TV's Teen Class of '98

Shows about teens are some of the most talked about on TV. Here's a look at the messages they send to viewers.

By , Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The teens on "Dawson's Creek" sound more like graduate students at an urban university than 10th-graders in a resort-town high school. The family of teens and early 20-year-olds on Fox's "Party of Five" faces everything from life-threatening illness to alcoholism - without the customary parental units to guide them. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one superskilled teen who manages to fight the forces of darkness without breaking a nail.

All these teens and many more on TV are empowered, out-of-the-ordinary, and beautiful. They talk like people twice their age, and most of them are female.

And there is a reason for all this. A leader in teen programming is the WB (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Felicity, 7th Heaven, and Sister, Sister are all WB). Garth Ancier, the director of WB programming says, "We realized that when you're starting a new television network, just as when you're starting a new brand of toothpaste, you need to aim at younger users because they're the ones who are most likely to try a new product.

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"We have geared our programming toward the younger end of the spectrum, trying to create a brand that's user-friendly to a younger audience." The characters in these shows are given adult intellects and adult dialogue because, Mr. Ancier says, it's more interesting to young viewers.

But all this sophistication troubles many experts. "Many of these shows have marginal moral lessons that might be slightly helpful.... [But] TV gives standards most kids can't live up to," says Cynthia Scheibe, a psychology professor and a media-literacy expert at Ithaca College in New York. "Teens are so vulnerable to these issues.... It's a setup for kids to feel inadequate - and always wanting more [material goods] to make them feel better. Even in a show like Party of Five, which is one of the best, these kids are wealthy; they dress too well."

There are exceptions, of course: The one show many critics point to as exemplary, a touchstone for good teen programming, didn't last long.

" 'My So-Called Life' got close to capturing teen life," says Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "It was hard to watch because it was very good at dealing with the real angst of being a teen."

Shows like ABC's Boy Meets World, UPN's Moesha, and "Sister, Sister" take the broad comic view, avoiding realism, but presenting teens with good values and loving parents - though all are middle-class and good-looking. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch on ABC is really aimed at younger kids, as is The Adventures of Shirley Holmes, an import from Canada now on the Fox Family Channel. Sabrina is a sanitized Buffy, while Shirley, played by Meredith Henderson, is a charming 15-year-old, a loner who keeps herself occupied by unraveling mysteries - as her great-great-uncle Sherlock did.

"One of the things I like about the [teen image in the series] is that ... girls don't only care about their hair and clothes," says Ms. Henderson. "And they don't have to rely on popularity. They can do what they want."

Henderson adds, "A lot more girls are doing stuff now on TV." Indeed, even when a male heads the cast as in "Dawson's Creek," there are strong young women ready to give him a run for his money.

And one of the best shows in this year's teen roster is "Felicity." Its pilot, about a girl leaving home for college against her parents' wishes, garnered critical praise for fine writing and delightful performances. Its bright young characters are a trifle more articulate than most of their real-life peers, but the writers don't exaggerate teen problems by much.

Executive producer J.J. Abrams says that he and co-writer Matt Reeves wanted to do something they believed in. "We're not trying to write a 17-year-old female; we're trying to write a spirited, brave, intelligent person who is trying to make her life work. It is about who she is at her core.... She is making mistakes, and her rebound from the mistakes is not to go back to what is safe."

Realism works in "Felicity," but fantasy works for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," and Young Hercules on Fox Kids. Some critics argue these shows are actually empowering, especially for teenage girls.

"At a deep level, she is a princess of sorts," says Swarthmore's Dr. Burke of Buffy, "the descendant of a line of people, a lineage. And it has that charge of fantasy: I'm secretly a princess. The male side of that fantasy is the ugly adolescent who does something brave that gives him power and makes him wonderful to the opposite sex."

The one thing all these shows have in common is a more or less positive view of teens - at least their actions have consequences. But already "Dawson's Creek" pushes the envelope, and it could get more explicit this season. But innocence is far from absent on the small screen. The new, rather endearing That '70s Show on Fox takes a nostalgic look at that decade and presents its teens as a more innocent group - not quite "Happy Days" innocent, but still innocent enough to like and depend on their parents and mind them, too.

"These were people we knew growing up," says executive producer Mark Brazill of his writing team. "They are much more innocent [than most TV teens] in accordance with [their] times. The '70s were wild compared to the '50s, but nowhere near what they are today."

* M.S. Mason's e-mail address is: masonm@csps.com

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