Alienated teens

Popular TV shows about the supernatural such as 'Roswell' or 'Dark Angel' speak to young viewers.

They come from other planets, other dimensions, and other technologies. They even come from the small town nearby. Alien and alienated teens have invaded the television landscape, with a heavy concentration on the smaller networks, such as Fox, UPN, and WB ("Smallville," "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," "Roswell," "Dark Angel," and "Charmed").

The channels and show settings differ. But on programs such as The WB's latest hit, "Smallville," which investigates the high school years of Superman, these teens have a number of common problems: a brooding sense of not fitting in, anxiety about their origins, and superhuman powers. Last, but certainly not least from the TV executive's point of view, they have an out-of-this-world caliber of sheer good looks.

"You can look at a show like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' and see the demons are a metaphor for all the issues of growing up," says Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television. "But it also resonates to a whole older demographic," who, he says, can recall that period in their lives.

From a dramatic standpoint, teens and otherworldly powers are a perfect match.

"What a teen goes through in adolescence is really coming to grips with his own superpowers that he doesn't understand - his sexuality, his powers of self invention, and higher consciousness," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "These things really are superpowers that you were deprived of previously. Placing the superhero myth at that age is most appropriate."

Help with being a high schooler is precisely what these shows can offer to their audiences, teens say. "They're not realistic," says 15-year-old Kara Robards of Encino, Calif., who watches half-a-dozen of the shows, "but they show you how to deal with the harder things in a sensible way and how to keep your cool."

While the industry's ever-increasing emphasis on attracting younger viewers certainly eases the introduction of these shows, Mr. Thompson says the success of this genre has at least as much to do with its ability both to encapsulate and to transcend the adolescent experience.

It is an arena, he says, that is ripe for exploration. "I'm amazed that the popular arts have taken so long to discover this kind of story," the media guru says. He points out that regulatory restraints may have been partly responsible for a reluctance to explore the serious issues of adolescence, particularly sexuality. But from a dramatic standpoint, the terrain is rich.

"You have attractive people in the prime of their physical human existence, going through extraordinary dramas that everyone can identify with," says Thompson, whose classes of 200 college students consist mostly of this age group. TV audiences, he says, are full of people who are either going through that time of life themselves or who remember it.

Some of today's most successful storytellers have been drawn to this dramatic domain. "Titanic" director James Cameron developed Fox's modest hit, "Dark Angel," now in its second season. In the show, Max, a genetically engineered teenage girl, is searching for her creator and for her true identity.

As if those issues weren't dramatic enough, the show is set in a post-Apocalyptic future in which even the most basic functions of society have broken down.

"She becomes a kind of symbol," Mr. Cameron says, "of every teenager or young adult that reaches a certain age where there isn't somebody telling them what to do and what's right and wrong,anymore.... And [the answers have] really got to come from within. They've got to find their own moral compass."

Although the show is jam-packed with high-tech action, Cameron says that's just window dressing. "It's not just about, 'Is she going to run up against somebody whose butt she can kick?' "

Co-executive producer and writer Rene Echevarria was a longtime writer on the "Star Trek" TV franchise, shows that placed science fiction in the mainstream popular culture. Despite the high-tech overlay, he says, "Dark Angel" "is about a girl trying to make her way in the world and figure out who she is and what she's about" - all universal themes.

The lead character in ABC's new drama "Alias" is not an alien. But her secret life as a double agent for the CIA while still in college - and her extraordinary ability to master new languages and martial-arts - move her into the super-human realm.

"There was something about this young woman who is very strong and of very few words, but she was incredibly vulnerable," says "Alias" creator and executive producer J.J. Abrams, who is also responsible for a teen coming-of-age drama on The WB, "Felicity." In the show, young Sidney Bristow becomes a double agent after the secret agency who recruits her murders her fiancé.

"I was really interested in the idea of a story of a young woman who not only has this loss, but has basically a nonrelationship with her father," Abrams says. "And the idea that, little by little, this young woman and this man begin to connect."

"Smallville" takes one of the first and the most well-known superheroes, Superman, and looks not behind, but before the cape. The program asks the question: "How does someone become a superhero, and how does that model fit in today's world?"

"That's really what the show is about," says actor Tom Welling, who plays the key role of Clark Kent, a secret superhero, "him finding out who he is and what he is here for. He's got these abilities that he doesn't necessarily understand, and it alienates him in a lot of ways from just wanting to be a normal high school kid."

While the shows can be seen as symbols for the coming-of-age experience, recent events also have moved some themes equally into the realm of realism.

"Clearly, adolescence is a battlefield," Thompson says. "But what used to be a metaphor is not so much anymore." He notes the wave of school shootings and escalation of drugs found in schools.

These shows, he adds, help by casting teen lives in a dramatic light and by providing another "language" through which they discuss issues. "They are the perfect American story because they combine a time where we both psychologically and physically molt, then emerge in the bodies of beautiful, young people," he says.

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