Pop Capsule: The Teen Years of Television

TV Pop Culture News

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It seems like everyone who is 25 or older looks back and sees their teenage years as the best time of their entire lives. Now, that doesn’t include everyone – but the majority of us reflect on our teen years as the most worry-free and least troubling period of our lives as a whole. As a typical teen, you don’t have bills, serious jobs, or serious stress, as your biggest worry is some quick relationship and being able to get to hang out with your friends so new experiences can be had. It’s a hopeful time in everyone’s life, and Hollywood has made millions cashing in on youthful ignorance for decades now.

That is really what the teen comedy is all about. You take an ensemble, put them in situations of discovery, and let the cameras roll as the dialogue tells a story of how others spent their best years throughout high school. Hell, part of being a teenager is watching television as it has been for a long time now, so these little shows that focus on growing up really stick when they’re done correctly.

For this edition of Pop Capsule, we will be grabbing our books and taking a look at the best televised products focused on young adults, with a lot of shows that have now become timeless and branded a good amount of actors into that black hole that comes with the term “typecast”. It’s a fun topic, but the art of making a successful teenage comedy is not as easy as it seems. Join us as we head back to school to reflect on the best shows that display how hard it is to grow up.

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I need to start with the biggest pop culture success in television history for the genre before even tackling other shows for this article, as let’s face it, if you are at least 23 years old, you spent your days watching Saved by the Bell during its hundreds of timeslots across various networks. Peter Engel started Saved by the Bell as Good Morning Miss Bliss, a Disney show that focused on a small group of students and their teacher in John F. Kennedy Junior High, located in Indiana. Oh, you thought it was always Bayside? Nope, as what would later become Saved by the Bell was focused on Miss Bliss and her life as a teacher. Miss Bliss was a peacemaker who cared about her students and was just trying to do the right thing with every difficult situation she would come across. Mr. Belding was there, as well as a few other adult regulars, and to be honest, the show was really good. Just after barely a year of being televised, the show was cancelled and rebranded as the Saved by the Bell we all know of today.

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Some talk about this as if it was a big deal, but let’s face it – it was not in the least aside from losing the wonderful Haley Mills as a lead. Remember the theme song to this show? Nope? That is because when NBC repackaged Saved by the Bell, they took the entire season of Miss Bliss and put a new assortment of credits on top of the thirty-minute block, making it seem as if this show was the original pilot season for the kids we knew at Bayside high. I’ll speak more on that mess later, as Saved by the Bell is the show we want to focus on now.

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Now located in a high school in California by the name of Bayside, Mr. Belding and three students made the transition to Saved by the Bell without losing much of their personality. Sure, Zack earned an odd and fitting ability to freeze time and break the fourth wall, but he was the same cool, confident, and scheming student he always was. Lisa Turtle kept her fashion sense of sorts, while also become a little more high maintenance (seriously though, I feel like she only wore long sleeve sweaters during the first show). Screech remained Screech, serving the purpose of Zack’s right hand and offering a bit of geeky comic relief along the way. The new students at Bayside are what truly put the show on the map, as their chemistry with the prior three is what made this ensemble work. We now have Jessie Spano, a tall and sassy liberal brainiac who was all about informing everyone about her rights as a female. A.C. Slater was the jock, but was not quite brainless and became the first true “friendly” rival to Zack Morris. Then there was Kelly Kapowski, a cheerleader and a “perfect 10” by 1990 California teen standards. Kelly was sweet, sharp, and charming, instantly putting her into the running as one of the first big bombshells of the decade.

Each episode would usually focus around Zack hatching some sort of plan that involved all six teens, while trying to avoid detention or some other sort of trouble from the Principal, Mr. Belding. If that wasn’t the topic, romance was, as Zack was in love with Kelly, and a lot of the time we saw several episodes with him trying to win her over while trying to shake off some other guy (such as Slater or any other guy who happened to show interest) from her affections. As time went on, we got to see more from the rest of the ensemble, learning about Slater’s constant issues with his strict Military father, Jessie and her constant need to be the best, and Lisa’s…shopping problem? Wait just a second before I continue as I want to make one point clear. While these seem like issues that might be serious, the show really never let the mood go into that zone of depth.

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Like if depth were in Canada, Saved by the Bell would have ran to Bulgaria and hid in a cabin to ensure depth did not find out where it lived.

