Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"The facts of life are all about you, you-oo-oo"

Ok, so, bad news, Mary Tyler Moore is actually kind of a boring show. I think I just can't get into adult TV. I liked The Wire, and I prefer movies to be be adult (but not, you know, adult), but TV is itself something I stopped being that excited about after about the age of 16, and perhaps my sensibilities are still attuned to that age. I'm with Phoebe on this:
But in general, my favorite shows are the ones set in real American high schools, ones with universally-recognized popular kids (who are also the rich kids, as well as the ones wearing visibly expensive clothing, because any other way would require too much explanation), sports teams, parking lots, and house parties held in actual, detached houses, in parts of the country where 16-year-olds actually have trouble obtaining liquor. Thanks to glorious American cultural hegemony, young people the world over grow up with a shared experience of suburban American high school. The lockers, the cheerleaders, the prom, we've all been there, even if we haven't. Perhaps for this reason, the more interesting the high school show ("Freaks and Geeks" and "Strangers With Candy" come to mind), the more generic and clich├ęd the school environment.
I think this is right, though it's not specifically suburbia that's so appealing, but the generic--and therefore primarily social--experience of American school. Urban schools can work, and I think more often than not, representations of suburbs bleed into small towns in terms of their self-containment and isolation more than they would in reality (for example, no one leaves Sunnydale in Buffy and goes to LA, although it should be nearby, and when Buffy runs away to LA, it's so distant that no one goes after her).

So, in my search for vintage sitcom depictions of school life, I found The Facts of Life. Actually, I've seen it before at some point, but never in an entire-season-in-one-sitting kind of way (probably a good thing). And it is great! But also awful! Most importantly, it is totally a product of the Judy Blume phenomenon.

What is weird and interesting about the Facts of Life (and Judy Blume, and the entire genre of young adult entertainment that starts in the late '60s) is the depiction of 'growing up' as a series of 'issues' to be confronted. There is the first period, the loss of virginity, homosexuality, alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, racism, divorce, child abuse, teen pregnancy, rape, crime, gangs, and so on and on. These are portrayed as the pathologies of the "real world" that all children must come to know as a pre-requisite for passage into adulthood. In reality, most of these "issues" are restricted entirely to childhood (for example, teen pregnancy: pretty normal once you're no longer a teenager), and a more nuanced analysis would examine the issue-ization of universal pubertal events like menstruation and sexual awakening separately from actual pathologies like date rape.

The impulse for constructing adolescence this way comes, I think, from an idea that Judy Blume helped to create--that the experience of pathology is the authentic and "real" content of coming of age, and all the more so because adults are hesitant to discuss it. Parental prudery--the unwillingness to be "frank" about sex and violence, primarily--condemns children to isolation, ignorance, and shame. In swoops the YA author (with the school librarian in tow) to rescue the benighted child from its misguided parents, and to help it, as Judy Blume often said in interviews, feel less alone and find role models with whom to identify. (This view is extremely weird when applied to an issue like menstruation, which is neither a pathology nor a scourge of modernity, and there is no obvious reason it needs to be an "issue" or a major social turning point in a girl's life, but recall that Are You There God? It's Me Margaret was Judy Blume's first great success and probably the first such YA book.)

Compare this view of coming of age to the view promulgated by girls' books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. They may have been insipid in their own ways (which is part of what made the Judy Blume variation so popular), but they took growing up to be a process of character formation rather than encounter with external phenomena. The major development in Anne of Green Gables is the project of civilizing the impetuous, irreligious, proud, and vain Anne into what we might consider virtue, or a kind of Puritan sensibility about what makes virtue. Jo March has a very similar character arc. In the end, both characters are asked to sacrifice--Anne gives up her secondary education to stay home with her aunt, and Jo cuts off her hair to help her mother visit her father (which, objectively, does sound kind of absurd)--but the story is about what they do to become adults, not what happens to them. The YA configuration features characters who must learn to cope with the cruel and arbitrary pathologies of "reality" and to accept other people's drama.

The Facts of Life is like the Cliff's Notes of Judy Blume, or maybe just a glorified series of after-school specials connected only by the convenience of a constant cast. Once you account for the roughly 25 percent of the episodes that are about the girl's literature standbys--love, friendship, and gossip--what you have left is episode after episode of issue confrontation. I thought Seventh Heaven was egregious in this regard, but at least it had 40 minutes to develop each crisis. In The Facts of Life, a character lapses into and out of alcoholism in about 20 minutes, and the span of two TV-time days. With this, we are to conclude that the issue has been faced and conquered, and the girls have reached an important development milestone.

Which is all too bad, because the show has such potential. The actors all look like normal human beings who are the age of their characters and re-wear their clothes. (Phoebe disagrees, but I think the fat girl is a surprisingly likable and natural character. Especially for a show that clearly wants to make an issue out of everything, it has done well by not making an issue out of Natalie's weight, or at least not in the episodes I've seen.) Edna Garrett is awesome. The school is recognizable enough to be all-American, and exotic enough (boarding school!) to be compelling (if only they would ever leave its dining room). It could've been a great show if it weren't so intent on teaching lessons about so-called real life. Not that this has stopped me from watching the available season on Hulu and all the minisodes, too.

Why? Because the pathology stuff (later variants have been named "bleak lit" but Facts of Life is too optimistic and the bleakness too external to the main characters to qualify, though it's clearly on the same road) is incredibly appealing to adolescent girls. Weirdly, both the Victorian/Edwardian Little Women and Anne of Green Gables virtue stories and the Judy Blume and Melvin Burgess issue confrontation work on girls, and contemporary girls, at least those who read, have almost all read both. Why is that? Both are, notably, kinds of morality tales. Children discriminate less between high and low literature, but I'm not sure that explains the appeal of what appear to me to be two radically different approaches to the question of how to become an adult.

Plus, it has a great theme song. (Not the first season version.)