It’s time to return to the music of the early 1990s … and I’m bringing Amanda along for the ride as well! This time around, we take a look at ten albums that influenced us as teenagers. You’ll hear us talk about Seattle icons such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam; legendary Nineties recording artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, and Mary J. Blige; as well as everyone from Madonna and Queen to the Dixie Chicks and Denis Leary.
I’ve written before about how my junior high school years were incredibly awkward and not the fondest when it comes to my social life, but when I think about it, my choices in after-school entertainment were just as awkward. I was in on the verge of being a teenager, but I was still coming home to watch cartoons on television or playing NES; conversely, I was also watching sitcom reruns and Degrassi High. Which is how, in March of 1990, I discovered Tribes.
To be honest, this wasn’t a huge moment in my life because the show is a footnote of a blip in popular culture and the only reason I watched it was because my local Fox affiliate had decided to drop reruns of The Facts of Life and start airing the teen soap opera after the daily rerun of Diff’rent Strokes was over. In fact, I don’t think I even remember it being advertised. One day, it was simply on and my sister and I were too lazy to look for the remote, so we watched it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Tribes was a daily soap that focused on several teenagers in Southern California who wind up in precarious situations ranging from storylines I was familiar with from Degrassi to what you might see on The Young and the Restless. In fact, the creator of the show, Leah Laiman, was a veteran soap-opera writer and the show was produced by longtime producers of shows like Y&R and The Bold and the Beautiful.
Airing from March 5, 1990 until July 13, 1990, Tribes failed to make much of a mark or at least have as many before-they-were-stars names as Swans Crossing, the teen soap that would run in syndication on WPIX in the summer of 1992 (and even had its own line of action figures), but whereas Swans Crossing seemed (at least to me) to be a more soapy version of Saved By the Bell, Tribes was more like a harder-edged Degrassi. Each episode followed the classic soap opera plot design of following multiple that were ongoing and got increasingly complicated as the series went on.
Thankfully, someone has uploaded most of the episodes of the show to YouTube, so you can see how it kicks off here:
To be honest, when I watched the show back in 1990, I didn’t really get beyond a week or two’s worth of shows and the only episode I remember was one where two characters, Melinda and Matt, got stuck in the school’s boiler room for an extended amount of time, which seeds a future romance for the two of them. But one thing I will say is that I wanted to take some time to go through the first episode because it is so 1990 in a way that few things are.
It’s the 50th episode of Pop Culture Affidavit! For this special episode, I take a look back twenty years to the year I graduated from high school. Along the way, I look at how senior year of high school is represented in movies. It includes stops at, among other things, American Pie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Can’t Buy Me Love, and Paper Towns as well as a host of personal memories about my own senior year of high school (which ended on June 25, 1995). Was high school the best time of my life? Was it a waking nightmare? Was it a little bit of both? You’ll have to listen to find out.
You can download the show via iTunes or listen/download directly via the Two True Freaks Website. Here are the links:
In the pilot episode of the late, lamented My So-Called Life, Angela Chase’s English teacher sits her down during lunch to talk about what’s been going on with her lately. Her appearance has changed and she quit yearbook (much to her teacher’s chagrin because she’s the yearbook adviser). Angela’s response in her typical half-engaged fashion, is:
It just seems like, you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know it’s even you? And, I mean, this whole thing with yearbook – it’s like, everybody’s in this big hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it’d be a really upsetting book. You know, in my humble opinion.
For the past ten years, I was a high school yearbook adviser and I had that quote on the wall of my classroom, partially because MSCL is one of my all-time favorite television shows and partially because I’ve always thought there was a certain amount of truth to it. While quite a number of high school yearbooks are afforded the chance to show the school, students and teachers for what they are, most are simply glorified PR pieces that students can have signed and eventually show off.
So I guess that begs the question: if you made a book of what really happened, would it be a really upsetting book?
Of course, I’m going to hedge here and say that it depends on what your reaction to such a book would be. Some people would find the reality of high school depressing while others might find it refreshing to get more than just the slickness and sheen of a yearbook. A number of people might find it boring. Still, what would it look like?
