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Complications Ensue:
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Friday, March 24, 2006

We've been pondering the peculiar nature of teen prime time shows. We just watched the first two Dawson's Creek eps, in which 20-year-old actors who talk like 30-year-olds claim to be 15.

Teen shows are generally cast with adults because the laws about hiring minors are tough, especially in the film biz. You can work an 18-year-old all day long and into the night, though you may have to pay overtime. A seventeen-year-old, I believe, maxes out at 8 hours. Much younger kids have to be tutored.

I think most teen shows start at 16 because while an 18 year old can convincingly play a 16 year old, it is all but impossible to find an adult who can play a 15 year old realistically.

On the other hand I'm not sure audiences care. I think that part of the attraction of these shows is the older cast. Adults don't watch DeGrassi much, for example, because it casts actors who really are the age of their characters -- zits, baby fat, awkward mumbling and all. We don't want a really awkward 15-year-old girl, we want Katie Holmes playing an awkward, 15-year-old girl. We don't want a geeky 15-year-old, we want the extremely charming and handsome 21-year-old James van der Beek playing a geeky 15-year-old. The 30-year-old dialog allows adults to watch and care about a show about kids embarrassing themselves; if they talked like real teens, we wouldn't be able to watch, even assuming we could make out what they're actually saying.

[Kids, on the other hand, do watch DeGrassi because they see themselves, instead of older facsimiles of themselves. And it's one of the few shows on TV anywhere that shows kids having the problems they really care about, rather than fantasy versions of their problems. Sample Dawson's problem: first kiss. Sample DeGrassi problems: teen pregnancy, gender confusion, dad's dating again.]

It's all an extension, I suppose, of the fine old Hollywood tradition of indicating the plain girl by casting a hot brunette and putting her in glasses with her hair up.

The age-upwards casting of the shows allows us to feel comfortable with some of the adult subject matter. Pacey's affair with his teacher would seem much more outrageous if Joshua Jackson weren't 20. By contrast, Marisa's drinking is all the more shocking because Mischa Barton started shooting The O.C. at 17. The older the actors, the more we forgive putting their allegedly underage characters in physical, emotional or sexual jeopardy.

Are we moving in the direction of reality? Adam Brody may have been 24 when The O.C. first aired, but at least he's a real geek; and Marisa and Summer are acknowledged hot girls in the show. I doubt you could get away with casting Luke Perry as a high schooler these days, not without serious Botox. But maybe not.

Not sure if there's a screenwriting moral. Just make sure you know who you're writing for, real teens or pretend teens. Either is fine. We know it's TV. But stay consistent.


Yeah, I call bullshit.

Degrassi is actually, and always has been, the exception that proves the rule. The writing is didactic, but when you look at big long time fans like Kevin Smith the fact was that the appeal was how much NOT like the other shows, with kids, it was.

The kids in the new show may be more polished (and are) but they have always been basically age appropriate, and that's a large part of why the show scores in Canada and on the N in the USA.

Your thesis is sound -- it just needs to not include Degrassi as any kind of example. The show is popular in reaction to the trend you speak of.

By Blogger DMc, at 1:25 AM  

Boy, someone's was a bit grumpy last night.

I've added some language to clarify my point. Degrassi is NOT as popular with adults as it is with kids, because it casts real kids and gives them problems that kids really worry about instead of b.s. problems that kids might have worried about 50 years ago but probably didn't then, e.g. "oooh, I want my first kiss with Jen to be superspecial".

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:19 AM  

"about instead of b.s. problems that kids might have worried about 50 years ago but probably didn't then, e.g. "oooh, I want my first kiss with Jen to be superspecial".

That is unless it's Mary doing the talking...

By Blogger Cunningham, at 9:47 AM  

Personally, I was very partial to the trio of teen actors on Once And Again. All of them were cast age-appropriately and the show did a very rare thing in balancing their storylines with those of the adults. When a 12 year-old Evan Rachel Wood had an eating disorder, it wasn't a one-episode storyline. It was carried through and dealt with throughout the show's life.

The very real issue of having to navigate the tumultuous world of disintigrating and merging families was always at the heart of the show, and that spirit was never betrayed by the writers for the sake of creating more salacious teen storylines.

Granted, the show itself wasn't geared toward teens. But my sister, who was in her late teens during the show's run, felt a real connection as she was trying to figure out similar family dynamics.

By Blogger Unknown, at 12:12 PM  

This issue about teens acting on teen shows has been a major issue for me. My series is youth oriented -- but it's definitely NOT a kids show. I don't want anyone under 12 watching BT. The lead character is 15 but I've cast a 22/23 year old for the part -- or, to be more precise, I've solidified an informal agreement with the actress to audition for/accept the role if the frikken show ever goes into production. The actress, Daniella E., can barely pass for a 15 year old at this point in time, so if the series doesn't go into production by this time next year, she may lose the part. And that would definitely suck!

On the subject of The OC, I was a bit unnerved by the show's love scenes between 17 year old Mischa Barton and 27 year old Ben McKenzie during their first season. There's just something very wrong with that, IMHO.

By Blogger Kelly J. Crawford, at 2:09 PM  

wow. I WAS grumpy, wasn't I?


As for Mischa, the only thing disturbing about her love scenes with Ben McKenzie was the way he constantly had to dodge that clavicle of hers.

That thing looks %@% sharp.

By Blogger DMc, at 6:41 PM  

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