I feel like that was why Saved by the Bell was as big as it was, as it was essentially The Brady Bunch of teenage shows. It was at its best when the characters were fretting about one of the several proms that the students were getting ready for (SERIOUSLY HOW MANY PROMS CAN ONE SCHOOL HAVE!) or focusing on getting out of a test, and at its worst when it was trying to be 90210 by focusing on topics such as drug addiction. You remember, don’t you?

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She was this EXCITED over caffeine pills. You know, the kind that have been sold over the counter forever now. I think energy drinks would be a bigger issue.

Saved by the Bell was still entertaining during these moments of cheesey depth. What makes it hard to watch is when you discover how much of a mess it was in terms of consistency. Remember when we spoke about Miss Bliss? That is still considered canon, even though the show acted like most of the cast knew each other since grade school. Oh yeah, the fact that it was set in a different part of the country might also raise a red flag. How about when cast members such as Jessie and Kelly would randomly disappear for several episodes and no one mentions their disappearance.

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Seriously though, remember Tori who replaced them entirely during the last season, only to be forgotten when both came back to graduate?

Or when Zack is dating Kelly in one episode and then back on the market in the next one. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Saved by the Bell was extremely bad in terms of writing and it should have been a bomb, but it was so much fun to watch that all of its flaws can be easily forgiven. When you have a show that is at its most popular in syndication, consistency does not matter as the viewer can hop in at any time without feeling that they are missing anything, and that is what makes this little show timeless and something that future generations will be able to enjoy for years to come.

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I think it would be best to stay in California a bit for the next show. Peter Engel made a huge success of Saved by the Bell, so why not milk the concept for all its worth? Enter California Dreams. I honestly consider this little show to be the off-brand Saved by the Bell as while some remember it, it forever lives in the shadow of the product that it was inspired by. Much like Bell, California Dreams focused on a clique of teenagers. This cast however were much different as they were more ethnically diverse and to be honest, far more interesting. Instead of focusing on high school antics, this show followed a gifted brother and sister combo who happened to be gifted in the field of music. Add in a few friends who also had random talents for instruments and you have the formation of the California Dreams, a small band who played gigs and dealt with social issues.

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I get really frustrated when I bring up this show as no one seems to remember it, even though it usually ran right after any re-run of Saved by the Bell. It had better writing, the topics were more diverse and the show never seemed to retread over the same territory. There were not a hundred school dances and the school was not even on display all that much, as most of the time the main setting was band practice or at the local eatery where most of the gigs took place. The teenagers were just far more varied, helping the show last for five seasons (which is long in teen show years). Tiffiani was the sporty blonde who played bass, Tony was the goofy drummer, and Jenny and Matt were siblings who sang lead and played piano. There was also Sly Winkle, the con artist cheeseball who happened to be the manager for the band. After just one season, Jenny left the show and was replaced by Sam, a foreign exchange student from Hong Kong with NO ACCENT who came to live with Matt’s family.

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Oh yeah, she could sing as well – which was ever so convenient.

The second season also brought in Jake, a biker who had the leather jacket and slicked back hair routine going in full effect. Jake fell for Tiffani as well, which was probably the main relationship that was featured other than Sam and Tony. By the third season, Matt moved away, leaving Sam to stay with a new Italian cast member named Lorena – who became the band’s first groupie and later went on to date Sly. Matt was replaced by Sly’s cousin “Mark”, and while a lot of fans mourned the loss of the lead, I think the change actually improved the dynamic and chemistry between the cast.

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While there were adults from time to time, there was never a voice of reason like Mr. Belding. That being said, the themes in California Dreams were far more mature than anything Saved by the Bell had displayed during its entire run. Instead of caffeine pills, we had one episode where Tiffani gets addicted to steroids so she can get better at volleyball. We also saw issues with racism, death, and divorce. This was pretty heavy stuff for someone to watch while he was in elementary school, but the fact that every episode ended with the band performing a song usually pertaining to the lesson of the day kept it from going off the edge and losing its light and airy charm. A lot of shows with a young audience try to involve music. California Dreams was special because it revolved around a band, but never sold out to a marketing craze that would pull all of the focus towards that topic. It is a rare thing when subject matter can be centered in any teenage comedy, but for a show with quite a few cast changes, I have to give it to California Dreams as its legacy will always be the “better” show that was hidden underneath its predecessor’s large shadow.