Well, while I’m sure there is more than one book out there (Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that was the source for the film Mean Girls springs to mind), this has been answered more than once in television and film. Which shouldn’t sound weird to anyone who has seen any of the offerings from MTV in the last twenty years or so, from True Life, which premiered in 1998; to shows such as Made, 16 and Pregnant, and Teen Mom, which have all tried to present the lives of its subjects for what they were (although all but True Life stretched the concept of “reality” pretty far). But the idea of a film or television crew taking a group of teenagers and filming their lives, while having gained popularity since the turn of the century, is actually quite older.
While the concept of “reality television” has its genesis in the 1970s with shows such as An American Family but my first encounter with it was in the spring of 1991 when Fox aired a new show called Yearbook. Produced by Hank O’Karma, written by Louis H. Gorfain, and Directed by Charles Bagert and Hank O’Karma, a production team that worked on several similar productions throughout the Nineties, Yearbook followed the lives of several students at Glenbard West High School in the Chicago suburbs (a note of trivia: the show’s music was by Michael Bacon, brother of Kevin Bacon). The show only had nine episodes, all of which aired between March 7 and May 4, 1991, and fell into obscurity quickly thereafter while Fox discovered that it had a bona fide hit in another series about teenagers, Beverly Hills 90210, which by May 4, 1991 was pulling in about 10-15 million viewers per episode.
I was one of the few people who watched the show on a consistent basis, having been intrigued by both commercials I saw and by the description of the show provided by TV Guide. It was as it promised: a look at the lives of several students at the high school as they happened throughout the year.
This ten-minute clip is only one of two examples of what exists of Yearbook on the Internet (or at least as far as I could get while doing research). The other example is most of the episode “War and Peace,” or at least the parts of that episode that focus on Todd Myra, a student who was set to start with the Marines when he graduated in 1991.
If you’re watching Yearbook and it looks like something out of a John Hughes movie, it’s because it kind of is–after all, Hughes set most of his important teen movies in suburban Chicago–and this helped the students in the series look pretty familiar, especially if they had been watching those movies on video or if they had been watching another Fox show about teenagers, 21 Jump Street. Reality television’s evolution to the point where the audience is constantly questioning the veracity of what they see on the screen wouldn’t be fully realized for at least another decade. At the time this was something unique, as The Real World was at least a year away, and Yearbook was the closest thing we had to a documentary and I honestly wonder if the producers’ original intent was to make a documentary but Fox television provided the better deal.
Looking at these two quick glances for the first time in nearly 25 years, I was struck by how dated the series looked, but then reminded myself that it’s a slice of life piece from the early 1990s, so my amusement at the clothes and hair of the time as well as the title sequence at the narration (which is done by Ken Dashow, who was then a deejay at WNEW-FM in New York City, although he sounds like he’s narrating a video I would have watched in health class) got set aside for a look at the people and the situations for what they were as opposed to how ridiculous everyone looked. The show does become very after-school special at times, but with less of the melodrama from after-school specials, and that’s definitely one of its enduring strengths: we can see these people for who they are (or were at the time).
I was drawn to this because I was fourteen years old at the time and thought it was a great idea for a show–after all, I’d been ensconsed in Degrassi at that point–and while I don’t remember if I watched all nine episodes, some of the episodes I watched stuck with me as well as did some of their moments. Centering the first episode around hoemcoming seemed to be a pretty good idea since it’s a universal high school experience. Granted, not everyone gets all “rah rah” about homecoming, everyone in the audience could at least relate, and it also provides a nice bookend to the graduation that concludes the series. Of course, my biggest takeaway was the memory of watching the episode with my parents and when the Homecoming Queen is crowned, my father started bitching at the television that she’s going to have to get up in front of everyone with “all of that hat hair.” Because, you know, that’s the most important part.
But as you go past the first episode and get deeper and deeper into the lives of these people it becomes less like a show and more like the documentary that the creators will obviously go for, serving as a look at a particular sliver of our culture but also as a time capsule for both those involved and those watching. “war and Peace,” the episode about Todd Myra, is one of the best examples of that because Operation Desert Storm happens right in the middle of the episode and he worries about how his life will be affected by this moment in history (of course, being that this was Desert Storm in 1991, his life wasn’t really affected because the war was over incredibly quickly), a worry that is juxtaposed by the heartbreaking story of his foster brother having to possibly go live with his birth parents (seriously, even I was feeling sad when the kid started wailing in his mother’s arms about how he didn’t want to go away).
