In its first three seasons, "Dawson's Creek" was a sweet and funny show. The kids didn't talk like real teenagers--they were much too thoughtful and witty--but they acted like them. They had crushes, did homework, and worried about getting into college. Dawson Leary, the cornerstone of the show, was bright and perhaps too introspective, but he was genuine. We all knew someone who, given a scriptwriter or two, could have been like Dawson.

Last year, all of that changed for the kids from Capeside. The season began with Dawson receiving what people older than him call "sexual favors" from a stripper named Eve while driving a powerboat that wasn't his. The season went downhill from there. It was as though executive producer Kevin Williamson couldn't decide whether he wanted "Dawson's" to be a snappy show about teenage life, as it had been, or a series that put perpetual adolescent horniness on display.

My so-called cancellation: MSCL's real-life teens didn't make for real ratings

Once upon a time, programming marked for teens was just a rehash of old soaps. "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place," the twin meccas of the Clearasil crowd in the early '90s, were mind-numbing versions of adult fare like "Dynasty." They had the same implausible plots and conniving characters, everyone just had tighter skin. Then in 1994, ABC premiered "My So-Called Life." Claire Danes starred as the 15-year-old Angela Chase, a girl who was making her way through the awkwardness of high school. She had her melodramas and she had her victories, but the stunning thing was the show's overarching conceit: It would be an unvarnished portrait of adolescence. No holds were barred, but the alcoholism, sex, and unruly attitudes were all used in the name of verisimilitude and showing kids a way out.

"My So-Called Life" didn't survive (it was cancelled after 19 episodes, despite critical acclaim), but it became the mother of today's quality teen TV, spawning a host of heartfelt shows that, no matter how improbable the setting or edgy the situations, were there to explore real teen issues. "Dawson's Creek" (with the old Dawson), "Felicity," even ""Buffy the Vampire Slayer," are direct descendents.

While no one is going to confuse the WB's lineup with Shakespeare, these "So-Called" shows boasted a certain sophistication, ironically because they dealt with the humbling, workaday realities of teen life honestly and smartly. The "90210" model was suddenly threatened. Clones like "Hyperion Bay" and "Get Real" failed, and it looked as though Gen-Y had embraced a better cultural sensibility than their older siblings, where behavior got matched up against some moral system.

Then came Dawson's oral exploits, and the momentum had passed back to the Beverly Hills gang. More evidence came when the latest in the "So-Called Life" mold, "Freaks and Geeks," failed to summon a following (it recently retreated to a family cable station), and a new breed of teensploitation shows loomed on the horizon. And they were nasty enough to curdle your Yoo-hoo. "Manchester Prep," a spin-off from the movie "Cruel Intentions," was canned by Fox even before it bowed amid reports that Rupert Murdoch was appalled by a bestiality scene in the pilot. But the floodgates had opened.

A few weeks ago, Fox debuted "Opposite Sex," whose premise is that three boys are brought in to integrate an all-girls high school. "Opposite Sex" has nothing to say about gender relations or teenhood--or anything else for that matter--but it does have plenty at which to gawk. In the first episode, the lead character, Jed, comes home to find his older brother, Rob, in the advanced stages of amorousness with a gorgeous blonde. In what must be the most graphic depiction of sex ever presented on network television, we see Rob pistoning up and down between the spread legs of his girlfriend, a white sheet draped strategically over the fun zone. A few minutes later, Jed takes a stroll through the girls' locker room. The scene is filmed in slow-motion--JiggleCam--and suddenly you realize that David Hasselhoff has a legacy. Last week's episode had a topless teenage lesbian pleading with Jed to help her, well, learn to drive stick.

The shows compensate for their hopeless logic by attending to the superficial. Where Claire Danes was cast as a perfectly attractive teen, but one who could credibly bemoan her acne in the mirror, the stars of the new teen shows are there to generate maximum heat. The cast of the new show "Young Americans" is impossibly beautiful, even by television standards. The fresh-faced crowd of once-and-future models can stitch together barely half a dozen acting credits between them. The most seasoned thespian, Mark Famiglietti, spent two seasons on "Hang Time" during the Dick Butkus years.

The most compelling plot line of "Young Americans" involves a boy who is afraid that he's gay because he is attracted to another boy at school. This is the kind of issue-episode that regularly earned "My So-Called Life" critical kudos for sensitivity. On "Young Americans," the other boy is really a hot girl in drag. We know this because we often see her in her bra and panties when she's binding up her breasts, Gwyneth Paltrow-style, for school.

These ratings are real, baby!: Hamilton and "Jake" from the WB's "Young Americans"

In fact, nearly every plot line in "Young Americans" involves girls in bras and panties, and shirtless boys with great chunky abs. They run. They go swimming. They horse around. After short study, it becomes clear that "Young Americans" isn't based on any dramatic concept, it's an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. The show is genealogically closer to USA's late-night tease-fest "Strip Poker" than it is to "My So-Called Life."

There's nothing wrong with any of this as deliciously bad TV. If teenagers--or bored twenty-somethings--choose to gather in rooms to throw popcorn at the screen and revel in the camp value of "Young Americans" and "Opposite Sex," it's all in good fun. Nor is there any a priori objection to sex on the tube. Shows such as "Sex in the City" are both entertaining and much more explicit.

The sadness of the teen shows is the missed opportunities. Quality shows like "My So-Called Life" broke new ground by introducing sex, drugs, and other topics that teens faced everyday. There was the suggestion that to portray only well-adjusted teens in two-parent households was irresponsibly naïve. The new teens shows have taken the new rules and applied them to meaningless ends.

So is the golden age of teen TV over? Already?

In truth, it's too soon tell. "Young Americans" is a ratings hit, while "Opposite Sex" is doing no more than passably well. "Dawson's" may continue its descent into camp, but the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spin-off, "Angel," is, if anything, more morally serious than "Buffy." And even though "Freaks and Geeks" perished, a new documentary show called "American High" seems poised to take its place.

It remains to be seen whether "Young Americans" and "Opposite Sex" are the future or just a passing bit of eye candy. It's up to the demographic to decide. Only remember: Every generation gets the television it deserves.

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