Cover Story

Out of this world

Two sure-fire hits are shocking by today's abysmal television standards-but each for different reasons

Issue: "The fall(en) TV season," Sept. 18, 1999

Fox's sure-fire hit this fall, Get Real, presents the same sort of dilemma a Twinkie poses to a nutritionist: How best to denounce it? The preservative-laden cake is bad enough, but then there's the creme filling. Content-wise, even some '90s parents will be shocked by the amount of profanity, sexual innuendo, and-in keeping with this season's trend-sexual outuendo. Even more objectionable, though, is the show's underlying message. It's the unwholesome filling of this television Twinkie. Get Real follows the lives of members of a pleasant-looking suburban family: mom and dad, who love each other but have scheduling conflicts; Meghan, their brainy eldest daughter who has just been named valedictorian; Cameron, their girl-crazy but lovable eldest son; and Kenny, the younger son just trying to survive high school. Amazingly, in the topsy-turveydom of this television season, it is the teen program with the two-parent family, the three nice-looking kids, and the dog that is the real stinker. (And it's Roswell, a teen-oriented sci-fi show about alien high-school students, that advances anything approaching traditional family values. But more on that later.) Get Real's premiere opens with the mother, Mary, dreaming about sex; then she wakes up. "I'm trying to remember the last time my parents started the day without fighting," Kenny says to the camera. "I can't." Parental bickering also troubles Meghan, but she puts a slightly more positive spin on things. "In the win column, I have a GPA over 4.0, I kicked some serious butt on the SAT, I've been accepted into Berkeley, Northwestern and Columbia; I have a killer bod I don't have to work out for.... My life is hell." She also addresses the camera, in a device as smug as it is grating. "I know what you're thinking, this is another one of those smart-ass shows where the kids talk to the audience. There's nothing more obnoxious than self-aware teens who know more about life's great mysteries than their parents." (Take note; this could prove to be the show's One True Thing.) The parents themselves prove pretty clueless. When Mary wakes Cameron, she finds him in bed with a girlfriend. She stutters a greeting when Cameron introduces Gabby. That's it. Oh, she does complain to her husband, telling him, "You need to have a talk with your son." Dad doesn't. All this before the first commercial. It gets worse, with no end in sight. In later scenes, the Dad congratulates a co-worker for having an affair with a Laker Girl; Cameron's promiscuity is portrayed in heroic terms; and when Kenny is faced with fighting a bully, he expresses the wish-repeatedly-to live long enough to see a topless woman. His wish is fulfilled by the end of the program, when the wife of that adulterous co-worker shows up and flashes the family during dinner. No surprise, but the kids don't think much of whatever guidance the parents might offer; "Poor Mom," Kenny tells the camera, "Ever since we did the math and found out she had Meghan when she was Meghan's age, Mom's lost some credibility in the safe-sex department." But the program is not in merely an amoral spiral; it's in a death spiral. Even more disturbing than the gleefully celebrated sin is the very clear nihilism of Get Real. It's supposed to be a comedy, but Meghan-the show's only even slightly redeeming character-agonizes, "If mom had just used birth control, I wouldn't be here, wishing I weren't here." The message of Get Real? Wake up, teens-you have no hope, and you have no help. Families are to be survived, not relied upon. Meghan's parents are unaware she's been named valedictorian. When that bully threatens Kenny, his big brother merely laughs, "You're so dead." Even Kenny's best friend runs off during the fight (returning in time, however, to utter those memorable words made famous by South Park, "They killed Kenny!"). In the Fox world, kids raise themselves. It only makes it sadder when the postman says to Mary, "No kidding? Valedictorian? Your kids are doing great!"-and Mary answers proudly, "I think so." But the kids are not all right. Far from it. Another sure-fire hit for the fall season, The WB's Roswell, couldn't be more different. In the pilot episode (set to air Oct. 6), there is no sex and no profanity. That's right: No sex, no profanity. No innuendo, no smirks, no anatomical jokes. The series centers on Liz Parker, a teen in the remote New Mexico town of Roswell-famous for the alleged crash of a flying saucer, and home of the officially denied Area 51. Liz is working in a UFO-theme diner (and on the side, she sells bogus crash photos to credulous tourists gathering for the annual festival). An argument breaks out between two customers, a shot is fired, and Liz is hit. Max, a youth she's known since third grade, comes to her rescue-though she doesn't understand how he heals her. He's an alien, of course, and so are his sister and friend; that's what this show is about. And it's vital that Liz keep his secret-in this way, Max, his sister, and his friend are aliens in the grand television tradition of Cousin Martin, Mork, and Alf. But Roswell avoids the silliness of those series. Neither does it take itself too seriously. The Crash Festival scenes are an accurate, affectionate send-up of sci-fi conventions. What's especially remarkable about Roswell is that its message is the precise opposite of that of Get Real. Families are fortresses, protective and caring. Friends are loyal and supportive. The turbulence of teen years is addressed, as it is in Get Real. But without the despair, and without the dangerous fiction that kids raise themselves. Now, there's a certain amount of deceit in Roswell; that's the nature of conceal-the-alien shows. Liz lies to the authorities; later, she, Max, and their friends try to throw the suspicious sheriff off Max's trail. The sheriff, by the way, is an intriguing character-the pilot establishes him as the show's Inspector Javert, but he's not merciless and cold like Javert. He acts out of love for his family-for his father, who investigated the original crash, and was ridiculed, and for his son, Kyle, Liz's boyfriend. The producers of Roswell are creating an engaging, complex, even original character-something all but absent in network television this fall. One other aspect of Roswell is truly unique this season: its portrayal of self-restraint as a virtue. As the pilot episode ends, Liz and Max actually choose not to act on their desires. "I really wish this could be something more," Max tells Liz. "But it can't." And that is why Roswell seems so alien to the current television climate. It's about kids not just being kids. It's about them trying to be something better.

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