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The year of the young.

In what we like to think of as "the real world," 1992 was called "The Year of the Woman." In the world of series television, a kind of parallel universe which in some ways trails and in others anticipates the "real world," 1993 is "The Year of the Young" - the unattached, unmoored, unfamilied young.

At the movies, this has been true for a long time. The years after World War II ushered in the age of consumerism and home television - symbiotically linked developments, obviously. They also, for related reasons, gave birth to "The Teenager" as a cultural and economic force. When James Dean, accurately dubbed "The First American Teenager," took off his white shirt, coat, and tie - the uniform of middle-class apprenticeship to the traditional Father/Citizen role - and donned jeans, jacket, and boots in Rebel Without a Cause, a new era of social and generational relationships (and, of course, fashion and consumerism) was born.

From then on, Hollywood has played "The Kids" theme for all it was worth, aiming its product at the world of dating teenagers. In the age of TV, when adults tend more and more to stay home, it is teenagers who are the movies' target audience.

The more serious (and less popular) films, the true descendants of Rebel, increasingly depict youthful rebellion, alienation, and anomie. From Rock Around the Clock to Badlands and Easy Rider, all the way to last year's remarkable if unsung Where the Day Takes You, we've had a series of dark, grim movies about disaffected kids which have played to small audiences and drifted off into the cult-film sections of video rental stores.

The blockbuster teen films, by contrast - the ones I think of as "the mall movies" - eschew anger and disaffection and embrace the demise of the family and the rise of consumerism as a much-welcomed invitation to party down. Starting with American Graffiti and moving through Risky Business, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and the many look-alike films of John Hughes - Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, and on and on - these films create a world of motherless and fatherless children who "cruise" and "hang out" on "the strip" or in the mall and live in suburban homes where no adults dare show their faces to the camera and only the kids' rooms, decked with rock posters and stocked with stereo, TV, computer, and phone, are visible.

For these kids, all of life's problems are contained in the working out of relationships in a class-divided high-school environment in which what one wears and drives determines one's status and fate. The peer group sets all the rules, and parents are totally irrelevant, as long as the credit cards and car keys are left on the kitchen table. Happily for all, these kids have good hearts and, inevitably, the "good" kids win out while the "snobs" are left on the sidelines.

Even fashion, in these films, goes democratic. The working-class girl with "real style" sews her own dresses and, because she's "really nice" and sincere," her designs turn out to be cutting edge,.soon to be "the next thing" at the mall, while the snobby girl, last year's prom queen in last year's hemline, is pushed out of the final frame by a cinematographer who knows what's hot and what's not.

Television, until the start of this decade, steadfastly ignored the social developments that produced this trend in movies and trudged on, against the grain of history, with its classic images of "The Family" and of "Father as Hero," whether at home or out in the big, bad world of crime, law, medicine, or the media. Doggedly modernist in an increasingly post-modern world, television stuck with its myths of rugged individualism in the public sphere and patriarchal, nuclear harmony in the middle-American, domestic sphere, where everyone still lives in single-family dwellings complete with picket fence and tree-shaded yard.

This anachronistic insistence on maintaining retrograde images of a personal and social world long gone is understandable. From its inception, after all, TV has been the keeper of social stability and harmony, an instrument of reassurance in a world gone awry and coming apart at the seams.

Even in the 1960s and early 1970s, when authority was questioned with great intensity everywhere, the contested issues of war and peace, racism and homophobia, gender and generational warfare, were handled in the traditional settings of family and public life. Archie Bunker may have been a buffoon, but he was still the head of the household, and he managed to keep these explosive matters All in the Family. The rising of the women, the falling of the military ideal, these too, in such shows as Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*S*H, were carefully managed and resolved within the still-intact confines of traditional, male-run institutions like Lou Grant's newsroom and the Korea-based U.S. Army.

And then came cable, with its new breed of upstart networks determined to compete with the Big Three. These networks scoffed at the fuddy-duddy old rules set up so many decades ago by FCC commissioners, sponsors, and network executives, who were determined to win a place for the new medium in the postwar social order by being as socially responsible as was feasible. And the upstarts struck gold in both informational and entertainment programming.

Just as CNN has transformed television news, the Fox network has transformed the traditional family-based fictional series, first undermining and then doing away entirely with the whole notion - so dear to TV until now - that the family unit and its values still form the core of our personal and social existence. First came Married with Children and The Simpsons, two iconoclastic series wherein it was revealed that far from Knowing Best, "Father" was an ineffectual bozo who could barely make a living, keep his wife sexually satisfied, or command his children's attention, much less respect, for more than a post-final-commercial instant.

