Anyone out of their teens probably hasn't noticed, but The WB's "Popular" (8 tonight on WCWB) has started to live up to its title. At least with its target audience.
"All of my friends watch it," said Rebekah Hauser, a sophomore at Mt. Lebanon High School. "At my old lunch table, all of us watched 'Popular,' and on Friday it would be the first thing we'd talk about. It's really corny and weird, but we are obsessed with the show."
Her friend, Lauren Heald, agreed.
"Bekah and I get on the phone and talk for, like, an hour about what's just happened on the show," said the Seton-LaSalle High School sophomore.
It's because of viewers like Rebekah and Lauren that "Popular" ranks No. 7 season-to-date among female teens, beating "Charmed," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Felicity" and "Friends."
Although it ranks a lowly No. 128 in households (it does air opposite NBC's "Friends"), "Popular" is just three places behind The WB's "Roswell," the show about teen-age aliens who feel alienated.
"When we went into the fall, [the network's] money was on 'Ros-well,' " said executive producer/co-creator Ryan Murphy. "We sort of snuck in there, and we're getting all this attention because people are showing up and watching the show."
Set somewhere in California at Kennedy High (originally Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High, until her estate lodged an objection), "Popular" began as a straightforward drama similar to The WB's other hour-long programs.
The series pits cool high school sophomores against the uncool, with Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) leading the popular group and Sam McPherson (Carly Pope) speaking for the disenfranchised. But the sworn enemies were forced together when Brooke's dad and Sam's mom started dating. Now their families have merged and the two share a bathroom -- and a growing acceptance of one another.
While the eternal battle between the haves and have-nots remains at the show's core, "Popular's" popularity with teen girls may also be tied to its cheeky tone.
"What we really like doing is flat-out comedy," Murphy said last month during a visit to the show's set in Burbank, Calif. "The first three episodes were more dramatic than we are now. I think we've become successful because we're snarky and comedic. And along with being a comedy we have a moral lesson by the end of the show."
Those lessons can range from last week's "Booty Camp" episode (sexual harassment) to tonight's less serious "All About Adam," when a duplicitous guy tries to join the cheerleading team.
"As a Christian, I'm just not comfortable with any man's hairy hands touching my spongy places and propelling my buttocks heavenwards," says popular but freaky cheerleader Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman).
While Mary Cherry is outrageous, the title of "Villainous Diva" goes to Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels). Brooke may be the most popular girl in school, but Nicole is the schemer who consolidates the clique's power.
Recently Nicole fell out of favor when Brooke learned Nicole made time with Brooke's ex-boyfriend, Josh (Bryce Johnson). Tonight Nicole tries to bond with new kid in school Adam when she senses a kindred spirit.
"I dig you in a 'Bonnie & Clyde'-let's-dress-up-in-expensive-clothes-and-kill-people kind of way," she says.
Murphy compared Nicole's appeal to that of Joan Collins on "Dynasty."
"You watched 'Dynasty' not for the plot points, but to see what level of treachery [they'd sink to]," he said. "I always like shows where there's a clear villain or bad girl. On our show they happen to be Nicole and Mary Cherry. If you go online [you'll see] people are obsessed in an interesting way with their villainy."
And obsessed with the actress who seethes Nicole to life week after week. Actress Tammy Lynn Michaels said she's sometimes followed around stores by skittish teens.
"A lot of younger kids stare at me a lot and whisper a lot and really avoid me," she said. "Very few people say much to me, they just stare. I don't think anyone's ever walked up and said, 'You are a bitch.' They just treat me as though I am one."
But that sustained level of evilness gets to her.
"My high school experience was completely the opposite of Nicole," Michaels said during a press conference on the set of the Kennedy High cafeteria. "I had no money; I was not popular; I wore the same pair of tacky white flats in 9th and 10th grade because I couldn't afford any more shoes, which is why I sometimes feel bad about Nicole. I've been on the other end. I know what it was like."
While Nicole gets the best lines, Sam and Brooke remain the characters viewers most identify with. Although she's popular, Brooke isn't a one-dimensional snob. She feels badly about the way Nicole treats people, but she's not always willing to vocalize those objections.
"One of my friends thinks Brooke is like Nicole, really mean and stuck up," said Mt. Lebanon High's Rebekah. "I think Brooke isn't. It's Nicole who is influencing her and in these last couple of episodes Brooke is going her own way and branching away from Nicole. I think Sam is bringing that person out of her."
Actress Leslie Bibb, who plays Brooke, said the character's growth reflects reality.
"She takes two steps forward and one step back," Bibb said. "She's always in fluctuation, and that's what high school is about. You screw up."
Lauren prefers Sam.
"She doesn't know if she wants to be in the popular group or the regular group," Lauren said of Sam, a high school journalist who wins a modeling contest in tonight's episode. "So many friends of mine are in major groups and then I have friends that are not cool at all. That's the way I feel and that's the way she feels on the show. And I like her clothes."
Ah yes, the clothes. Fashion is a high priority for the show's creators.
"This show is very much about polarized groups and affluence to a certain degree," Murphy said. "We're able to make commentary on that. We also make a point of showing how superficial it is."
In addition to the wardrobe, "Popular" features frequent fantasy sequences. Tonight, three of the girls parade through the hallway to the tune of the "Charlie's Angels" theme as they dig for dirt on Adam.
In another scene, Adam reveals Brooke's secret overweight past using pop culture-infested dialogue that's ripe for deconstruction: "Your fat went beyond baby fat into John Waters territory, and I'm not just talking Ricki Lake, I'm talking Divine proportions."
The comedy extends to the show's sexually ambiguous biology teacher, Ms. Glass, played by actress Diane Delano. The same actress also plays the biology teacher's twin sister, Nurse Glass, and last week she made her debut as those characters' brother, a drill sergeant. Don't think it's a funny way to save money.
"If she does two roles in one show, you have to pay her two salaries, even if it's a line," Murphy said. It's a union thing.
Regardless of the goofy humor and fantasy scenes, "Popular" always comes back to the relationship between Brooke and Sam. They began the series as bitter enemies, but they've grown closer, especially now that they live together. Executive producer Greer Shephard said that evolution was natural and necessary.
"We couldn't have them combating in each episode," she said. "We have to keep them a little competitive, but they get to be closer as the series progresses."
Carly Pope, who plays Sam, said it's important to balance the moments of petty rivalry between Sam and Brooke with scenes where they get along.
"We get to this point where the characters connect, but then it's too scary to go there," Pope said. "They're so similar, yet some sort of pride is keeping them from [being friends]."
Slowly, that's changing. Tonight one of the characters even remarks on the newfound detente between the popular and unpopular crowds. But given the ever-changing nature of friendship, popularity and prime-time TV, don't expect that camaraderie to last.