In 1990, the infant Fox network gave birth to a new kind of show: the prime-time teen drama. These hour-long shows sought to capture the attention of a cohort of viewers that was ignored by the major networks, kids between the ages of 12 and 17. Fox hoped to lure these middle- and high-school students away from their homework, away from the phone, and put them in front of the television by using soap opera-like serials featuring teen life. And it worked.
In fact, it worked better than anyone at Fox could have dreamed. Kids made "Beverly Hills 90210," the first teen drama, an instant breakaway hit. Three seasons later, Fox launched a spin-off of "Beverly Hills 90210" called "Melrose Place," which became, improbably, another roaring success. Three seasons after that, the network introduced "Party of Five." Ten years after Brenda Walsh first graced suburban living rooms, the three shows have been cancelled into syndication. But Fox remains the unofficial network of Generation X.
Ironically, just as Fox was securing its grip on twentysomethings, another impudent weblet, the Warner Brothers television network, determinedly calling itself "the WB," has grabbed a hold of the leading edge of Gen Y-the kids born after 1979. And they've done it by using Fox's signature formula. In 1997, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" premiered on the WB. It was only a mild success until it was paired in its sophomore season with a new show, "Dawson's Creek."
The duo provided the young network with its first dose of ratings power among teen viewers. "Dawson's Creek" instantly became the most talked about show in homerooms across the country, and this past fall, with the beginning of another teen drama, "Felicity," the WB has taken absolute control of the Gen-Y audience: The network owns five of the twelve shows most watched by viewers between the ages of 12 and 17.
But for all the similarities in the creation and marketing of these shows, the actual content of the Gen-Y programs is strikingly different from that of the Gen-X programs. And that difference may be indicative of a fundamental cleavage developing between the two generations.
Instead of degenerating into young savages, the children are forced to grow up fast. The oldest, Charlie (played by Matthew Fox), becomes a father figure at the age of 25; his younger sister Julia (Neve Campbell) gets married by the end of high school; Bailey (Scott Wolf) drops out of college to run the family business; and little Claudia (Lacey Chabert) becomes a caretaker for the infant Owen while still in middle school. There is no childhood for the Salingers; in fact, the family seems to flee from the idea of youth as if it were a curse or a sign of weakness.
"Melrose Place" embodied the second theme. The hallmark of "Melrose" was the constant fall and redemption of its characters: everyone is bad and good at the same time. The most popular character, Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear) has been an audience favorite precisely for this reason. She vacillated between being the hated über-vixen slapping the faces of men who displease her, and being a pitiable waif looking for real love and happiness-neither of these personalities viewed more critically than the other.
This rampant amorality was most striking in that no one ever thought to condemn it. It was much a part of the show's topography as the apartment complex that gave the series its name.
"Beverly Hills 90210" included both themes-Brenda, the '90s teen icon played to jaundiced perfection by Shannen Doherty, was the embodiment of these stock Gen-X characteristics, a full-fledged force of adult wickedness set loose in an adolescent world. Never once did Brenda concern herself with any aspect of teen-age life; instead, her existence was spent plotting sexual escapades and social manipulation. In fact, none of the characters of 90210 ever worried about school or grades or getting asked to the prom. They weren't children: they were miniature adults playing games in a social microcosm without rules.
"Felicity" centers around the Felicity Porter (Keri Russell), who graduates from high school and then foregoes Stanford in order to follow a boy to the fictional "University of New York." Once she moves into her dorm in Manhattan, Felicity doesn't magically grow up. She struggles with course selections and add/drop slips, she feuds with her disapproving parents, and she makes goo-goo eyes at Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), the dream boy who is only vaguely aware of her existence.
"Dawson's Creek" is similar in tone. Set in Capeside, Massachusetts, Dawson's Creek follows the fortunes of four high school sophomores: Dawson (James Van Der Beek), Joey (Katie Holmes), Jen (Michelle Williams), and Pacey (Joshua Jackson), who are all actively involved in collecting life's little scars. The dialogue of "Dawson's Creek" is undoubtedly more sophisticated than real teen-speak, but the sentiments aren't. More than anything else, "Dawson's Creek" is about kids knowingly enjoying their youthful indiscretions in the waning hours of childhood.
The most fanciful (and fascinating) of the WB teen dramas is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which follows the life of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a teenager charged with protecting humanity from the supernatural forces of evil. According to the "Buffy" mythology, long before man walked the earth, the world was beset by monsters and demons. One day, those creatures were herded into another dimension to make way for man and other mortal animals. But something went wrong and a handful of vampires managed to stay behind, where they proceeded to feed on humans and propagate themselves until the unnamed powers-that-be decided to fight them.
As Buffy's mentor explains, "Into each generation, a Slayer is born. One girl in all the world, a Chosen One. One born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of evil." Unfortunately for Buffy, she has to follow her destiny while being a student at Sunnydale High, so she and a small band of friends spend their days studying for chemistry tests and their nights fighting cadres of vampires. The show is emblematic of Gen-Y values in its stark sense of good and evil; there is no equivocating in Buffy's world, either with the occult or with high school. People are either good or bad, and they are dealt with accordingly: no shifting alliances, no betrayal, no games.
Yet even as Gen X rejected the Boomers' values wholesale, they had few values to call their own. They were, and in many ways still are, incapable of passing judgment on anything. The first generation raised en masse without the instruction of the church, they were so free from the confines of organized religion that they were morally adrift.
Gen Y, though, is choosing a different collective identity. They are the Boomers' progeny, but their prime influence seems to have been less their parents than their older siblings. They have reacted to the hyper-adulthood of Gen X by reveling in their youth, which is why they follow shows about real teenagers and not teen bodies in adult roles.
Further, if TV is any guide, Gen Y has found the beginnings of a moral center. The popularity of "Felicity," "Dawson's Creek," and especially "Buffy" show that the kids of Gen Y know what is right and what is wrong-they just haven1t figured out why yet. They weren't catechized by their parents, but they see how their older brothers and sisters exist and they want desperately to be moral. Ultimately, all serious pursuits of morality lead to faith. As they probe and continue towards maturity, perhaps Gen Y will be seen as the generation which sparked America1s moral reformation.
Even the angst-ridden Brenda is learning from Gen Y. Shannen Doherty was offered a chance to reprise her career-making role on Beverly Hills 90210 this year. She declined. Instead she took a part in Charmed, yet another new show on the WB.