So enormous was the success of these two shows that the networks still don't know what hit them or what to do about it. The classic 1980s sitcoms - Cosby, Family Ties, Growing Pains - almost immediately began to look, to one and all, like the corny TV-manufactured fakes they always were, and had to be retired to rerun heaven. From there, it's been downhill all the way for Dad, Mom, and the family homestead on TV.

The networks, still "in denial" after the shock of this cable-born sucker punch to the very core of their existence, continue to diddle around with possible new variations on the dead old form - households made up of single mothers and their younger siblings, single fathers, more-bumbling-than-usual regular fathers, and so on. But Fox itself has intrepidly followed the ideological implications of its original antifamily impulse, increasingly doing away entirely with parents and the world view they symbolize - much as the movies did decades ago.

The reasons for this are economically obvious. The logic of consumerism, from the 1950s on, has always been to target ever-younger youth markets. All that stopped TV from doing this was its commitment to shoring up the old dead values of family and patriarchy. But Fox, the bad boy of the TV family, decided early on that its fortune would be made by openly thumbing its nose at parents and families and saying right out loud what the kids have been saying to each other for years: that the real scene, the real action, the real issues and problems that matter are to be found and resolved right there in the malls where the movies and compact discs turn over quickly, the Gap opens early, and the pizza and Pepsi keep coming, cheap and fast, like everything else in their post-modern world.

First came Beverly Hills 90210, welcomed by kids because, unlike all the other shows about middle-class white teens, it dared to admit that kids today have sex, angst, and a private life filled with issues and worries and changes never mentioned or acknowledged in the pretty, jokey living rooms of network sitcoms.

These kids, to be sure, were incredibly rich, still in high school, and - not to be too risky too fast - there was one household in which traditional family values as TV has always presented them still thrived - Dan Quayle to the contrary notwithstanding. The Walshes, transplants from wholesome old Minnesota, are as drippy and straight as any network sitcom parents. But they play an increasingly marginal role. Their daughter has already defied their command and moved out, once, to live with her boyfriend, and no one died or got canceled.

As for the other kids, they have hopelessly dysfunctional parents - convicted felons, alcoholics, New Age wackos, no-show weekend dads, and so on. And mostly, as is the case in the real world, they help each other deal with the disappointment caused by these inadequate, irresponsible grownups and get on with the real business of life: working out their own relationships and problems. These "really serious" matters of course turn out to be things their folks have no time for or interest in, so busy are they figuring out how to get through their own very different but equally complicated days and nights.

I consider 90210 a transitional show. The kids are eternally in high school - no career or money problems - and there is this vestigial ghost of traditional sitcom life to keep anything really scary from happening. But the shows introduced by Fox this season - Melrose Place and The Heights - are far more interesting. (They aren't "better"; they're just more sociologically interesting.)

In both cases, the characters are in their twenties, or at least finished with high school, and are into the phase of life in which figuring out what one is going to be when one grows up is central. Melrose is mostly about middle-class, college-educated kids in L.A.; Heights is about New Jersey working-class kids. Both focus on a group of friends that's racially mixed and mostly single. And in the L.A. setting, the group includes a gay male.

What is most poignant in both these shows is the very low level of expectation, hope, or ambition any of the characters has about any aspect of her or his life. In Heights, the kids (except for one runaway) live with parents, for economic reasons, but there is no sense at all that the parents have anything to teach the kids about the future or how to navigate it. One is an abusive, drunk, Vietnam vet; the others represent a dying lifestyle in a world in which the industrial working class, and the family norms it supported, are finished.

In this world, one either tries to become middle-class through education or, if that's impossible (and it mostly is), one dreams - not too seriously - about becoming a rock star. To the extent that there is traditional TV glamour and optimism here at all, it's built on the dreams of these kids - social losers all - of getting their band together and getting on MTV. But the truth, represented by the one kid whose girlfriend is pregnant, is that learning a trade like plumbing is one's best bet.

In L.A., things are glitzier but no less depressing. This group lives in an apartment complex which - very sweetly, really - becomes the foundation for a kind of interim "family," sort of like a 1960s commune, for young people whose ultimate fates will take them in far-flung directions, some up, most down. The one solvent couple, a medical resident and his fashion-designer wife, have intense personal problems - should she terminate her pregnancy because they're still broke? should she sleep with the cute guy who gives her the attention her husband has no time for? - which they turn to their same-sex neighbors, not each other, to discuss and resolve.

