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Teen Drama

Laurel Mercer

So I just binge-watched the first thirty episodes of ABC Family’s The Lying Game and must now crown myself as the master of their fictional universe (limited only to the TV series because, c’mon, who really reads anymore?). I know all the secrets. I get all the twists. I’ve grasped all the backstory. And I’ve climbed and explored each and every branch of the tangled family trees from Phoenix to Scottsdale, Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Allow me to breakdown some of the show’s various intricacies to you novice TLG-viewers, die hard fan, and casual viewers both intentional and accidental — I get it, you lost your remote at some point during Pretty Little Liars. No shame. Just jump in.

First things first. Laurel is wonderful. In a tournament bracket of best TLG-ers (Mercer Madness?), she would be a top seed if not for it making so much more sense to have her as an underdog and watch her sass and flirt and snark her way into the championship game. While it’s clear, often too clear, that the Mercer clan fails to appreciate Laurel and the full extent of her unabashedly adorable ways, she is indispensable to maintaining the dramatic tension of a sort of ludicrous plot-line, as well as keeping the seriousness in check when necessary. She dispenses the best hugs. Calls people out when it’s most needed. And is unrelentingly a teenage girl no matter what, even while the world around her strains to be grown-up. But even the showrunners took some time to understand Laurel’s value.

Remember Char? Sutton and Mads’s friend? The blonde one with Mommy issues who dated that shady dude? Of course you don’t. Our Laurel would eventually steal her crush (Justin), her shine (Mommy and Daddy issues, even shadier boyfriend), and her function in the story. Before you know it, it’s Sutton(s), Mads, and Laurel out having adventures, having sleepovers, picking up guy, and, in turn, fighting over said guys. Laurel does it all while playing a fucking fiddle. Adorbz. Like I said, Laurel = MVP.

Next up. Charisma Carpenter, as the maybe mother of Sutton and Emma, is unsettling . . . in a good way. She’s creepy and manipulative and presumably plays the game as well as anyone possibly could, being that she isn’t dead or in prison by episode thirty (season two, episode ten). But what is the game? Is she crazy, a murderer, or a crazy murderer? Is she even Sutton and Emma’s biological mother? The striking resemblance between her and her offspring would be much more convincing if there wasn’t the slim chance that Alexandra Chando (Emma and Sutton) isn’t a real person and The Parent Trap camera magic is being all over the place. Someone check if Alexandra is an anagram of Charisma, please. Either way, at this point in the series, Rebecca clearly has a lot more up her sleeve. In fact, we have only just gotten to see that she’s wearing some pretty big-ass sleeves.

And then there are the fathers. Being a dad and not a jerk is almost impossible in The Lying Game. I like to call it “fathering under the influence of privilege.” (I’ve never actually called it that until just now.) There seems to be this extremely immature notion, which Ted and Alec share, that immoral, malicious mistakes of the past can be easily corrected by flexing money and power and committing more immoral and malicious mistakes in the present. Then comedy ensues.

The crux of The Lying Game, the search for “real” parents or, more essentially, the truth, reveals a lot about how ABC Family, author/creator Sara Shepard, and many others perceive the idyllic family and its members. Something about being all white or fringe white (“Whitehorse,” really? Not the name but the delivery) and luckily affluent. Absentee, adulterous, or asshole dads. Take your pick. But unsurprisingly for a series targeted at young women, the dynamic between mothers and daughters and sisters and girlfriends plays a large, perhaps the largest, part of the familial makeup of the show. The portrayal is diverse; albeit sometimes more of a rogue gallery of scorned, naive, boy-crazy, devious, victimized girls of all ages. Still, as long as you aren’t ostensibly a minority, poor, male, or, I guess, homosexual, it’s hard to imagine not readily finding a kindred spirit, a true or “real” version of yourself as you watch.

And I suppose that’s the most compelling part. Just as easily as one twin can become the other, viewers are offered a world of intrigue within homogeneity, sameness. By no means is this the first or last show to use whitewashed privilege as a canvas for storytelling. Standard fare throughout the networks and cable. But the attractiveness of “girl power” alongside “we’re all alike” isn’t something to be take lightly. If you aren’t as nice as Emma or charismatic as Sutton or as simply amaz-balls as Laurel, The Lying Game makes it a little easier to pretend to be, whether that’s a good thing or not.

Apologies for the hiatus during the warm months. It was certainly not for a lack of great viewing options. In fact, this summer brought to mind how much we’ve progressed from the dark and dreary, pre-ubiquity of cable past of not having anything at all to watch between the season finales of May-June and the premieres of September-October. I once spent a whole summer just watching reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess. Oh, how I miss Lucy Lawless and the New Zealand countryside. But it was a tragedy nonetheless. These days, the bounty of new offerings on summertime television work, along with climate change, to tear down whatever semblance of seasons we once had — way back when we had ice in the arctic or when social media was just for the living. Times are a’changin’, premieres are a’premierin’, but before that, let’s look back at a summer show that The CW feigned interest in as they waited for Gossip Girl to return. Shall we?

