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TV series blanket the teen experience, from 'Freaks and Geeks' to 'Popular'

Sunday, September 19, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Give me your enthusiastic, your wealthy, your youthful masses huddled before the TV."

Perhaps that's how a modern network executive would rewrite Emma Lazarus, author of the poem inscribed at the entrance to the Statue of Liberty.

    Warding off the onslaught of youth

PASADENA, Calif. -- Sela Ward, the most beautiful of the "Sisters" on NBC's early '90s soap, has reached the ripe old age of 40 and realized some roles are now beyond her grasp.

After "Sisters," Ward auditioned for a James Bond movie. She didn't get the job, but she heard these disturbing words from the director: "You know, what we really want is Sela 10 years ago."

Ward began to question whether her career was over, but it's not. She's starring this fall in ABC's "Once and Again," a drama from the creators of "thirtysomething" about a divorced mom who falls for a divorced dad. But the fact she had to question whether she was still commercially viable as a movie star, or on TV, rankles her.

"If you look at actresses playing opposite the Michael Douglases and even Harrison Ford, you know, excuse me? They can't play opposite someone close to their own age or even 15 years younger?" Ward said.

Actor Jonathan Frakes ("Star Trek: The Next Generation"), who is in his late 40s, has turned to directing to avoid unemployment.

"You don't want to rely on just being an actor," he said with a knowing smile. "Not unless you're 18."

Ward and Frakes aren't anywhere near being confused for decrepit. Imagine how older actors and actresses must feel in a TV network environment that's putting on 16 new shows this fall that focus on characters who have yet to celebrate their 30th birthdays.

Not all AARP members are gone from TV. Rue McClanahan stars in The WB's "Safe Harbor" (she's arguably the oldest star on that youth-obsessed network). Christina Pickles stars on Fox's "Get Real" and Buddy Hackett is a regular on Fox's "Action."

CBS, the oldest-skewing network, is home to the greatest number of stars of a certain age. CBSTelevision President Leslie Moonves takes pride in that.

"There's a lot of talent out there to be mined," Moonves said. "We're not embarrassed to have Tyne Daly and Dixie Carter on our network. We think it's pretty cool."

-- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor


Youthquakes have become common in prime time since "Beverly Hills, 90210" hit it big in the early '90s, but the success of The WB (WCWB, Channel 22 in Pittsburgh) and its teen-skewing dramas -- "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- has made the pimple-popping set more popular than ever.

Not that we're crotchety about it. Young does not equal bad. "Freaks and Geeks" is the best new show of the season no matter the age of its actors.

But the sheer volume of teen shows makes telling them apart tougher than ever. And that doesn't include the shows about recent high school grads -- "Angel" (The WB), "The Badland" (Fox), "The Parkers" (UPN) and "Time of Your Life" (Fox) -- or the shows about twentysomethings -- "Grown Ups" (UPN), "Jack & Jill" (The WB), "Mission Hill" (The WB), "Shasta McNasty" (UPN) and "Wasteland" (ABC).

For those genres, you're on your own.

But here's a quick glimpse at each of the new teen shows and tips to differentiate one from the other:

'Freaks and Geeks'

Hotties-to-be: None. This show is too realistic for any mainstream babes or studs to emerge. But expect a burgeoning cult following for the freaks, especially James Franco as Daniel.

The 411: Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) is a freak and her young brother, Sam (John Daley), is a sensitive geek. The show chronicles their lives as two common varieties of high school outcasts. (Premieres 8 p.m. Saturday on NBC.)

Most embarrassing moment: Sam asks a cute girl to join him for a slow dance, but by the time they get to the dance floor, the slow song has turned fast. So much for getting close.

It's sorta like: "The Wonder Years," but set about 10 years later.

Parental units: Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker) have a freak daughter and geek son, and they're kind of weird themselves. "I have a friend who used to smoke, and guess what he's doing now?" Harold asks his kids before giving the answer he gives as the moral to every story. "He's dead!"

Cool or lame? It's hip to be square.

Final grade: A+. Excellent work all around. Keep it up.

'Get Real'

Hotties-to-be: Anne Hathaway as beautiful, brainy Meghan Green and Eric Christian Olsen as her obnoxious skate-rat brother, Cameron.

The 411: Marital turmoil and teen-agers run amok; it's just another day in the life of the Green family. (Airs 9 p.m. Wednesday on Fox.)

Most embarrassing moment: When mom discovers Cameron's girlfriend spent the night -- and he doesn't get in trouble.

It's sorta like: "Dawson's Creek," but with far more annoying, irresponsible characters.

Parental units: They're more dysfunctional than the kids as mom (Debrah Farentino) dreams about having sex with her husband's best friend.

Cool or lame? Tries too hard to be cool, making it lame.

