By Kerensa Cadenas
When we read Series Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton, one thing that continually came up in the book was that both The WB and UPN wanted to appeal to the prized “teen male demographic” despite the fact that teen girls were the ones who made many of their shows hits.
Similar to YA literature, teen TV seems to be ghettoized into a feminine media sphere. Many of these shows aren’t categorized as worthwhile even if they are truly fantastic—and not just in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Because of the content they deal with (emotions, crushes, periods), protagonists are deemed unworthy or trivial, even though much of this content is universal regardless of gender In that respect, teen TV seems to be harder to market to teen boys because of this assumption that teen shows are all about “girl stuff.” When we get teen shows marketed to teen boys, they often take the approach of what I call the “teen bro show.” These fall into some sort of science fiction/fantasy/action vein with a well-muscled twentysomething dude who does a lot of hero things (note: these muscles are mostly for the girls and gays). Aspirational masculinity in its purest form.
One of the things I’ve always loved and continue to be drawn in by in teen TV is the range of female characters with whom I can relate. I’ve been Angela Chase swooning over Jordan Catalano; I’ve been Blair Waldorf dying to get into my top choice school; I’ve been Lindsay Weir desperate to befriend people who seem completely uninterested in the same.
But with these “teen bro shows,” there aren’t male leads who can relate on these same levels because they aren’t just regular dudes going to high school—they are superheroes, demon hunters, vampires, etc. And this gives a severely limited range of masculinity let alone realistic portrayals of teen boys.
Where is the male equivalent of Angela Chase?
I found it.
James at 15 (later changed to James at 16) aired on NBC in 1977-78. It first aired as a TV movie that acted as the pilot. Despite critical acclaim, the show only aired one season. The good souls over at YouTube posted the pilot movie since neither it nor the lone full season exist on DVD.
James at 15 follows James (Lance Kerwin) as he navigates high school and girls. James’s parents drop a huge bombshell on James and his younger sister Sandy (played by now white wine-sedated Real Housewife of Beverly Hills star Kim Richards!) that they are going to be moving from their tiny Oregon town to Boston. Needless to say, James doesn’t take it very well, asking his parents why “they have to mess up their lives by moving.” But it does serve as a catalyst for things to begin happening for James.
James is your everyboy. The party is clearly cast with a genuine 15-year-old actor (not a 25-year-old playing 15) and at times I marveled about just how young he looked. James is introspective and intelligent. He swims and is a budding photographer. And above all else, he feels painstakingly real.
Instead of fighting crime, the situations James deals with are your typical everyday teen things. He’s harboring a huge crush on Lacey (Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Mary Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie), a girl in his history class. After being badgered by his friend into talking to her, the ever smooth James asks Lacey, “what was your favorite World War? One or Two?” Her lack of response and subsequent hopping into her jock boyfriend’s car inspires one of the many daydream sequences we get of James’s internal thoughts.
He imagines Lacey and the jock getting into a car accident where he just happens to be at the scene of. Pulling Lacey from the car, the only way he can save her is mouth to mouth. When she wakes, James must tell her that the jock didn’t make it. But Lacey is so grateful to James that the jock’s untimely death doesn’t matter much.
James’s daydreams function much like Angela’s voiceovers in My So-Called Life. We get insight into his inner thoughts: how he feels about Lacey (who he eventually dates), the upcoming move to Boston, and even see manifestations of the guy he wishes he was. It’s important that we get this insight into James’s insecurities and desires because this fully bases him in reality—he becomes our Angela or Lindsay. We get to see his insecurities, wants and universal teenage feelings—the end-of-the-world feeling of having to move to Boston, his desire for Lacey, even his first hangover after drinking one beer. The action hero stars of today’s contemporary “teen bro shows” seem bland and emotionally devoid by comparison.
Against the total emotional avoidance of the teen bro show, the baseline emotions present in the teen girl show can seem overwrought. But as we all experienced—hormones happen to all of us. James is portrayed as highly emotionally sensitive, stomping off after a tiff with a friend or his parents. And his relationship with Lacey is portrayed as frantic—they immediately declare their love for each other, and after James learns he’ll be leaving town, they want to consummate their relationship right away. This obviously doesn’t work out in their favor, especially since they attempt to have sex in the woods in a sleeping bag during the winter. James even notes, “It always looks so easy in the movies.” They even make a pact to try again once it gets warmer.
After the move to Boston, James is angry with his family, angry at his new life and in an impulsive rage decides to run away back to Oregon, to go back to Lacey. He is completely driven by his intense emotions which, as with any teen show, can seem overdramatic and silly (this particularly manifests itself during James’s hitchhiking journey). Yet these dramatics always feel authentic. After all, what are teens if not overdramatic and silly at times?
For the time, James was ahead of the curve, delivering a portrait of a real teen boy who worried about the exact same things as teen girls on TV. Of course this isn’t to negate other shows with more realistic teen guy protagonists, like The O.C. or Dawson’s Creek (James at 15 was one of Creek creator Kevin Williamson’s inspirations). But neither of those later programs functioned in nearly as naturalistic a world as the one in which James existed (both also suffered from the 25-going-on-15 trope). I’d even argue James at 15 is something I can’t imagine airing in our current CW lineup. Alongside the Arrows and Supernaturals, more teen shows need to take cues from James at 15 in creating accessible, realistic, and emotionally rich teen male characters
Previously on Teen Dreams: Let’s Talk About Sex: Race, Class and Sexual Double Standards in Happy Days and Good Times
Kerensa Cadenas writes for Women and Hollywood, Forever Young Adult and is the Research Editor for Tomorrow magazine. You can find her other published writing at her website. Be warned, for the next several weeks she’ll be tweeting her rage blackouts about Gossip Girl.