I want to discuss The LA Complex for two reasons: 1. Canadians are pretty much our summer saviors here in the states whether we like it or not; and 2. Degrassi: The Next Generation. The second reason pointedly alludes to television’s yesteryears in that, as many of us know, Degrassi: TNG, the most recent installment of a Canadian teen drama franchise that stretches as far back as 19791, was a angsty, rapey, stabby-shooty gem of a series that completely ended after its seventh season — completely1 — but before then, it brought the lovely Cassie Steele into our lives as the incorrigibly adorable Manny Santos. Fundamentally, Manny is back in The LA Complex. She has the same penchant for making poor romantic decisions; same confusingly misguided Hollywood aspirations; same infuriatingly naive disposition; same Manny. And we love her for it through thick and thin. But somehow she manages to find herself again playing second fiddle to the rest of the ensemble despite The LA Complex being transparently a vehicle for her to shine. Her character Abby Vargas (subtly, almost repentantly Latina, same ole Manny) galavants around town in a way that actually gives me pause to criticize because I would hate to get caught up in something like slut-shaming. Because it’s not her sexual body count (which is high and rising) that is an issue, it’s more so that as a character and as a storytelling channel for the show, her hook ups and the usage of her sexual body seems primary to her contribution to the show. And that comes across to me as either lazy or demeaning; demeaning maybe to women, but definitely to those that wanted to see Manny as a full-fledged adult, as the series was implicitly billed.

Luckily, The LA Complex offers Jewel Staite as Raquel Westbrook for our fix of all-grown up favorites. (She’s Canadian. Did you know? See the first reason above why this series is worthy of note.) With Stargate Atlantis and Firefly not too far from anyone’s mind (read: nerds), Staite portrays a bitter has-been actress down on her luck but very much up on her scheming. In fact, she plays the role so well that I’ve bookmarked her IMDB and Wikipedia pages just to remind me not to despise her.3 The premise of the series, young people struggling to make it in the city of angels, is legitimized through Raquel Westbrook. Her ofttimes noxious and wicked interactions with the wide-eyed other characters is at points the only way to distinguish this Faux Angeles from the soft-pedaling melodrama of Degrassi Community School. And then like a cute toddler with a sharpie in an all white upholstered room, the viewer is almost forced to forgive Raquel’s misdeeds. She’s too cute. She’s still young (sort of). She’s an imperfect vessel, like us, after all, and she just wants to be loved and have nice things, like we do. She aggressively pursues ends like the woman-of-action we wished Manny had grown up to be, and suffers for it each step of the way. Raquel Westbrook is the most LA the show has to offer, as well as one of the most complex characters the show has bothered to roll out up to this point, and she is the unexpected heart of the series — not the whiney children running around humping one another. And she’s damn good at it.

But then there’s Kaldrick King. Besides filling the series to the brim with just the right amount of heated man-on-man-against-wall-or-floor make out scenes and (literally) explosive sequences of violence, the hip-hop superstar caricature, played by Andra Fuller, brings a dimension to the series that — while so distant from the rest at times it seems like its own show — is needed to dilute the white whines. At its core, The LA Complex is about a bunch of self-indulgent dreamers living and building their dreams — gigs, parties, big city, sex aplenty, ostensibly cheap rent — but blinded to it by their self-indulgence. It’s an interesting contrast to see the Black man with all the money and fame, taking indulgence to another level, struggling with it so much, and desperately seeking repentance and acceptance. His kisses appear distinct from the other kisses in the series, not because they’re with other men, but plainly because they mean more. They speak to indulgence in more than flesh and conflicts of interests that are more than just fame and fortune and glitz and glamour. Not to give the super two-fer tokenism too much credit, there’s certainly a lot of unflattering discussion happening over this story arc of the show, but Kaldrick King and his new budget Obama love interest is surely compelling, provocative drama if not just an unconventional sexual aesthetic for primetime network drama. He also doesn’t look too bad in a tank top. I definitely look forward to seeing him the season finale next week.

1Apparently TVs did exist back then. Whodathunkit?

2Yup.

3 OMG, she was in Flash Forward too!

from left to right: Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer

A long time ago in November of 2000, the WB Network, the frog that would eventually lip-lock with Viacom/CBS to become toady’s CW prince, aired a particularly absorbing episode of its hit teen drama Dawson’s Creek. The episode, season 4’s “The Unusual Suspects”, begins with a mystery – a dog set on a boat afloat in Capeside High School’s indoor swimming pool. Student and staff spectators alike were in awe. Remember 2000 was a simpler time. The novelty of such a prank may be lost on an audience jaded by a fairly rough decade of war and recession, but back then, a wily Clinton was still in office and No Strings Attached was on repeat in all our discmans (“What’s an mp3?”) A boat in a pool was rightfully awe-inspiring, and the mystery and intrigue of the episode was palpable.

