Just how long have we been doing the social castes in high school thing now? I’d peg the earliest example of this on TV, at least, as probably Square Pegs, but it’s grown into such an all-consuming thing that when you do a show about high schoolers now, it’s almost always about how they navigate the tricky social terrain of high school. It wasn’t always this way. Shows about teenagers used to be about how they would band together to fight the powers that be (as in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, newly out on DVD) or contemplated their lives and the people they were becoming (Dobie Gillis) or any of a variety of different takes on the teen genre. Hell, even on Happy Days a whole bunch of kids from different social groups hung out together, and we LIKED it, dammit.
TV shows based on popular movies are also a tradition in the medium, though you don’t really see them as much as you used to. Perhaps that’s because the only series to really take off despite being based on movies were M*A*S*H, Alice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps it’s because these shows tend to be pretty terrible. Or perhaps it’s because it’s just easier to come up with a rip off of a movie than buy the rights to that movie. For whatever reason, though, the TV show based on a movie is an endangered species nowadays.
So that makes the new series of 10 Things I Hate About You (which would have been nowhere near my list of movies I would like to see become TV series) feel both like a throwback in some ways and a show you’re sick of in a lot of other ways. This is yet another show about kids who are in different social groups fighting against the system, man, but it’s also a sorta sweet show, the sort of teen show that you might have seen on TV in the late ‘80s, rather than our latter day Gossip Girl things. Sadly, it’s just not that good of a show because it never finds a way to utilize its source material to suggest a way that it will be sufficiently different from other teen shows as to be watchable every week.
A lot of the slams against this show seem to focus on its status as an ABC Family series, but those are sort of unfair, I think, because ABC Family is one of those networks that knows exactly what it wants to do and generally does it pretty well. The Secret Life of the American Teenager is simultaneously awful and fascinating, while the channel’s Greek is a really solid example of how to do character-based soaps about young people well. (This is to say nothing of The Middleman, a really fun show that sadly just wasn’t for the network.) In addition, 10 Things I Hate About You is a better movie than you remember. It’s not great or anything, but it has nicely defined characters, a fun central conceit and 2.5 winning performances. It’s no Clueless, yeah, but then what is?
So there was every chance that 10 Things I Hate About You could have succeeded. The film does not immediately suggest itself as a series beyond a generic high school setting, but the idea of two sisters doing battle to see who gets to date guys first is a potentially good one for a series. Plus, they cast Lindsey Shaw as older sister Kat (the Julia Stiles part, for those of you playing along at home), and she was on Aliens in America (where she played the hot sister, which gives you an idea of the relative disparity in attractiveness between The CW and ABC Family, I guess). Aliens in America was such a great, underseen show that I’m always thrilled to see anyone involved with it get anything to do, and Shaw’s a good choice for a part like this, always sidling up to the line of overplaying and then stepping back at the last moment. Meaghan Jette Martin, who plays Bianca (the “Alex Mack” part), is kind of a cipher, but she and Shaw have nice enough chemistry to suggest she could grow into the part given time.
So, naturally, since playing up the relationship between the sisters would be the best way to make this a recurring series, the show embraced, instead, the idea of just doing the movie in incremental bits, week by week, and then strapping traditional teen plots onto that. This week, we get all of the same exposition from the movie (the younger sister can’t date until the older sister does, etc.), most of it helpfully doled out by Larry Miller, reprising his role as the girls’ father. We get an introduction to the romantic entanglements in play (sweetly dorky guy loves Bianca who loves quarterback who is fighting his attraction to Bianca because he’s dating head cheerleader, etc.). We meet the guy who’s going to drive Kat crazy (and the pilot gives him so little to do that I guess we’ll have to wait to complain about how he’s not Heath Ledger until next week). And tacked on to all of that are two plots about Bianca trying to gain popularity and a giant house party to celebrate the start of the school year. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
I don’t necessarily think that a TV show or a movie or anything has to be wildly original in its storytelling to be compelling. All I ask is that a series take the cliché material it has to work with (since there is no original storytelling anymore and etc.) and come up with a new worldview or twist on that material. Let’s face it. Friday Night Lights is hardly an original take on the teen drama, but because it’s got such a specific, perfectly articulated worldview, it is the great, great series it is. The worldview of 10 Things I Hate About You seems to mostly just be, “Didn’t you really love other teen movies? And would you like to see us try to make you remember them for a half hour every week?” There are some promising elements here, and I like the casting, but the show never finds a reason to justify its existence, and that kills any momentum it can get going.
- So which supervillain will Ethan Peck win an Oscar for playing? My money is on Manbat.
- I really didn’t get the function of the seemingly really short kid who played the dorky guy’s best friend. I guess he needed a best friend? Since he wears a hat, is he this show’s Jughead? Or was he supposed to be gay, like the kid who wears the hat in High School Musical?
- Speaking of Archie, when is THAT going to get a vaguely sorta post-modern series made out of it?
- Another character on the edges of this show I kind of liked: the overweight goth graffiti painter girl. There’s a lot of stuff that feels like it could be a good series here, but it’s not tied to a central theme or conflict that would make it pop.
- She was numbers 1, 5 and 8 on the list of 10 things Chastity hated about today? Don't strain yourself to get the title in there or anything, show.
- “Hurry! If we get caught in here, I'll get kicked out of the AV Club.” Well, nuts.