Young TV viewers identify with characters who feel out of place

AN ALIENATED NATION

September 22, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Maybe we don't belong here. We just don't fit in."

That was Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) of "Beverly Hills 90210," speaking last year shortly after she and twin brother Brandon (Jason Priestley) moved to California. They had gotten off to a rocky start at their new high school, but she was echoing a sentiment voiced by other characters on other shows that have become hits.

Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) said much the same thing when he arrived from New York in the town of Cicely, Alaska, on "Northern Exposure." Will Smith, of "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," hadn't been out of Philadelphia and in his uncle's West Coast mansion for a full 22 sitcom minutes when he decided that he and Bel Air were less than a perfect fit; he was missing home.

Brenda and Will are teen-agers; Joel is twentysomething. It all adds up to youth and alienation as the motor driving three hit shows -- two of which, "Beverly Hills" and "Northern Exposure," are among the hottest on network TV.

The argument here is that it's more than sex appeal that makes "Beverly Hills" such an important show to teen-agers; it's more than quirkiness that makes "Northern Exposure" so talked-about young adults; it's more than Will Smith's rap persona that pushes "Fresh Prince" past whatever competition the other networks put up against.

What "it" is is the connective tissue that runs between young people and the strangers in strange lands who populate many of our coming-of-age stories.

"Issues of venturing out, breaking from home and creating ties with strangers have been critically important in American history," says University of Michigan professor Conrad Phillip Kottak in his book "Prime Time Society." "It is no wonder that so many American creations express these themes."

And it is no wonder that youth bonds with them so intensely. In fact, intense is a mild word for what's going on with "Beverly Hills 90210." The program ended its season last May with a cliff-hanger episode that featured Brenda sleeping with her boyfriend, Dylan (Luke Perry), on the night of her prom. In an attempt to capitalize on growing fan interest, Fox Broadcasting brought the show back with new episodes -- which resolved Brenda's sexual encounter -- in July instead of waiting for fall.

"Beverly Hills" became the highest rated show with teens and jumped into the Nielsen's top 20 this summer. Priestley, Perry and Doherty are now each getting about 1,500 fan letters a week, according to the network. Last month, when Perry appeared at a shopping mall in Florida, 10,000 fans showed up; there was a literal stampede. You don't have to be a pop culture weatherman to know something deeper than just Brenda sleeping with Dylan is going on here.

"The show has plugged into a real current of alienation," said Leah Vande Berg, assistant professor at California State University -- Sacramento, and author of "Television Criticism: Approaches and Applications."

You can call it teen angst. But it's a profound alienation that comes from separation and is near the core of the American experience.

"Growing up in America still entails separation from those who raised us," notes Kottak, who also cites "Star Trek" as an example of a TV show dealing with such separation and alienation as part of what he calls "the American pursuit of the frontier."

On one level, that's what these hit shows are about, too -- movement west and exploring new frontiers.

And is it no accident that several new shows this season are trying to tap into that same notion of young people being uprooted and feeling the awkwardness of adjustment.

One of the more promising ones is NBC's "Eerie, Indiana," which features Omri Katz as 13-year-old Marshall Teller, a teen-ager whose family just moved from New Jersey to the Midwestern town of the title, which looks all heartland-and-white bread-OK to his folks, but seems very weird and scary to him.

Karl Schaefer, the show's executive producer, described Marshall as "Tom Sawyer lost in the Twilight Zone" and said, "NBC thought that people could really fall in love with Marshall and relate to a kid who feels completely out of place in this town."

There are other examples, too. "The Young Riders" on ABC has mined this vein since the fall of 1989. And there's a 14-year-old girl (Olivia Burnette) at the heart of NBC's "The Torkelsons" (8:30 Saturday nights) who's feeling every bit as out of it in Oklahoma as Marshall is in Indiana.

It's not new -- this alienation. And Jason Priestley doesn't do it as well as James Dean did in his day. But it's the same feeling. It's an important feeling. And it's television these days that is articulating it for millions of young viewers.

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