Westwind

television

Post by Peyton Austin

Ah, high school. Remember that one time where one of your friends overdosed on your spring break trip to Mexico? How about that time you had a fight with your friend at her party, got drunk, and killed a man driving home? Or that one time you and your friends were blackmailed by an anonymous person who also stalked you every day?

Obviously not. The real question here (besides what the hell are teenagers in TV shows getting up to?) is: why are high school television dramas so melodramatic and unrealistic?

My answer would argue that this is not actually—or at the very least, not totallythe fault of the high school TV dramas (HSTVD)

Obviously, the number one reason why HSTVD’s are unrealistic is because they are not written by high schoolers; they are written by adults who have probably not set foot in a high school in ten-plus years. Just watch any episode of Riverdale and listen to those characters speak. You’ll automatically know that whoever these characters are, they are for sure not seventeen-year-olds.

But, again, that’s the obvious answer. I’m here to argue that HSTVD’s are just Like That—unrealistic, melodramatic—due to the nature of television writing. Unlike movies or books, television does not have the luxury of starting out slow. Riskier or more comfortable shows can, but for the most part, television requires that viewer get hooked on the show immediately. And these hooks need to keep happening—the TV show must have a constant, underlying drive. It not only asks, why keep watching this show?, but delivers the this is why.

So, enter high school dramas, of which the dramatic nature of TV already puts them at a disadvantage. TV shows about a police force, teacher-turned-drug dealer, or pirates will not lack any drama. Think about your high school experience, however. The majority of high school is spent sitting in a class or sitting at home doing homework. Sure, you have extracurriculars, relationships, family drama—but even for most kids, those things are not as dramatic as their portrayals in TV. For the most part, high school is extremely boring. No matter how realistic it is, no one wants to watch some high school kid get an A (or and F) on the test. Dramatic for the kid in question, but definitely not for the viewer.

So the writers for HSTVD’s have to imbue their stories with lots of drama, and they do this by adding in every conceivable plot possible. Sex? Pregnancy? Alcoholism? Drugs and overdose? Murder? Fame? Cheating? Parental divorce? Blackmail? Gambling? Not to mention shows like the recent Degrassi: Next Class, which often tackles issue-based storylines, creating plots on immigration, Islamophobia, mental illness, abortion, racism, homophobia, rape, suicide, and so much more.

To be clear: tackling these issues, or writing storylines on them, does not automatically make it bad writing. What HSTVD’s do is pack all of these things into seasons or even single episodes. This means that while one character’s plotline is worrying about their first kiss—normal high school escapades!—another high school student is dealing with their drug addiction. It causes, if not an inconsistent tone, then an utter bewilderment on the part of the viewer. And even more bewilderment occurs when the story moves on quickly to its next harsh storyline, giving the audience an emotional whiplash. Considering TV shows are given 22-episode seasons, this rapid whiplash is nearly nonstop.

Another disclaimer: many of these issue-based storylines are realistic to high school. The idea that any high school is free from racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is ridiculous. I know my school was guilty of that and more. In fact, my school had many of the wackier plots as well: drugs, possible pregnancy, and teacher allegations alongside all the -isms mentioned earlier (and boy, there was a lot of that). The difference is that most of those wackier plots at my high school were one-offs. Sure, drugs and alcohol were fairly common, but only at special occasions—and they were only ever caught on campus a few times. Pregnancy rumors were whispered about and not confirmed until after high school. Still, this type of stuff makes up five percent of a high schooler’s life—maybe even less than that. HSTVD cram so much of it into its show that it becomes oversaturated and then, yes, melodramatic.

The consequences are not just melodrama (which some people enjoy!). More often than not, the highly dramatic nature of HSTVD’s result in a lot inconsistent characterization. In many cases, characters cheat on their partners for no particular reasons; the reasons given are usually contrived, and you can easily see the writers instead of the characters. In season two of 90210, the womanizing jock Teddy has an entire arc about learning to settle down into a monogamous and serious relationship. In season three, however, Teddy discovers that he’s gay. The show tries to connect these storylines together, but it’s a weak thread. It’s not that the second storyline is bad, it’s just that the two versions of this character are wildly different from one another.