Final grade: C+. Student suffers from attention deficit disorder, frequently bopping from one topic to the next. "Get Real" needs to cool it with the pop culture references -- the world did not begin in 1994.

'Manchester Prep'

Hotties-to-be: Robin Dunne as sneaky Sebastian Valmont and Amy Adams as duplicitous Kathryn Merteuil.

The 411: Sebastian is torn between his evil, controlling stepsister, Kathryn, and the good-girl daughter of Manchester Prep's headmaster. (Premieres in December on Fox.)

Most embarrassing moment: When "Entertainment Tonight" aired behind-the-scenes footage of Kathryn coaching a virgin to reach orgasm while riding a horse. Fox says that scene will not air as part of any episode.

It's sorta like: "Cruel Intentions," the movie "Manchester Prep" is based on, but set three years earlier. It's also similar to "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," the novel that inspired the film.

Parental units: Mimi Rogers as Mrs. Tiffany Merteuil Valmont. She's Kathryn's mom who is now married to Sebastian's dad, but that doesn't stop her from making sexual overtures to her stepson in the first episode.

Cool or lame? Lame, but it could evolve from just-plain-bad to so-bad-it's-good.

Final grade: D. May turn out to be a campy "Dynasty" for the teen set, but questions about the appropriateness of its content remain.

'Odd Man Out'

Hotties-to-be: Erik von Detten as floppy-haired Andrew and Jessica Capshaw (Steven Spielberg's stepdaughter by way of Kate Capshaw) as Andrew's aunt.

The 411: Andrew lives with five beautiful women, and he can't date any of them because they're blood relatives. Bogus! (Premieres 9:30 p.m. Friday on ABC.)

Most embarrassing moment: Andrew is not a smoothie. A conversation with the object of his lust includes a lecture on why the original "Star Trek" is better than "Babylon 5."

It's sorta like: CBS's "Ladies Man," another new show about a guy surrounded by women.

Parental units: Dad's dead and mom (Markie Post) doesn't meddle, even when she knows Andrew is preparing to lose his virginity. Instead she hopes her son will do the right thing.

Cool or lame? In the immortal lyrics of Smashmouth: "She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb in the shape of an 'L' on her forehead."

Final grade: D. The teen-age years may be prone to bouts of raging hormones, but this student needs to curb his baser urges.


Hotties-to-be: Carly Pope as unpopular Sam and Leslie Bibb as popular Brooke.

The 411: High school students yearn for acceptance from their peers, including those in rival cliques. (Sneak preview 9 p.m. Sept. 29, time slot premiere 8 p.m. Sept. 30 on The WB.)

Most embarrassing moment: When Sam's mom and Brooke's dad hook up. Ewwww!

It's sorta like: "There's Something About Mary" with a strolling minstrel used as a narrator.

Parental units: They're not around much, because they're too busy dating each other.

Cool or lame? Cool and cruel, but true-to-life. An overweight girl auditions for the cheerleading squad. One cheerleader deems her performance "good," to which another responds, "Good and plenty."

Final grade: B+. Some see the students' behavior as mean-spirited, but it's pretty realistic.


Hotties-to-be: Jason Behr as alien Max and Shiri Appleby as his human love interest, Liz. And hey, that's Tom Hanks' son, Colin, as one of Liz's friends.

The 411: That fabled alien crash at Roswell, N.M., in 1947? It really happened. Alien descendants of the original crash survivors are now in high school, but they look human. Max saves Liz with his alien powers after she's shot accidentally while serving up burgers at the Crashdown Cafe. (Premieres 9 p.m. Oct. 6 on The WB.)

Most embarrassing moment: Max's healing power leaves a temporary hand print on Liz's tummy. So much for showing off that naval ring with a short, stomach-baring T.

It's sorta like: "The X-Files" meets "Dawson's Creek."

Parental units: Only one in the pilot, and he's the suspicious sheriff.

Cool or lame? Cool concept, but there are few compelling reasons to tune in after the first episode.

Final grade: B-. Showed potential at the beginning, but failed to sustain interest.

'Safe Harbor'

Hotties-to-be: Jeremy Lelliott as smart 14-year-old Turner and Christopher Khayman Lee as rebellious 16-year-old Hayden.

The 411: A widowed dad (Gregory Harrison) raises his sons with help from his eccentric mother (Rue McClanahan). Bonus for impressing the chicks: They all live in a beach-side motel that's no longer open to guests. (Premieres 9 p.m. Monday on The WB.)

Most embarrassing moment: When Turner's underwear gets run up a flagpole after he protests his school's no-shorts policy.

It's sorta like: "7th Heaven," but without all those girls.

Parental units: Dad, the sheriff of Magic Beach, Fla., and grandma play major roles.

Cool or lame? Cool for pre-teens and good kids; lame to older teens and hipster posers.

Final grade: Incomplete. Student failed to turn in revamped pilot for grading.

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