The gangs episode was also of its time. Not that gangs aren’t still a problem now, but back in 1991, there was this fear among people in America’s suburbs–especially those like mine that were overwhelmingly white–that gangs were this enormous threat to their children. It went along with the trepidation every parent had about rap music and “black” movies. If you paid attention to the news at any given time for a couple of years, the fact that Ice-T wrote a song called “Cop Killer,” there was a fight that broke out at a screening of New Jack City, and gangs existed, every white middle class teenager was walking into some sort of apocalyptic hell every time they went out on a Friday night. At the time, I never could truly figure out why adults seemed so up in arms about these things, although I eventually realized that it was part of an implicit racism that exists in many of those types of communities (and let’s face it, some of those communities have explicit racism) as well as worrying about “the big black rap and gang monster” provided a distraction from the drinking and sex kids were doing and adults could do something about.
But getting involved with gangs is a very serious thing, and though there isn’t very much in the clip, getting out of a gang is very dangerous, and the producers seemed to be doing there best to show it in a way that the audience could learn something from it, the same way that the episode “A Mother’s Story” focuses on the struggle that Mark Palicki deals with in his life because his mother has leukemia and is having a bone marrow transplant. This was one of the most memorable episodes when I first watched it, as my having been very sheltered up until that point hadn’t seen anyone as sick as his mom was in that episode. For what it was, this was intelligent and I find it ironic that Fox, of all networks, gave us not one, but two high-concept, very honest looks at teenagers, when they were responsible for some of the trashiest, lowbrow reality programming of the late 1990s and early 2000s: Temptation Island, Paradise Hotel, Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire?, and The Swan, to name a few.
The other high-concept reality program they released lasted even shorter than Yearbook’s nine episodes, and that was American High, which aired in August 2000 and lasted for only four episodes; however, PBS picked up the show and aired all thirteen of its episodes in 2000. Created by R.J. Cutler, who has also directed the acclaimed documentaries The War Room and The September Issue (which is a must-see), American High won an Emmy in 2001 for Outstanding Reality Program and uses the same concept as Yearbook, but with some modifications. Instead of claiming to follow the whole class of a high school, the intro tells us that the show is taking a look at fourteen students in Highland Park, Illinois, which is also a suburb of Chicago and not only were hours upon hours of documentary footage shot, but the students were given cameras themselves in order to keep video diaries. This makes sense, of course, as we were now nearly a decade into The Real World, which brought us the reality show confessional.
Much like Yearbook, not much of American High exists online. The website for the show that PBS set up in the early 2000s when it was running all thirteen episodes is still live, but the videos on the site use a Real Player plugin that I’m not sure actually exists. Thankfully, through the wonder of YouTube, I was able to watch one episode, “Boogie Nights,” which was the third episode overall.
The previouslies are important for the episode, as American High had overarching stories (as opposed to Yearbook whose stories were more self-contained) and in the previous episode, Brad, who is a major player in “Boogie Nights,” came out to his friends. Apparently, this went very well as Brad’s now being out at school is not the center of the episode, but rather his determination to put together an awesome dance routine for the school’s dance program. While I found myself impressed by–and admittedly jealous of–the school’s performing arts facilities as well as its openness to forms of dancing that the rather conservative community in which I teach would be utterly scandalized by, I also noticed that the producers had decided to focus on the type of problems that are definitely suburban high school problems yet can be easily understood by those outside of high school as well.
Brad, for instance, is dealing with the pressure he’s putting on himself for making the dancing perfect, which is very nicely juxtaposed to the pressure Suzy is putting on herself regarding her personal body image issues, and he has to deal with Morgan, who is the epitome of the late 1990s/early 2000s teenage boy that Frontline once called “the mook,” a perpetually immature boy whose behavior often gets in the way of his accomplishing anything. I found myself rolling my eyes when he talked about how he knew he could learn the moves for the routine was deliberately slacking off because there were hot girls and their having to constantly reteach him the moves meant that he got to dance with them longer. He’s so much like a number of students I’ve taught, but even though he annoyed me I didn’t see him as a villain in the episode, which is what tends to happen in current-day reality shows. Instead, I found myself mesmerized by the dance routine and whether or not they’d pull it off (or if there would be controversy as a result). The format was a little less clinical than Yearbook’s tended to be, as the students’ video diaries made the show feel more up to date.