The more inconsistent your characters are, the easier it is to throw them into the melodramatic situations. The more melodramatic the situations are, the harder it is to maintain the characters. It’s a self-sustaining cycle.

All of this, however, begs the question: do high school TV shows even need to be realistic?

I think the answer is: to some extent, yes. I don’t expect every HSTVD to be realistic down to a T; again, I understand that a TV show needs drama for it to work. But in some cases, realism is important—or at the very least, refreshing. In a landscape of Naomi Clarks of 90210 or Cheryl Blossoms of Riverdale, My Mad Fat Diary’s exploration of the interiority of a mentally ill, fat teenage girl does become necessary. (My Mad Fat Diary, by the way, incorporates many of the plotlines I’ve mentioned above—abortion, sex, mental illness—but grounds these storylines in characters and relationships, rather than speeding onto the next big plot twist.)

Or consider the Norwegian webseries, Skam. It tackled (Norwegian) teenhood and the struggles they face (particularly eating disorders, queerness, and sexual abuse) in such a realistic and respectful manner that it has spawned remakes in eight different countries across Europe and the U.S. For the recent Netflix show American Vandal, one of its many praises received from critics was the realism of the high school students. Despite the main plot (a documentary) being unrealistic, American Vandal’s themes, characters, and humor accurately capture the contemporary high school student experience.

But realism is not just necessary because of the critical praise (although, that should be a sign). How often does one tiny scene in a HSTVD suspend your disbelief and rip you out of the show, even for a moment? Take Netflix’s recent show Sex Education. In the first episode, the students receive none other than the classic trope of the school-wide text message. This is usually done for dramatic effect—oh no! now everyone knows our protagonist’s humiliating secret!—but it would never, ever happen in real life. I honestly don’t know how this trope got started, because I can’t imagine a time where a student had every other students’ number. This is a small moment, granted, but the more these small moments build up, the more the lack of realism grates on the viewer.

So to the high school TV drama: I don’t hate you. You get criticized a lot, and for mostly valid reasons, but I know it is not entirely your fault. For the things that do come under your purview, however, do just a little more research. Please. We’re begging you. The longer these bad tropes, melodrama, and inaccurate representations persist, the worse-off your TV show appears.

Post by Peyton Austin

What does an 18th-century Irish satirist and a 21st-century high school TV mockumentary have in common? A lot of shit, apparently.

Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish writer from the 18th century, is most famous for his novel Gulliver’s Travels and infamous for his satires, and in particular his scatological poems. Yes, you read that correctly: Swift’s three scatological poems dramatically describes how disgusting the body can become and usually includes the catchphrase, “Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”

American Vandal’s recently released, second season follows the investigation of a vandal known as “The Turd Burgler,” a student who poisoned the school lemonade with laxatives and watches the shitshow (labeled “The Brownout”) unfold–and after posting videos of the event, forces everyone else to watch as well.

Both of these works are satires. Swift’s poems aim to satirize men who romanticize women to the point of idiocy, with varying degrees of success; American Vandal satirizes the the recent true crime fad (with immense success). While Swift’s satire leans towards the bitter and angry, American Vandal takes the more light-hearted route. Yet, despite the three-hundred years separating them, American Vandal seems to have taken a few notes out of Swift’s works.

One of these notes is the mixture of extreme exaggeration and hyper-realism. In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver voyages to fantastical islands with giants, miniature peoples, and enlightened, talking horses–but Gulliver and his travels are made to look as realistic as possible. Swift purposefully imitated the frontispiece of travel narratives of his time, and began the novel with a letter from Gulliver swearing the story’s truth. American Vandal not only imitates this but doubles down on its realism in its second season. Instead of naming the show’s actual creators, the show’s credits say the show is “In Association with Hanover High school” (the show’s setting), the executive producer is Mr. Baxter (a character), and that it’s “Shot and Produced by Sam Ecklund and Peter Maldonado” (two main characters). The second season opens with protagonists Peter and Sam describing how Netflix “bought” the American Vandal documentary to explain why the show is on Netflix at all. Vimeo had made the documentary a staff pick. Netflix added higher quality everything to the series. Peter and Sam even appear on The Daily Show. The show wants you to believe these are real people making a real documentary, despite its outlandish premises.

