As a child of the ’90s, I grew up watching Saved by the Bell, the WB, TGIF, and reruns of Beverly Hills 90210. With their powers combined, these shows gave me a picture of high school that was disturbingly off the mark. Where was the teacher that would be with me from the first day of middle school up through my college graduation? The Home Ec class that would require I foster an egg, doll or bag of flour as my very own? So many questions, so many disappointments.
TV gave me an extremely misguided understanding of friend groups. I blame Saved By the Bell and the copycat sitcoms it spawned: a series of shows that ignored the rules and cliques that govern any traditional high school hierarchy. Like The Breakfast Club, each Saved by the Bell character had a distinct personality in line with a high school archetype. Slater was the jock, Jessie the nerd, Kelly/Lisa the princess(es), Screech the basket case and Zack, a cleaned up version of the rebel. Some may call Bayside progressive; others will call it delusional. Still, the show has you believe that you too will become a part of a similar group of six (no more, no less). You’ll have different interests, but connect back at the Max/the Bronze/Peach Pit at the end of the day. Eventually you’ll all attend the same university (despite having widely disparate academic records, financial means, and ambitions). Somehow this did not come to pass. My friends were all variations on a common theme (part nerd, part basket case with some jock-ish tendencies) and my entire town did not follow me to college. Worst of all, the closest thing my high school had to the Max was a Dunkin’ Donuts where I was served by surly adolescents rather than a magician. Needless to say, I was crushed.
Damn you Rory Gilmore. You grew up in a town full of people who were surprisingly pop-culture savvy. If only such a land existed. In the majority of cases, speaking a mile a minute and inserting random pop culture references into your conversations earns you weird glances. It is not charming. When you say, “In out let’s get cracking” no one will respond with “Sure thing, daddy-o.” A limited number of high school students will pick up on references to 1940s movies, the Brat Pack, and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim musicals. A good friend might roll their eyes before moving on to intelligible conversation, and a stranger would most likely back the hell away from you, slowly, without making any sudden movements. My conversations in high school were filled with these awkward moments and I quickly learned that most of my fellow teens were never going to understand my fascination with the 1961-1966 television classic Mister Ed. I didn’t even try mentioning ALF: if my peers couldn’t appreciate the appeal of a talking horse, I knew an alien puppet with a taste for cats would not be well received.
Rory Gilmore and Joey Potter were a special breed of Girl Next Door. They were the kind of beautiful, academic, free-spirited, unassuming girls that have no issue pulling off a boy’s name. As quintessential deer in headlights, their early years were filled with social interactions that were at once awkward and endearing. They made boys swoon simply by lifting soulful doe eyes from an American classic and tucking their hair behind their ears. Seriously, they got all the guys. Let’s review the facts:
They each started with a good-old boy-next-door counterpoint. The nice, reliable first love that exhibits a level of devotion that usually rated somewhere between sweet and stalker-ish on the creep-o-meter. I’m looking at you, Dean Forrester and Dawson Leary. They then progressed to Jess and Pacey respectively — soulmate types that everyone but the fan-girls said they shouldn’t be with. And then there were the college love interests. Carol Hathaway’s competition on the Good Wife? Goldie Hawn’s son?
But here’s the thing. Socially awkward, bookish girls are not exactly guy magnets. Especially in high school. If they were I would have spent a lot less time at the library. Reflecting on my high school days, I can safely say that teenage boys aren’t likely to notice real life Joey Potter as she sits in a forgotten corner of the lunchroom with a gaggle of other like-minded girls. In eight out of ten cases, they will fawn over peroxide queen Louise Grant while Rory Gilmore silently wonders when she will meet a modern day Heathcliff.
TV will have you believe that 1 out of every 4 high school romances result in marriage. The couple in question may undergo any number of major roadblocks between freshman formal and saying their vows, but make no mistake: they are end game. [Finn and Rachel: you are not original.] Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski; David Silver and Donna Martin; Sabrina Spellman and Harvey Kinkle; Cory Matthews and Topanga Lawrence; Nathan Scott and Haley James; Lucas Scott and Peyton Sawyer; Seth Cohen and Summer Roberts. And those are only ones that are explicitly laid out; there are numerous other high school sweethearts that share lingering glances in series finales, making audiences hope/pray that will eventually tie the knot off screen. Almost every series would have us believe that being asked to prom is the first step towards a lifetime with Mr. or Mrs. Right. I went to prom twice and yet, neither outing resulted in a proposal. Thankfully, they didn’t like it enough to put a ring on it and the closest I came to matrimony was the time I played a widow in the school play.
Credit where credit is due: major props go to The Wonder Years — by keeping Winnie and Kevin apart, the writers simultaneously broke my heart and reaffirmed my understanding of the normal world order. Thank you for that. Seriously.
TV Commandment Number 47: Boys and girls can never just be friends unless at least one of them is gay. TV Commandment Number 47a: Even then, there will be cases of tragically unrequited love.
On TV, there is always some underlying romantic or sexual tension in boy-girl interactions and they move quickly — dating and rotating at a speed that would make anyone a little dizzy. Consider the two girls on That ’70s Show. Donna dates Eric for most of the series, is pursued by Hyde in Season 1, and perpetually has to guard against Kelso and Fez’s attempts to see her naked. Jackie dates Kelso, Hyde, and Fez. The only truly unexplored partnership is between Eric and Jackie: the two characters of the circle who were never actually friends. Did they ever have a story line together where Eric didn’t want to punch Jackie in the face? Did you ever really blame him?
In high school I stuck to the friend zone: a place that does not exist in any TV high school. Still — according to the rules established in the hallowed halls of Bayside and West Bev — my neighbor, chemistry partner, fellow mathletes, track teammates, and random acquaintances must have been somewhat in love with me; which makes perfect sense, seeing as I was asked out a grand total of 0 times over the course of four years.
Need further proof of Commandment 47? Dawson’s Creek, Beverly Hills 90210, Saved by the Bell, Degrassi: The Next Generation, and One Tree Hill are all equally incestuous. You can try to map out the like-and-love affairs, but who has the time to keep that mess of crazy straight? Sometimes there’s a nice geometry to it; One Tree Hill has always been a huge fan of the triangle turned square turned pentagon. Saved by the Bell preferred to have Slater and Zack operate under a Pokemon philosophy where they had to catch them all. Dawson’s Creek was just a train wreck waiting to happen. Was it too much to ask for TV to show a normal, functioning friendship between a guy and a girl? Apparently.