The rest of these nice young people have mostly dead-end hack jobs in advertising or entertainment, or they drive cabs, wait tables, teach aerobics, or repair motorcycles while waiting for their big break as "artists." The gay guy runs a homeless shelter. They all volunteer for "causes." They rarely mention or see their families. They grapple together with such issues as sexual harassment, abortion, AIDS, single motherhood, and the like.

What most critics have pounced on these shows for is their excessive attention to physical beauty and fashion. Everyone here is gorgeous, in perfect shape, and up to the minute on what's pictured in this month's Elle and GQ. But these shows are not 1990s versions of Dynasty or Knots Landing. Glamour is not really what drives them. They are about a world in which one's own appearance is one's only capital. The shows glam this up a bit, promising that it will buy more than is realistic, because there is no other optimistic message to offer. And because, perhaps more relevantly, it helps sell the 501s, Nikes, and other trendy fashions that sponsor the programs.

But there is a sad subtext here. The fact is - and the shows make this very clear - that for most kids this really has become a world in which meaningful work, adult role models in the family, politics, or the workplace, and satisfying relationships which may last longer than the 9.1 years of today's average marriage are not likely to be part of one's life scenario. Friends are one's best asset but, again, the pace at which work and love relationships fade and change means that even this kind of stability is temporary. Talk to any typical college kid today, outside of Harvard and Yale anyway, and you will hear about this bad news in one way or another. For some, it's something they've thought about and can articulate; for most, perhaps, it's just a note of sadness and cynicism that belies their years and their hip outfits.

That TV tells these kids that it can offer them fame, fortune, stardom, and meaningful work as glamorous "artists" is cruel, of course. But any other suggestion makes no real sense. That's why the traditional networks are having such a hard time figuring out how to deal with Fox's challenge. Stuck as they are with their traditional upbeat formulas about heroics and happily-ever-afters, they can't seem to come up with a format about young people that isn't hopelessly tired, corny, and preposterous.

The two network shows that tried to ape Fox's formula by presenting groups of single young people in dramatic situations - Malibu 2000 and The Round Table - have both been canceled already. The first tried to do high soap-opera melodrama along the lines of Dynasty and only succeeded in being laughably camp.

The second, a bit closer to the mark, was a Washington, D.C., version of Melrose Place, sort of. It centered on a group of interracial, mixed-class friends starting out in life, who gather at a Georgetown bar to work out their various personal and professional hassles. The problem was that, in typical network style, it insisted on clinging to the modernist myths about heroic, individualist quests for honor and truth. Using old plots and dialogue, it pretended that young Latina lawyers and African-American Secret Service agents could still, week after week, off-handedly perform great and noble deeds by which freedom, democracy, and the American Way would be maintained. The response of the twenty somethings was, "I don't think so. Switch back to Fox."

I don't think the two Fox shows mentioned above will last long either. The depressing subtexts are bound to overwhelm the cheery hut phony fame-and-fortune promise sooner or later. I don't know what will replace them. But I do know that Fox has created a real crisis for series television, the likes of which Dan Quayle has not even begun to glimpse or get nervous about. Murphy Brown, when you get past the single-motherhood gimmick, is still basically an old-style individualist heroine fighting for truth and virtue and liberal democracy - and winning. Every kid in America should be so lucky as to have a parent like her.

But as Fox well knows, and has only begun to start spreading the word about, Murphy Brown is history. The kids on the new shows have no elegant socialite mothers or statesman fathers to escort them into the big time and teach them how to become powerful, noble, and rich. They have parents whose cultural capital has expired, who have nothing to pass on, whose ways of getting a home and paycheck don't work anymore, even for them. They are drunk, divorced, dysfunctional, dazed. They are sitting home watching reruns of The Donna Reed Show and trying to figure out how to hustle their way through life, on their own fading good looks and dated lucky outfits.

I eagerly await Fox's solution to the problem they have created for themselves: Now that the truth is out of the bag, how do we get through the next season with our makeup and hope still intact?

Elayne Rapping, professor of communications at Adelphi University, regularly contributes cultural commentary to The Progressive. She is the author of "The Movie of the Week," recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.
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Title Annotation:Culture - new families on Fox-TV series
Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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