Then again, by the time American High aired, the footage/confessional format was routine, so the students were obviously comfortable with all of it on the same level, and by then quite a number of studies, articles, and even television specials were being produced about how Generation Y (as it was known at the time) was one of the most marketed-to generations in history. Frontline’s piece on this, “The Merchants of Cool,” took a look at this through the various people who made a career out of trying to sell to teens and tweens and those people described all of the various “types” within that generation with astounding accuracy.
The follow up to “The Merchants of Cool,” “Generation Like,” did the same for the current generation of teenagers, a group of which (or at least the older end of that generation) comprises the cast of the 2008 documentary American Teen. Filmmaker Nanette Burstein takes a look at five teenagers at Warsaw High School in Warsaw, Indiana. Colin, a star basketball player, wants nothing more than to play college basketball. Megan is the queen bee, Jake is the dork who is shown constantly trying to find a girlfriend, Mitch is Colin’s friend and the attractive “heartthrob” guy, and Hannah is the artsy girl who wants nothing more than to get out of Warsaw and go to film school in San Francisco.
Out of the three depictions of teenage culture that I’m covering here, American Teen is the most accessible, as it’s been available on DVD since 2008 and while it purports to present a fairly accurate look at the senior year for these five students, there were some questions about its accuracy. I know that critics of the film as a documentary and not a docudrama were nitpicking Burstein’s ability to have both sides of a telephone conversation on screen, but I think that the criticisms come more from the fact that she edited the film to have a discernible plot for four of the five characters (honestly, Mitch is more of a supporting player, as he’s introduced later in the movie and his biggest story arc seems to be the fact that he starts to date Hannah and then winds up breaking up with her with a text message) and that there were good guys and bad guys in the film.
Megan, the queen bee, comes off as an obvious villain throughout much of the movie, especially when she gets a hold of topless pictures that her friend Erica sent to her friend Jake and then emails them to as many people in the school’s email directory that she can think of, and spray paints a penis and the word “FAG” on the junior class president’s window (while her friends teepee the house) because he changed the prom theme without her consent. The ensuing discipline meeting with the principal is very typical–since she hasn’t gotten into much trouble before (and let’s face it, is the queen bee), she gets off with a slap on the wrist of some community service hours and a revocation of some activities privileges.
Now, she could be a real-life Regina George or Heather Chandler if it wasn’t for the fact that Burstein allows us to see her as deeper than just the villain that she would have been portrayed as if this were a trashy reality show. At one point, Megan gets in a fight with her friend Ali and we later realize that it was not because of anything Ali particularly did, but because Megan is dealing with the stress of trying to get into Notre Dame as well as it being the anniversary of her older sister’s suicide.
On the flip side, Hannah, who is set up to be the free-spirited hero of the film, the girl who you want to see escape the trap of Warsaw that girls like Megan rule (after all, people hate the way Molly Ringwald made over Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club). But the free spirit hides a struggle with anxiety and depression that hits hard after her boyfriend Joel breaks up with her. Hannah crawls into herself and spends the next three weeks away from school, to the point where there are times that she has full-on panic attacks as she drives up to school and attempts to attend for the day. Her relationship with Mitch ends with that text, but we see growth, as she manages to finish out the school year and finds arguing with her parents over San Franscisco more important.
Colin’s story is that of the crushing reality that comes with being good at sports in a small pond like Warsaw but maybe not what the big pond wants. He struggles through his senior season to try and impress recruiters, so much that his performance suffers and the team’s record suffers. Of course, he turns it around by the end and he winds up going to Indiana Tech on a scholarship and gets the winning shot in the sectional championship.
Jake basically spends the entire movie being socially awkward and trying to get a girlfriend and it’s cute at times, uncomfortable at others, and the point is belabored quite a bit, if I’m being honest. But it fits right in with a lot of the other situations presented in the film in that while the kids may be mugging for the camera at times, there are other times where they’re being honest and you can tell that any statement they may have about how they didn’t notice the camera was there is probably true. The film, which I’ve now seen twice, doesn’t necessarily hold up to rewatches, but there are moments that sucked me in both times that I watched it. Hannah’s depression both times had me really hoping that she gets herself back together and I found myself siding with her at the end of the movie when she’s arguing with her parents about her wanting to go to San Francisco after high school because while her mom talked about how all of the rapes and murders that happen to girls like her in the scary city, I knew that moving to California was the only way that Hannah was ever going to get out and not wind up living a miserable life in Warsaw.