The biggest commonality between American Vandal and Jonathan Swift is their shared interest in shit. Swift’s highly descriptive language surrounding scat received disgust from his contemporaries (and future readers as well). In “The Lady’s Dressing-Room,” Strephon steals into Celia’s room, opens her chamber pot, and discovers “A sudden universal Crew / Of human evils, upward flew” (85-86) and an “excremental Smell, / To taint the Parts from whence they fell” (111-112). And despite every kids’ horror at the events of The Brownout, American Vandal barrages the viewer with video after video of kids shitting themselves, their wailing, and the excrement itself. These acts are portrayed just long enough that it’s hard to tell exactly where the creators take disgust in such acts and where they take pleasure, if at all.

Most importantly, what Swift and American Vandal understand about shit is its potential and indeed its ability to expose us as human beings, in the most base way possible. We daily romanticize our lives and people around us. Shit reminds us that we’re “human” in the sense that we’re not perfect, that our bodies betray our sensibilities and romantic idealities and firmly remind us that we can be disgusting and imperfect. This is what Swift and American Vandal recognize: there is something about our physical insides–bile, acid, vomit, and most of all shit–that exposes our moral and psychological insides.

Swift employs shit to expose men as idiots for romanticizing women. The men of his stories believe women to be purely innocent and angelic and nothing more; their discoveries that women have bodily functions (or possibly, the same necessary functions as men) shocks them deeply. While Swift’s highly descriptive language and detail of the women’s bodies mires him in controversy, the poems invite us to laugh at the idiocy of the men who cannot fathom that women are human beings. “He soon would learn to think like me,” writes the cheeky narrator of “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” “And bless his ravish’d Eyes to see / Such Order from Confusion Sprung” (141-143).

American Vandal, or more accurately the Turd Burglar, creates the Brownout (and other shit-related crimes) to expose the student body for romanticizing ourselves. The Turd Burglar couldn’t handle the disconnect between his fellow students actual selves and their ideal self presented on social media. “We’re all full of shit,” the Turd Burglar says in episode eight. “You all pretend to lead these perfect, happy lives when you know you’re just as lonely as me.” American Vandal constantly uses this language of concealment, referring to social media as a mask, pretend, and fake. The resulting exposure of the student body via the Brownout implies that this exposure was revealing the true self and, consequently, almost necessary.

Forcing your classmates to shit themselves and posting those videos online, all to show how fake they are, seems excessive. It is excessive. Yet satire revels in exaggeration, so the plot driving season two of American Vandal fits perfectly. This is also a show that other critics call one of the most realistic high school shows on television (which it is). Perhaps that is why exaggeration and hyper-realism coincide together so seamlessly. Swift’s works and American Vandal prove that because so many things in satire are hyperbolic, the rest of it must be extremely realistic. We have to believe the satire. The realism makes the exaggeration less extreme; the exaggeration makes the realism doubtful. They work together to excite, raise doubts, and yes, expose.

And satire invites shit. In every other genre, shit, the body, and all its implications, are mostly taboo. Satire’s exaggeration is the genre where shit can finally find its place. Perhaps this is why one of the greatest satirists of the English world and American Vandal were attracted to this shit in the first place. Certainly the attraction to shit is not entirely on the fault of the creator. There is entertainment value in shit, as shown by the critical response to American Vandal’s second season. There is even wary or gross interest in Swift’s scat. There is an audience to such satires. “Poop is funny,” Sam says in episode three.

Entertainment was not Swift’s desire in creating his satires. “The chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it,” Swift wrote in a letter to Alexander Pope. Swift was successful in his vexations. Many of them came from his political pamphlets, where he was not afraid to expose others for their beliefs or deeds. American Vandal, on the other hand, is entertainment, and successfully delights and disgusts. It does not make the show without its message, though. It always has a more forgiving look on its subjects than Swift ever did.

“We’re not the worst generation,” Peter concludes in the end of the second season. “We’re just the most exposed.”

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