GROWING up, to paraphrase an old song, is so very hard to do. And plenty of shows on television these days describe just how tough it is. The tribulations and trials of the young as they confront all the temptations and dilemmas of this society make a mixed bag of weekly drama and melodrama. "Beverly Hills 90210," "Melrose Place," "Going to Extremes," "The Heights," and "The Round Table" present various flocks of young people, grouped by age (from teens to mid 20s) tied together by circumstances, as they
search for and define what they want from life.
Adolescents just finishing up in high school form alliances, struggle with difficult moral issues, confront teenage suicide, and fall in love with each other's steadies on Beverly Hills 90210 (Wednesdays on Fox).
The oldest show in this genre, "90210," is popular because it sets headline issues against the glamour of Beverly Hills.
It took me several shows before I could suspend my adult disbelief and tune in on the rich-kids' wavelength. The acting is sometimes studied, the morality superficial, and the parents ineffectual. But at least the show zeroes in on the complexity of coming of age in the United States. It offers an antidrug and safer-sex message, and shows kids under the emotional strain of over-indulgence. "90210" advocates loyalty to one's friends and honesty with one's parents - however nerdy they may be - without bein g preachy.
Melrose Place (Wednesdays on Fox) deals with young adults just out of college looking for their place in the world. The title of the series refers to the apartment complex the young folks inhabit. Most of the acting is breezy and poor. But the situations are slightly more interesting to the adult viewer since they pertain more to adult difficulties.
Newspaper headlines inspire many stories. One recent episode was devoted to the terror of the "stalker" phenomenon. But the program refuses to take even its hard problems too seriously.
A much better program than either "90210" or "Melrose Place" is The Heights (Thursdays on Fox). The writing is smarter, the characters more interesting, and the situations reflect more of real life. The premise of the program concerns a group of young working-class people, only one of whom is privileged enough to go to college. The others work at various menial jobs and dream of success together in the wild world of rock-and-roll. How the different members of the band interpret music is part of the ongoi ng tension of the show.
Some of the "Heights" actors are Hollywood-beautiful, but others look more ordinary - a relief after the unrelentingly Barbie-and-Ken looks of "90210" and "Melrose Place." The women of the Heights tend to be strong individuals. Strong family sentiments emerge in the relationship between the one black musician and his father, and between a nurse and her fiance. Responsibility toward others and for oneself is a recurrent theme.
But what is best about "The Heights" is the sense of hope it has for these young people. The American dream of rising from the underclass isn't made to seem easy to capture, but neither does it seem impossible. The characters' boundless faith in their music and their futures is handled with enough imagination and variety that (so far) it remains refreshing and intelligent.
Less promising is the serio-comic Going to Extremes (on Tuesdays on ABC) brought to you by the producers of "Northern Exposure." "Extremes" concerns a group of students attending an off-beat medical school in Jamaica. The show has none of the delightful eccentricities of "Exposure" - the characters are underdeveloped, the plots dreadfully thin, and the situations unbelievable. The show's treatment of Jamaican culture is condescending and shallow, as well. While much is made of helping each other through their difficult studies, the show fails to develop any genuine feeling for community among the kids.
The last is a very promising The Round Table (on NBC Fridays). The characters consist of young professionals just starting out in their Washington careers - a cop, a journalist, a Secret Service Agent, a Justice Department lawyer, and a prosecutor. They meet often at the Round Table, a pub/restaurant in Washington, and play touch football on weekends as a team as "The Knights of the Round Table." The rest of the week they are up to their elbows in Washington dirt.
The situations are tougher-minded than the other shows here mentioned, the stakes are bigger, and the moral payoffs riskier. The camaraderie developed among the characters is also engaging as they encourage each other over their hurdles. The mixed-race, mixed-class cast also taps into a cross section of society more effectively than the other shows ("90210" added a black character just this season).
All of these shows share a flaccid code of sexual morality - based primarily on "love," overshadowed in some cases by fear of AIDS. All relationships are seen to be in flux and, with few exceptions, most characters are afraid of commitment.
But each of these shows also has a sense of the perilousness of our times, an affirmation of the importance of community, and an assertion of generally humane ideals. And all of these shows, even the worst of them, present earnest youths striving to do well and achieve much.