Conversely, I was hoping that Megan would get more consequences than she did, although I will say that by the end of the film, when she has gotten into Notre Dame and is showing signs of being sick of the town and the school herself (something I think we all do as seniors), I believe the note in the epilogue where she says that she’s matured a lot since starting college.
In a sense, when you take these three pieces as a whole, they represent a beginning, middle, and end of teen culture, with the first part being in 1991 with the tail end of Generation X and then the Generation Y in 1999 and then the Millennials in 2008. This is three generations of kids (mainly because at least two of these groups are on the cusp of the labels that were assigned to their respective generations. There is a sense of universality among all of these stories. It’s 2015 and when I look back on both shows and the film and see the same issues, the same problems, and even the same attitudes as students I currently teach, even as far back as 25 years ago before I even started high school, I see that while so much as changed yet so much has not.
The problem with American culture is that we have this weird collective ADD when it comes to popular culture and on some level I think that comes from the fact that pop culture is ephemeral and by its nature has a tendency to be ephemeral. So we don’t necessarily remember things as well or for as long as we should. Oh sure, there are things that have staying power, but there are those things that are gone in a blink and provide examples of why obscurity exists in the first place. For instance, Yearbook, American High, and American Teen. never made enough impact on our culture for us to not realize “this has been done before” when the latest iteration of the high school documentary came about.
Education can be the same way. The talking heads/thought leaders/pundits in education seem to constantly tout how the current generation of students is unlike no other, as if they are a new make or model of car that we’re going to have to learn how to drive. I’ve heard people wax on about how students learn differently these days and while that may be true, it’s also unnecessarily untrue because when you go back to shows such as Yearbook and see how people have looked at teenagers as an anthropological/sociological study (as opposed to the more common usage for in-depth looks at teenagers lately, which is marketing), it’s important to note the universality of that experience. Furthermore, if you can look at something for what it is as opposed to what’s in front of you, you’ll start to reach a more thorough understanding of what’s going on.
I don’t know if I realized it at the time, but following up a song by The Weepies called “Can’t Go Back Now” with “Summer, Highland Falls” is kind of a definite statement. The latter’s first lines are, “They say these are not the best of times/they’re the only times I’ve ever known.” While I can’t confirm this, I am pretty sure I wrote that in a friend’s yearbook at the end of my senior year (or at least I was thinking of it). It has always been one of my favorite songs and at the time I graduated high school, it fully encapsulated what I was feeling.
I’m pretty sure that is why it wound up on a playlist I made back in 2010 called “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends.” Silly as it sounds, I put it together because at the time, I was fifteen years away from that day in late June of 1995 and the mix tape, at the time I was a teenager, was my preferred form of artistic expression. if you were a girl I was dating (or a friend on whom I was crushing), you more than likely wound up with a 120-minute Maxell normal bias cassette that may or may not have had a custom label created using Arts & Letters, an ancient Windows 3.0 graphic design program. Now, I’m not sure how many of those girls kept my tapes. My wife did, but I think that’s because she never emptied them out of her car (a car, by the way, that I now drive to work every day). But the old girlfriend whose relationship with me ended in utter disaster? She probably torched them all the moment after I gave her one final goodbye over the phone (not my idea, mind you; she forced my hand). And some of those other girls? Part of me hopes that a copy of “The Last Worthless Mix Tape” is floating out there, playing in the old tape deck of someone who is feeling sentimental.
Which brings me to this five-year-old playlist that’s still on my iPod. Like I said, I was hitting the fifteen-year mark and was feeling sentimental, so I began dragging and dropping songs into a playlist. The phrase “long-lost friend” had been bouncing around my head for a while as had the idea of my having led a past life, or everyone I know having led a past life. Because when you think about it, the people you are around on a daily basis have stories that are bigger than the one they have with you. Or maybe I just notice this because it’s the curse of the writer’s mentality. But the idea that everyone is interesting in a way, that there is always something to find out about them, is fascinating.
