Editor’s note: We’re Blast Magazine. We’re Gen-Y. We know this shit.
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation, I’m just talking about "My Generation." ABC’s new hour-long drama series (Thursdays at 8 p.m.) about Generation Y — my generation — premiered last Thursday, and will likely not cause a big sensation either. The premise is that a documentary filmmaker chronicled a group of seniors at an Austin, Texas high school in 2000 and now, in 2010, reconnected with the same people to see the directions their lives have taken over the course of the decade. The catch is that the 2000 documentary and characters are completely fictional.
Not just fictional, but phony.
Despite some strong individual performances, the pilot of "My Generation" failed to capture the generation for both creative as well as societal reasons. From one perspective, the show suffers from a maelstrom of cliche and an absence of subtlety and nuance. Beyond the quality of this individual series, any show or film attempting to chronicle the group of Americans who grew up in the late 1990s and are presently entering adulthood is doomed due to the status of that "generation"â€”that it simply is not fully developed or aware of its place in history.
First, the show itself. While "My Generation" may work as a clever spoof of bad documentary, reality television and cliched high school television characters, that is not its intent and it instead combines elements of all three motifs. The 2000 documentary introduced nine students known mostly by one-dimensional character label nicknames. Each character has a name yet is referred to by titles on the screen by his or her nickname. The nicknames and characters they represent are: The Brain, The Jock, The Overachiever, The Rock Star, The Rick Kid, The Wall Flower, The Punk, The Beauty Queen and The Nerd.
Any show that has an inner show (a "show inside the show") faces the hurdle of the quality of the inner show. NBC’s fall 2006 season one-and-done "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" which was a fictional take on the production, cast and crew of a live weekend night sketch comedy show had difficulty because the sketches inside the inner show were not funny. Conversely, "The Larry Sanders Show" established itself as one of the 90s best comedy series because the show inside the show, a fictional late-night talk show with Gary Shandling playing host Larry Sanders and Jeffrey Tambor playing the Ed McMahon announcer/sidekick character, itself was high quality.
With "My Generation," the 2000 documentary that set up the present mockumentary is neither likable nor believable. Like a poor real documentary and badly-written fiction, the fictional 2000 documentary creates thin characters. In real life and as shown in good high school documentaries, people span multiple categories and possess multiple character traits even if they appear to be a stereotypical "jock," "nerd," "band geek," "cheerleader" or other high school archetype. The real 2008 high school documentary "American Teen," directed by Nanette Burstein, followed five students over the course of their senior year at a high school in Indiana. While Burstein likely selected the students due to their iconic high school character typesâ€”there are a cheerleader, basketball player, band musician, artsy girl and another athleteâ€”she did not narrowly define their characters nor give them one-dimensional nicknames or scenes, and, over the course of the film, it becomes clear that these students are multifaceted, interesting and real people (the cheerleader is also a top student, the basketball star is invested in his education and the artsy girl, while still a drama queen, dates the other basketball player and is not the cynical, sarcastic character one might expect her to be).
"My Generation" starts with the stereotypical high school characters and makes them the characters of its show. To its credit, the pilot shows how the 2010 characters are different (and in some cases the same) as their 2000 selves. This could work as a send-up on formulated shows and acts, whether they be reality shows or boy bands, whose casts and members always fit the same demographics (a device created, perpetuated and possibly parodied by MTV’s "The Real World") but the tone of the show is not satiric.
The cliched characters nicely lead into cliche plot lines. In the pilot, the Overachiever learns that he is the father of the Wallflower’s child. That the child is the result of a one-night stand is cliche’ #1 (because even on good TV shows such as "Mad Men," which, according to hitfix.com television critic Alan Sepinwall, used this device at least three times to date, and movies like "Knocked-Up"â€”having sex with a person once leads to a pregnancy). The prom-night timing is cliche #2. That the one-nightstand involved two people that likely would not get together in real life is #3. To top it off and giving quadruple cliche’ word score: the father did not find out until ten years later that he had a child. Of course the call from the Wallflower telling him of his paternity came when he was on camera.
Another classic cliche is the soap opera love triangle. The Rich Kid marries the Beauty Queen (who is now an Ice Queen) but is still in love with his high school girlfriend, the Brain, and the Beauty Queen knows. Now they will be reunited in documentary filming and cliched hijinks will ensue. The other major stock relationship is the girl and the obsessed male best friend. The Nerd (a man) and the Punk (a woman) dated in high school but became friends after it didn’t work out. The Punk married the Jock, who left his basketball scholarship at Stanford for military service in September of 2001, and is now pregnant with his child while he is in Afghanistan. Punk girl lives with Nerd man who is helping her with her pregnancy while insisting that he’s fine they are just friends even though he masturbates to thoughts of her flashing her husband in a video chat (again, this show lacks subtlety). See Brat Pack flick "Pretty in Pink" for a better take on this idea (Molly Ringwald as the punkish girl and Jon Cryer as iconic just-friend Ducky).
Beyond the hackneyed characters and storytelling, the show faces the difficulty of trying to chronicle a generation is timing. Ten years is not a lot of time for young people in the present time. After high school, college and professional school can easily account for the bulk of a ten-year time period. Ten years out of high school, many people are just beginning to start their careers and families.
More importantly, it is just too early to look back at ten years and know just what impacted people and society profoundly enough to highlight in a television show. Most attempts fall flat as obvious and gimmicky. Gratuitous shots in "My Generation" of characters using Facebook and video chat software are done over the top, begging the question as to at what generation the show is aimedâ€”older people who are not up to speed on the technological prowess of the nation’s young-ins?
"Mad Men" is a great show that shows the culture and cultural change of the United States through the lens of advertising and New York in the 1960s. The first season, set in 1960, premiered in 2007. "Happy Days" flashed back to the 1950s and later the early â€˜60s and aired twenty years after its setting. "The Wonder Years," a show some have compared "My Generation" to, focused on teen angst during the peak of Vietnam in the late â€˜60s and early â€˜70s and aired in the 1990s.
A show about the â€˜90s and 2000s that properly incorporated the Clinton and Bush administrations, cellular technology and the Internet, terrorism and the wars against terror and other concepts we are still developing and trying to make sense of, will be a compelling showâ€¦in about twenty years when we finally have. Most likely it will happen when filmmakers and television executives and writers from the 2000s generation have taken over the entertainment industry.
ABC’s "My Generation" is not the answer. I expect and hope something else is. This is my generation, baby.
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