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Popular Revisited

16 Dec

Popular cast during the second season

In September 2009, I received the entire series of Popular on DVD for my birthday.  I immediately consumed all the episodes and noticed how this show didn’t fit into the late 90’s line up for the WB because of how queer it was.  I initially planned on updating with some more observations, but PhD research got in the way and I didn’t rewatch the series for over a year.  Tonight, I had the sudden urge–no a craving–for some Mary Cherry so I popped in the DVD, and look what I found!

Let’s start with some background on the series, it was created by Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews in 1999.  Yes, THAT Ryan Murphy of Glee and Nip/Tuck fame.  Like many out there, I, too, find Glee to be problematic, and although I still watch it, I have become disenchanted after this season.  However, after watching Popular tonight (nd I’m only into the 4th episode of season 1), I realized why I’m so bummed about Glee–it’s not Popular, but it wishes it was!

Let’s start with the first episode of Populr (and I believe you can find it on youtube).  You’re introduced to two different social spheres of the female leads: Sam (Carly Pope) and Brooke (Leslie Bibb).  Sam’s “unpopular,” a wannabe journalist, a bit of a bitch, and will step on her friends for her own selfish reasons (not putting in a good word for Carmen, because then she won’t be invited to Brooke’s party, which means she won’t get the story her ‘hot’ teacher wants her to get).  Her gang includes Carmen (Sara Rue): who doesn’t make the cheerleading squad because she’s ‘fat’, even though she’s the best dancer; Lily (Tamara Mello): a student activist who protests frog disection; and Harrison (Christopher Gorham): the token sensitive guy of the group, he was once friends with Brooke but she ditched him because he wasn’t popular.

Brooke is cheerleader, who’s so-called perfect life isn’t that perfect after all (her mom left and she’s a recovering anorexic).  Her posse consists of Nicole (Tammy Lynn Michaels): a major bitch only concerned with her popularity and making others feel bad; Josh (Bryce Johnson): the quarterback boyfriend who has to date the head cheerleader, though he secretly auditions for the musical and gets the lead (he comes with a ‘best friend’ Sugar played by Ron Lester who’s main purpose is to be the fat comedic relief–he’s a wannabe gangster) and Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman): who’s well… as I’ve said, she’s basically a drag queen with some major Single White Female moments.

If you haven’t noticed, these are popular tropes who show up in every high school based TV series, but especially so in Glee.  Let’s see: Sam is the non-singing Rachel, Brooke is clearly Quinn (exchanging anorexia for pregnancy), Josh is Finn (the singing quarterback and who’s popularity is at risk?  Zac Efron, you owe your career to this show!), Carmen definitely shares some similarities with Mercedes sans the sassy “black-itude,” Harrison bares some similarities to Artie (though I don’t find Artie as sympathetic or empathetic as Murphy would like, Harrison is quite sweet), but instead of being in a wheelchair, Harrison gets cancer, Santana is the softer version of Nicole, and Mary Cherry is clearly related to Kurt (though Murphy sees himself in Kurt and thus Kurt has become an actual character and not a cartoon).  Oh, and let’s not forget Popular‘s cheerleaders!  Who do you think would win in a fight: the Glamazons or the Cheerios?

Teenage characters aside, in the first few episodes you have the skeezy Theatre teacher (aka Sandy the former glee club teacher–although Will is getting there) who is subsequently fired and disappears; Sam and Brooke’s parents, who spontaneously get married in the second episode, making Sam and Brooke Kurt and Finn (Sam’s mother even gives a near exact version of Carole’s speech to Finn about living after her husband’s death); and Bobbie Glass (Diane Delano) is the missing link between Sue and Coach Beiste.  However, I believe she is deserving of her own post.

There is nothing wrong with Ryan Murphy recycling characters or plot points from one show to another, as none of this was original back in 1999.  However, it is a shame that Glee isn’t living up to the Popular-esque potential demonstrated in the pilot.  At the same time, many of the complaints about Glee‘s second season ring true for Popular, which also suffered in the second season, so it really isn’t surprising how many “very special” episodes have already occurred this season.

And one last thing: check out the sweeps stunt at 2:30. 