It seems completely pretentious to me try and encapsulate that in a mix, and looking at the song list, it probably could be at least five songs shorter. It still would fit on a 120-minute cassette, but there are too many anthemic songs of youthful defiance (“We’ll Inherit The Earth,” “Death or Glory”) or aging punk anthems (“Scattered,” “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) and the middle drags on through some very slow and soft folk pieces that don’t hold up (“See You Later, See You Soon,” “This is Me”). But it was good enough to earn “permanent playlist” status. Either that, or I was just too lazy to delete it, which is probably the more likely explanation as to why it has spent five years on my iPod.
Mix tapes seem to be this thing that is a part of my youth, whereas playlists are something you throw together because you want to listen to a variety of songs, often with the same rhythm or tone. I make workout playlists (admittedly, I probably should start working out more often), Christmas music playlists, dinner music playlists, and even a breakfast playlist that is filled with French jazz and other brunchy music. It’s all very adult because it serves a practical purpose, an extension of the tapes called “Tom’s Crap” that I used to make so that I had something to listen to on my Walkman or in my car. Part of me shrugs at this, but part of me is saddened.
There was a point in my life where everything had meaning. If I gave you a tape, it was because I wanted to say something or introduce you to something. And no matter how crappy that tape was–and trust me, some of those tapes were crappy–I thought it was important. “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends” was an attempt at making something important like that and also an attempt to hold on to the self-importance that comes with “meaning,” as if I am attempting to dispute the statement that Ally Sheedy so boldly makes in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
At seventeen, I believed her; at 37, I’ve come to realize she’s wrong. You simply turn your focus elsewhere. Adulthood is priorities and responsibility. It’s not that I don’t want to sit and contemplate an entire album for an hour; it’s just that I don’t always have the time. My geeking out happens amidst a flurry of multitasking and when I do get those moments to contemplate, I usually fall asleep in front of the television.
I’ve heard Billy Joel explain the meaning of “Summer, Highland Falls” as hitting that point in his life where he was starting to see the world for what its complexities. Much of that playlist, if you look at several of the songs, is a similar contemplation but I don’t know if I was contemplating graduating high school as much as I was coming to terms with the onset of middle age. At seventeen, I would have never put “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne on a mix tape (granted, I’m pretty sure that “Running on Empty” and “Somebody’s Baby” were the only Jackson Browne songs I knew), nor would I have considered Paul Simon essential listening. If I was being contemplative or sentimental, I would have chosen 10,000 Maniacs, but mostly I would have gone for the bombast of Queen.
To be honest, I have thought about making a Twenty Years On mix. I can’t decide if I would go for nostalgia or reflection, though. Twenty years kind of dictates that I should throw together a collection of the Pearl Jam, Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel that I listened to in a Big Chill soundtrack sort of way. Being reflective would be more of what I did five years ago, which might be belaboring the point.
“Summer, Highland Falls” ends with a few lines that have always stuck with me:
How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
With our respective similarities
It’s either sadness or euphoria
It’s a final statement worth a close examination. If it is, as he says, the a moment of realizing that you’re getting older, it’s a perfect expression of that realization. There’s no violent anger here, just acceptance and resignation. Perhaps, even, there’s a bit of maturity. Place this in the larger context of, say, looking at one’s own adulthood or having a moment of forced nostalgia like the anniversary of graduating high school, and the same ambiguity exists. The bloom comes off the rose pretty easily when you really start thinking about all of it; thankfully, there are mix tapes, CDs, and playlists to help guide the way.
In 1997, Sean McKeever self-published his very first work, The Waiting Place, a story about the ennui that comes with being a young adult trapped in a town that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It was soon picked up by Slave Labor Graphics and McKeever along with Brendon and Brian Fraim and then Mike Norton finished the entire saga of the town of Northern Plains and its denizens in three volumes plus an epilogue.
I spend this episode taking a complete look at The Waiting Place, which has been one of my favorite comics coming-of-age stories since I bought the volume one trade in 2001. This includes a full synopsis as well as a review.