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Go ahead, find some episodes on Youtube. They’re all there. Just don’t blame me for the cringing you may do to some of the featured songs.

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One thing I used to get really annoyed with during the 2000’s was the heavy influx of shitty, scripted reality shows focusing on one rich girl in a big city. Laguna Beach brought a lot of shallow crap with it such as The Hills, The City, and so on, and don’t get me wrong, I am not an asshat. I understand there were girls and there still are girls and guys alike who were massively entertained by this. I just found those shows to be tacky and very materialistic, despite the amount of attention they received weekly. One teenage girl about ten years before all of that noise showed us how it was done by being herself. Whoa, that was terrible, and saying “Whoa” is half of what this little number is known for.

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Blossom was about a girl who was your standard, awkward teenager. She wasn’t a stereotypical model, but instead an intelligent young woman who still managed to remain charming despite her own shortcomings. This show was like a good amount of television shows that feature kids Blossom’s age, but was layered in depth by the surroundings of reality. You see, Blossom and her friend Six seem rather normal, but Blossom’s family was far from traditional. Her dad was a divorced and struggling musician. Her older brother was a recovering alcoholic and addict, and her other sibling, Joey, was just the dumb other brother used as comic relief who would later find fame through that cheap catch phrase that made him and his brothers all-stars shortly after (you can cue the “Whoa” to play in your heads now). What made the whole program work was that even though Blossom should have been miserable, or torn, or broken – she was the complete opposite. She was able to be there for her dad as he went through relationship problems. She was there for her brother during a relapse. Blossom was televised proof that there is normalcy in chaos, and despite what cinema may teach us – you can still be a teenager while going through life’s bullshit at an early age with a bit of focus. The best quality of this quirky teenager? She didn’t whine or feel sorry for herself about any of it and still managed to do everything a teen does during her years of angst. This is also the show that coined the phrase “a very special episode” due to its tackling of major social issues such as addiction, rape, and puberty.

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I would honestly say that for its time, Blossom is definitely one of most well written television shows to date for its little genre, as it was a teenage comedy that still managed to appeal to a primetime audience. Remember when we just talked about Saved By the Bell? It tried to survive in a primetime slot during “Saved by the Bell: The College Years” (which was still entertaining, mind you) but died because it couldn’t create an adult storyline with that same “silly” cast. Blossom had all of the tools to do that with ease as it remained wholesome, serious, comical, and appealing without losing its core, and as Blossom grew, the show simply got more material to work with. I also feel like Blossom ended on a perfect note. There was no attempt at viewing a college life. There were no spin-offs. Instead, she graduated high school, and that was that. We tuned in to see a teenager approach a not-so-perfect life with a chipper personality, and that is what we got for five years. When it was time for her to move on, it was time for the curtain to fall as we got to see her make it through her teenage years with that same smile and sparkle in her eye that was featured all the way back in the pilot episode.

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I feel like Blossom or the legacy of the television show Blossom does not get the respect it so widely deserves. So many teenage shows of today have to throw some huge ass plot twist half-way through a series to keep it interesting. Oh, these characters are growing up? Here is a cousin that is younger to mix things up. Or here is an unexpected pregnancy, or a death. Chew on that, teenager! Blossom grew up while her immature family grew up with her, and when your show doesn’t have to rely on some overused trope, you deserve some credit. I will say that not all of these mid-series additions are a bad thing such as the examples I used, but when you make characters that can carry over a hundred episodes of a teenage comedy without resorting to a jump of the shark, then you definitely earned a pat on the back for a great run.

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I can’t finish up this list without stating the “other” great primetime teen comedy of the 90’s. If you had the television turned to TGIF on a Friday night, you know all about the little show that followed Family Matters weekly. Boy Meets World Is probably the most loved of all of the teenage comedies that have ever existed, as its quality was met with the ability to still stand the test of time. The show was centered around a young Cory Matthews, who was extremely average. I know some people consider this more of a coming of age sitcom– rather than a teen comedy, but Boy Meets World gets lumped in the latter because it transformed from one genre to another.