A little background for the episode: Pacey and Dawson, former longtime besties, are currently on the outs, due to Pacey and Joey’s, Dawson’s other bestie and perhaps crushie, recurrent habit of making out and holding hands. Jack, a jock added as a series regular along with his sister Andie barely a season prior, is a secondary character/friend and is gay, possibly closeted, maybe out, maybe not gay (Really, it was twelve very long years ago.) Jenn, the blonde, notorious Creek game changer, is significant too but not necessarily for the purposes of revisiting this particular episode.

Jack, Pacey and Dawson are immediately suspected by Principal Peskin – it was his boat and his dog in the pool – to be the most likely culprits. Specific reasons are given but it comes down simply to Pacey being the bad boy of the show, Dawson being ostensibly unlikely but having ample opportunity (and it is his Creek after all), and Jack being decided upon by the writers to be gay important to the series’ dramatic interests. So the investigation begins. There’s traditional film noir lighting during the questioning scenes, some good cop bad cop played by the Principal and Dawson’s father, and a sequence of flashbacks narrated by each suspect. Their alibis are airtight and their testimonies touch upon a lot of the A and B plots of the series to this point. Jack spent the time in question with Jenn coaching a soccer team, where Jenn has an introspective moment or something. When Dawson is reminded of a pact he and Pacey had made in the past to pull a prank of this magnitude, he coldly reminds everyone that their friendship has ended. Pacey was making out and hand holding with Joey. (In 2000, that was definitely enough to satisfy many devoted shippers, while sending others into a frenzy. Good television, people.)

The episode culminates in the audience and Joey’s discovery that they did, in fact, do it. They pulled it off cleverly and together. Whether the answer to ‘how’ is satisfactory, the answer to ‘why’, especially for Dawson and Pacey, forces the viewer to reconsider what we know about these characters and the dynamics of the series. It’s done surprisingly well too. The temptation to force square pegs into a circular hole to generate a new story or gimmicky mystery was rightfully resisted and the squares as a result became more fleshed out people – corny, small-town New England people with complicated relationships and an affinity for boating.

Pretty Little Liars on ABC Family is certainly no Dawson’s Creek, if only for the lack of a nautical element. But in 2012, Rosewood, Pennsylvania is the best simulacrum of Capeside, Massachussets we have; Capeside circa “The Unusual Suspects” especially, when it comes to using mystery as a vehicle for plot. The death of Alison DiLaurentis, an admittedly dark start to a teen drama but comparable to Dawson’s Creek killing its own troubled blonde girl on its way out in ’03, provides the framework for similar natural character development. Surely, that wouldn’t be nearly good enough to seize an audience and PLL (as the kids call it these days) outpaces the Creek (as the kids never quite called it those days) in its cliffhangers, mysterious reveals, and also hasn’t shied away from the record for adulterous parents and the incredulous teen vocabulary battle (“Kids don’t really talk like Spencer, do they?!”) that the Creek kids once made prominent.1

Pretty Little Liars functions under the umbrella of mystery in a way consistent with what television has discovered from years of experience teens want. Remember the nerdy and awkward girl next door Josephine Potter that matured with time? Pretty Little Liars does. Remember when Pacey hooked up with a teacher? Pretty Little Liars remembers. What the mystery of A and the death of Alison add to the series is an unrelenting ‘boat in the pool’ mode that allows us to follow more closely what these characters may or may not become, without the crutch of feeling that things are as they’ve always been so they must at some point return to that. This week, we were taught to even question family makeups themselves. The reveal that Jason, Alison’s brother, is also Spencer’s brother may have been genuinely surprising to some, but more importantly, it functioned in a way that, even though distressing to Spencer, didn’t distress the PLL world. To many, the reveal probably just made sense. The weight of the news has been rippling backwards through the series for some time now. The reveal simply provided an answer, while creating a multitude of questions in the PLL fashion. (Good television, people.)

Basically, Pretty Little Liars is a damn good ride for those of us that don’t actually need to go anywhere. The comparison with Dawson’s Creek is mostly unnecessary, PLL can probably hold its own being merely compared to Gossip Girl, but is important only in that, if it holds, the gap between a generation of viewers, the space between Nielsen demos, the difference between the angst that matters and the inconsequential angst of yesteryear isn’t as large as it may seem sometime. And if Aria, Hanna, Emily and Spencer can live on screen as real persons with real drama, teen drama but real nonetheless, then maybe we won’t all be forced to grow up so quickly to gain more introspection and insight. Simply, I don’t wanna wait for our lives to be over. I want to know right now what will it be… do do do do

1Rory Gilmore being the closest competitor for the remainder of the decade.