You can download the episode via iTunes (search for Two True Freaks Presents: Pop Culture Affidavit) or listen here: Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 49
If you’re interested in buying a copy of The Waiting Place, it’s available at Amazon.com. Here’s the link
As a bonus, here are the covers to all three trades put out by Slave Labor Graphics as well as the IDW “Definitive Edition”:
In case you’re curious as to what music I used in this episode, here are some YouTube clips:
Tori Amos, “Pretty Good Year”
Nine Inch Nails, “Something I Can Never Have”
R.E.M., “You Are The Everything”
The Sundays, “Here’s Where the Story Ends”
Roxy Music, “More Than This”
It here’s a Newton’s Law of Moviemaking, it has to be: “For every great movie, there is a much lesser sequel, spin-off, or knock-off.” In the case of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it’s the second in the form of a blink-and-you’ll miss-it sitcom from 1986 called Fast Times.
Prior to my episode about the movie, I had only known of Fast Times as a piece of trivia that accompanied articles about the film or the television series’ stars (usually Courtney Thorne-Smith), and it never saw life in reruns or on video. In fact, if not for the grace of YouTube, the seven-episode run of Fast Times would have remained that way, lost to television trivia history forever. But as I wound up doing my research about the movie, I found the pilot episode (which has 23,000 views).
With Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprising their roles as Mr. Hand and Mr. Vargas, respectively, Fast Times attempted and failed to re-create the “slice of life in high school” the movie had given us in 1982. I don’t know why the producers waited until 1986 to option this and put it on the air, but int he very least, it was at a time when teen flicks were big at the box office and shows like Fame had proven that you could take a teen movie and spin it off to a television show.
Our teen characters are the same as they were in the film but the actors are different, which makes sense considering that many of the stars of Fast Times at Ridgemont High were enjoying successful movie careers in 1986 (Judge Reinhold had already appeared in Beverly Hills Cop, Phoebe Cates had been in Gremlins, and Sean Penn had married Madonna) and were probably too old to play teenagers anymore (although that never stopped Gabrielle Cartheris). Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh in the film) is played by a pre-Summer School Courtney Thorne-Smith, and Claudia Wells (who still had the smolder from her role as Jennifer in Back to the Future) stepped into Phoebe Cates’s role as Linda. Brad was played by James Nardini; Rat, who is reduced to a couple of “walking through the mall” scenes is played by Wally Ward; Damone, who Robert Romanus embodied so well in the film, is played by Patrick Dempsey; and Dean Cameron (“Chainsaw” from Summer School) plays Jeff Spicoli.
The 26-minute pilot episode begins with a cold open shot from the point of view of Mr. Hand, who is making his way through the halls of the school and then walks into his class. Spicoli skaeboards in to say he’s on time but is dismayed that someone is in his seat
Mr. Hand then points out to Spicoli that his class was last period and Spicoli says, “That’s cool, you can just mark me early for tomorrow.”
We then get a very late 1980s animated title sequence and a song by Oingo Boingo followed by an opening mall montage that should look familiar because it is recycled footage from the film (in fact it’s the opening of the film where “We Got the Beat” played over several mall scenes). The movie footage is of such better quality that it seems completely out of place with everything else.
The episode, by the way, is directed by Amy Heckerling herself (who was also credited as a “supervising producer”), so I don’t know if she had a hand in this or was called in on a favor. We pick up with our characters as we see Damone walking and talking with Rat and giving him typical Damone dating advice.
They approach Stacy and Linda, who are cuddling puppies outside a pet store and flirt with them, although at one point Damone stops talking and starts staring at Stacy’s breasts. Linda tells him that “They don’t speak English” and the girls walk off.
We then switch to Cattle Burger, which is in the mall and which I guess was a way to have Stacy and Brad work in the same general area so that there could be interaction at times (All-American Burger in the film was a free-standing fast food joint away from the mall, where Stacy worked at Perry’s Pizza) and Brad wonders aloud if Linda would ever go out for him. Brad’s boss (who is played by Paul Wilson, who would be a semi-regular on the later seasons of Cheers) reassures him that she definitely would and later on, we see him talking to Stacy about it in her room.
School starts the next day (set to the same “Be Cruel to your School” song by Twisted Sister that was used in One Crazy Summer). The teachers commiserate in the faculty lounge. Leslie (Kit McDonough), who teaches a life skills class, seems to believe in Jeff Spicoli, which directly contrasts Mr. Hand’s assertions that Spicoli is a complete waste of space. Hand bets Leslie that Spicoli won’t pull through on his presentation later in the week and it seems he may be right when Jeff bursts into the faculty lounge and says, “They didn’t move the bathroom in here.”