Popular: The WB at it’s Campiest

2 Nov

PopularI don’t know how many people remember the TV series Popular from the WB’s 1999-2001 seasons, but it’s an awesome gem that suffered an early death by cancellation. Before I get into the reasons I love this show, let’s go over the history of the WB circa 1999.

The WB launched in January 1995 and for the first two years didn’t really have any “hits” outside of 7th Heaven, and to a lesser extent the Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx Shows, though I personally enjoyed Unhappily Ever After, and to a much lesser extent Sister, Sister. Then Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired in March 1997, which changed the WBs course forever. Instead of focusing on broad comedies or family oriented dramas, the powers-at-be decided to go for the teen market, and quickly following Buffy‘s success, they churned out Dawson’s Creek that catapulted the station and it’s stars to the stratosphere. Following James Van Der Beek and company, the WB launched Felicity and Charmed in the Fall of 1998.

The WB wasn’t the first station to reel in the teen market, but it was the first one to cater primarily to teenagers. Fox had Beverly Hills, 90210, but also The Simpsons, and Married With Children–while popular with the younger demographic, they weren’t aimed specifically at teenagers or about them. ABC had TGIF, but Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Boy Meets World, didn’t have the bite that the hour long Dawson and Buffy had.

Dawson, Buffy, and 7th Heaven shaped every program the WB launched until it joined to form the CW Network. The “Dawsons” were shows about young adults, featured impressive dialogue for the character’s age groups, love triangles, relationship dilemmas, and never really found an audience beyond the teenage girl demographic. These included, Felicity, Young Americans (a Dawson’s Creek spin off), Hyperion Bay and D.C. (back-to-back shows with Mark-Paul Gosselaar that both failed), Glory Days (which could be considered a “Buffy” but it’s from Kevin Williamson), and One Tree Hill. The “Buffys” obviously had supernatural aspects and loads of action and included Charmed, Angel, Smallville, Supernatural, Roswell, Birds of Prey, Tarzan and a few others. Finally, the “7th Heavens” were family or generational dramas: Everwood, Jack & Bobby, Just Legal, The Mountain, and Related. Gilmore Girls is perhaps the only one I hesitate placing in the “7th Heaven” category, as the character development and dialogue quite easily fit in with the “Dawsons,” it’s ultimately about the family of relationships between Emily, Loralei and Rory.

So here we are, 1999 and the WB is in full swing, they launch a Friday night schedule: Angel, Roswell, and Popular. Although a dark comedy, Popular was generally scheduled around the other successful teen dramas, which did not make for good bed fellows. It was never very successful. It was pure camp at it’s best, and bad, forced drama at it’s worst. Personally, I believe the show was canceled due to the second season, which became a train wreck when the writers/creators/producers attempted to conform to the “Dawson” genre by adding drama and loosing a lot of the comedy. Of course, the comedy also suffered when Leslie Grossman negotiated her contract to allow her every 4th week off due to the intensity of her performance as Mary Cherry. Understandable, but with her out ever fourth episode or so, the writers, who relied on the character for most the humor, created dramatic story points to make up for it–unsuccessfully. However, while the second season was the final straw that canceled the show, I think the reason it was unsuccessful was because it’s gay.

I mean it. It might not have any openly gay main characters, but it has a gay sensibility, aka it’s one of the campest show’s I’ve seen on network television. Mary Cherry is a straight up drag queen, Ms. Glass (aka “Sir” aka “Claw) is a closeted, butch lesbian who deals with her own sexuality through the course of the show, and most importantly, it doesn’t fall into the homogenized “Buffy,” “Dawson,” or “7th Heaven” genres, which is why it’s the only WB show I ever watched (excluding Buffy which I only started watching a few years ago after it had been off the air). The only other show that ever attracted my attention like Popular, was the short lived Gross Pointe–a satirical look at Beverly Hills, 90210. Much like Popular, Gross Pointe parodied the other network shows.

This is only the beginning of a series of posts I will be writing about Popular. For my birthday, I received the complete series on DVD and I plan to write an article on the most notable episodes (if not all/the majority). Eventually, I might do the same with other WB shows, but seeing as I only have Buffy on DVD and I don’t know if I could ever get myself to watch even a whole episode of Dawson’s Creek, we’ll see how that goes.