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Being honest, its greatest feat is also my biggest critique of the program. Boy Meets World started out as a family sitcom focused around a boy and his family. Sure, the school sessions were there and extremely charming, but we still got a few more storylines about the parents trying to pay bills and keep their job than Cory’s awkward love life. Well, that is how it started. When the second season hit, Topanga, Cory, and Shawn all hit Junior High to focus on life’s huge problems when you are 13. The centerpiece of the show went from the Matthews’ home to the hallways of the school, and Mr. Feeney made the transfer as well. Saved by the Bell did this transformation that we spoke of earlier, but it is easier to forgive the inconsistencies of Boy Meets World as it was a fantastic show and the changes only strengthened it. Topanga probably went through the biggest change that a lot of fans seem to point out when they make their little crappy commentary, trying to think of something negative to say about us adults who still love this show with our “nostalgia goggles on”. Sure, she lost the values that her family taught her as well as her “weirdness”, but that was ok as the show took a moment to address it. Kids grow up and change with their surroundings. Topanga did the same. Shawn Hunter was our troubled youth, and by bringing in storylines about a broken home to young adult television – some kids could finally relate and feel that there were other families out there that were not perfect. Seriously though, some kids don’t have a mom and a dad, or the picture of happiness, and Shawn was one of the first of his kind in this realm of television.

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You can still be normal without being normal as the only person’s perception of normal is your own. That sentence can be used to describe more than Shawn’s family problems, as it honestly is just as relevant when speaking about every character in the show. Cory went through puberty, relationship issues, countless tests, innocent fears, and so on – but still seemed extremely human throughout. Boy Meets World wasn’t exactly smart television at all times, but it was a blast to watch and always remained entertaining throughout each episode due to its cast and sharp writing. Do I think Minkus would have made the show better if he stayed? Sure, but the character would have easily feel into a trap where he very well could have been the Steve Urkel that took over everything.

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Boy Meets World is still talked about today as I feel a part of everyone who watched it religiously as kids has stuck with them as adults. Every episode had a life lesson. Every kid had their own tale, and even though they turned some characters into terrible comic relief (Eric….talking about you here), we still got to see a more direct point of view on the world from someone a little closer to our age.

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I want to say Girl Meets World will be the same, but honestly I don’t see it being nearly as loved by its intended audience compared to the way that myself and countless others feel about the original product. Girl Meets World is one part fan service, one part great television, and one part nostalgia. If Marc Jacobs would have created a whole new family to focus on other than Cory and Topanga’s kids, then sure – it could have found its own feet, but as of now (I think we are in the second season as of this writing), it seems like it will always live in the shadow of Boy Meets World. People should be excited to see a future episode list and wonder about the future for Riley (Cory’s daughter) and her classmates, and not if Angela or some other former castmate will come back. That small rant aside, its still a fun show to watch – but it has GIANT shoes to fill if it wants to be half as captivating as the high school program that defined late 90’s television for my generation.

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How to Rock was cancelled after one season. Why? It was terrible.

I watched a ton of other shows that were fantastic high school comedies – or high school centric growing up that almost got featured in this piece. Welcome Freshman sort of comes to mind but I don’t remember it all too well. The Secret Life of Alex Mack and Clarissa Explains it All were more about the characters and not the setting so I didn’t think either fit (I mean, Alex Mack could should lightning out her finger. Relate to that, will ya?). Some are also terrible and are better not mentioned. Hang Time, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, and many more fall into the category of “meh” as they never really clicked with me. Those who watch more recent Disney and Nickelodeon live action shows, well – those usually suck. Most of the time the school looks like it is for the rich, and while I am sure that is a demographic, I really feel old and out of place watching kids walk to a juice bar in their school while trotting down the hall with an iPad in their hands.

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The biggest problem with the modern take on the teenager is there is no room for laughs and normalcy to run parallel at the same time. It is one extreme or another. You have Degrassi and those serious high school soap operas where on every season finale a character gets murdered, pregnant, or aids – or you get these absolutely fucking stupid shows that cash in on geek culture and character tropes, only offering the same quick joke over and over before they eventually get cancelled (that one was for you, Nickelodeon). I think it would be good to make high school the setting for a comedy yet again, but it has to be done right. It has to be interesting, feature an ensemble that works off each others strengths and weaknesses, and most of all – it has to be human. Make your characters care about one another. Maybe one day we will get another Boy Meets World, or a Blossom, or even something like Saved by the Bell that flourishes in its own bizarre pacing and humor, but until then – high schoolers of today are better off grabbing some DVDs and getting some education of what real television could be like.

Class dismissed.

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  • Another great read Dustin, it’s like you knew me when I was a kid lol

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