Brad, meanwhile, wants Stacy to work on Linda for him and Stacy does, telling Linda that Brad likes her. Linda says she would consider dating Brad but she is engaged to a guy in Chicago, after all. But you can tell that she is more than just considering this when her face lights up at the thought of Brad liking her.
The Spicoli-Hand storyline gets the other majority of the plot, as there is a scene in the cafeteria (set to “Kids Wanna Rock” by Bryan Adams) that showcases his cafeteria food creation skills, and Hand is his usual stickler self, lecturing students on behavior and almost reveling in Spicoli’s inevitable failure.
In Home Ec (whose teacher is played by Twink Caplan, who is a regular in Heckerling’s films and most famously plays Miss Geist in Clueless), Linda agrees to a date as long as nobody knows about it. Of course, as Brad walks through the mall later that day, he’s congratulated by everyone.
Leslie goes to the beach to talk to Spicoli, who is out surfing and asks if he’s ready for his presentation. He gives some metaphor about waves but is all, “Sure. But you can fail me if I suck.” She says she wants him to do a good job for her.
Linda wants to back out of the date, wondering what they’re going to do now that everyone knows, and Stacy says she’ll figure it out. Figure it out, she does, taking Brad to the one event nobody at Ridgemont will be going to:
They also head to Burger Chalet, where the guy working the drive-thru recognizes Brad and Linda simply has Brad take her home. She expresses her frustration over everyone knowing about the date and even goes as far as to insult Brad’s cruising vessel. When she tries to end the date there, Brad gets upset that she insulted the car and asks her to apologize, which she does and then spends a few minutes listening to Bryan Adams’ “Straight From the Heart” on the radio. Does this lead to them kissing? We’re not sure, because the screen fades to black.
Back in school, Hand and Leslie wait for Spicoli, who shows up late and then gives a presentation about how teenage boys are scary, starring his younger brother Curtis (played by Jason Hervey).
Spicoli aces the presentation, and even Mr. Hand has to admit that it was good, paying up on his bet.
Now, if there’s a spiritual successor to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it’s probably the Sara Jessica Parker sitcom Square Pegs (something that is worth its own episode) and not this. Had this show not used the same characters as the film, it actually might have had more of a shot, but being such a fan of the film, it seems so lesser.
I give Ray Walston credit for trying to reprise his role as Mr. Hand the way he does. I can tell that on some level, he wants to give him a little more depth and make him a little less harsh than he was in the movie (where he was a one-note character), but he doesn’t have the same chemistry with Dean Cameron as he had with Sean Penn. Then again, Dean Cameron–who is absolutely awesome a year later in Summer School–has incredibly big shoes to fill and does what he can with it, although sometimes it seems like he’s doing a bad impersonation. Dempsey, on the other hand, doesn’t even attempt Robert Romanus’ Jersey accent and plays Damone the same way he would play Ronnie Miller at the height of his popularity in Can’t Buy Me Love. I’ll give Claudia Wells credit, though. She’s always been one of those gorgeous 1980s actresses you wish you could have seen more of (see also: Mia Sara, Amanda Peterson), and she makes Linda very likeable.
Brad and Stacy, though, are just badly mischaracterized. I like Courtney Thorne-Smith, mind you, but Jennifer Jason Leigh portrayed Stacy in a way that embodied the “Fast Times” of the film’s title, and Thorne-Smith is just a little too innocent. Plus, the two of them didn’t have a very close relationship in the film. Yes, Brad picks up Stacy after the abortion, but as I mentioned in the podcast episode, that’s a big brother move. Otherwise, they were always separate, intersecting when it was necessary, which is something that two siblings of those ages would definitely do (I speak from experience). Brad hanging out in his little sister’s room asking her for flirting advice? Sorry, no.
I said at the beginning of this post that Fast Times is a little piece of trivia associated with the movie and that’s pretty much accurate. You’re not going to fall in love with this sitcom and wish it had a longer life. It’s not horrible by any means; instead, it’s simply forgettable and you’re better off renting the film.