with the Band”, Blossom and best friend, Six (von Oÿ), discuss whether or not they would every “mess with” their hormones and take the pill and Blossom concludes that if she got pregnant she would tell her father she was pregnant but wouldn’t tell him she had sex.
Episode 16, “The Joint”, begins with oldest brother Anthony, a recovering drug addict, frying up an egg for Joey and repeating that famous line, “This is your brain on drugs” to which Joey questions whether he might get his eggs scrambled. Blossom and Six discuss whether they should or should not try the joint as an experiment in a way that brings up many of the controversies surrounding marijuana without being preachy or judgmental. The episode concludes with real, open conversation between father, daughter, and son(s) about drug use that goes beyond the “Just Say No” rhetoric of the times.
And so while it might seem that von Oÿ’s commentary that Blossom tackled “ground breaking issues equivalent to Ellen coming out of the closet on television” might seem like a bit of an overstatement, Blossom was ahead of its time in its frank discussions of sex and drugs.
While at times the episodes feel like one joke after another, perhaps emphasized by the live studio audience laughter, the show is clever, funny, and a refreshing portrayal of a girl’s coming of age experience. In addition, all of the guest stars, popular figures of the time—Will Smith, Salt-N-Pepa, Neil Patrick Harris, Alf, Rhea Perlman, Estelle Getty, and Tori Spelling, as well as icons like Little Richard and Don King—remind us not just of Blossom, but the entire era of TV sitcoms during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The DVD extras make this DVD set even more valuable than the episodes themselves, not only because of the insights provided by the creator and executive producer Don Reo, and actors Mayim Bialik, Jenna von Oÿ, and Joey Lawrence, but also because of the context that these features bring to the moments captured by Blossom. In one feature Reo mentions that the original series idea was based around a boy with a hip musician father, and while the network (NBC) suggested the idea of centering the story around a girl instead, the network executives were not quite prepared for what Reo and his team brought to the network, and to television more generally.
For example, when Phylicia Rashad appears in the first episode as a mother figure who gives Blossom a demonstration of the facts of life by decorating a cake, the censors threatened not to show the scene. Perhaps because of the cost of Rashad’s cameo, or the fact that Blossom’s premiere followed The Cosby Show, this scene did air and established Blossom as a show that was not afraid to talk about girls getting their period, getting to second base, or experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Because of these issues, the show was also presented as a “very special” episode of Blossom in the days before TV ratings were all the craze. And the DVD of seasons one and two plays with this categorization by offering the features: “A Very Special Show”, “A Very Special Friendship”, and “A Very Special Style”.
Because Blossom was known for her quirky style, and because both Blossom and Six “brought back” the popularity of hats, “A Very Special Style” is an interesting look at the ideas of costume designer, Sherry Thompson, who made Blossom her doll, according to Bialik. Because Blossom did not have a mother setting the guidelines for appropriate dress, Thompson imagined a quirky style for Blossom that fit with her family and setting and allowed her to be an individual. Thus, Thompson uses a lot of vintage clothing—before vintage was “cool”—and ethnic clothing and patterns just as, she notes, people in the US were beginning to look around at what the rest of the world had to offer.
In addition to these “very special” features, Blossom: Seasons One & Two includes the original pilot and episode commentaries for several shows including my personal favorite, episode 22, “Blossom—A Rockumentary”, a playful show modeled after Madonna’s Truth or Dare. For those of us who watched Blossom as teens and pre-teens, the commentary by Bialik, von Oÿ, and Lawrence, who are now still our age, is a fun dimension and having creator, writer, and executive producer, Don Reo’s commentary there to remind the “kids” of what they forgot or didn’t know complements their re-discoveries well.
In his commentary and interviews, Reo notes more than once the “savant-like” talent and “bizarre gift” that these young actors had that really set them apart from other “child” actors. In fact, at one point in the first episode Six remarks to Blossom, “sometimes you’re so much like an adult it’s scary.” And this is one of the most powerful aspects of the show. The writing is sophisticated and clever and lets the teenage characters be teens with a kind of adult maturity.
Sure, Blossom and Six discuss sex and the possibility of pregnancy, drug use, and other topics in very informed, adult ways but they still struggle with the challenges that most teens face. Reo envisioned a story like Catcher in the Rye, a modern-day Holden Caulfield, and lucky for us, that character came in the form of a “slightly angst-filled” girl on a show that tried to “find the humor in serious situations”, as Reo puts it. Blossom is a diamond in the rough, often awkward, always shining and Blossom: Seasons One & Two is a gem for its originality and impact. And it is just as entertaining today as it was 18 years ago.