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TODAY

Monday, February 18

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Airbags

Another fall TV season, another teen soap opera. This year, The CW — which in its previous form as The WB practically cornered the market on this genre — offers Gossip Girl, based on the popular novels written by Cecily von Ziegesar. It's garnering criticism for "glamorizing" the lives of a pack of Upper East Side private school kids in Manhattan; they drink too much alcohol, spend too much money, and sleep with the wrong people. It's also the first new series to get a full-season pick-up. And, per usual, the average age of the five actors who make up the core cast is not 16, 17, or even 18. No, the thespians who play these high school juniors are 20, 20, 21, 21 and 22.

This is hardly the first case of casting twentysomethings (or even thritysomethings) as teenagers. (I'm deliberately ignoring most offerings of Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel, in which the kids may be playing their age, but the scenarios in which they find themselves are so fantastical that they make me long for the "realism" of Luke Perry's comb over. The laugh tracks alone make me stabby.) Labor laws require minors to only work a set amount of hours a day; these actors also sometimes take classes on the set between takes, which makes their on-camera time much shorter. It makes financial sense to hire young adults for these roles. However, if a show becomes a hit, the premise becomes more difficult to believe. Time marches on. Also, several shows — Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson's Creek among them — prefer to stretch one high school year over two seasons. The series can cover more stories that way. Also, graduation is often seen as an automatic jump the shark moment. In an interesting twist, CW staple One Tree Hill is jumping its timeline four years when it returns for its fifth year sometime midseason. I'd watch it for the novelty alone, but it still stars Chad Michael Murray. And it's One Tree Hill.

According to the 90210 Wikipedia entry, the birthdates of several characters — Brandon, Brenda, Kelly, Dylan, and Donna — are listed as 1974: Steve Sanders was born in 1975. Even though I went to a state school, I can do basic math. The series started in 1990, which would have made them 16 or thereabouts. Now let's look at the birthdays of the actors (or the birthdays they admit to, at least):
Jason Priestley (Brandon): August 28, 1969
Shannen Doherty (Brenda): April 12, 1971
Jennie Garth (Kelly): April 3, 1972
Luke Perry (Dylan): October 11, 1965
Tori Spelling (Donna): May 16, 1973
Ian Ziering (Steve): March 30, 1964

The women were all teenagers when they started filming, all except Gabrielle Carteris, who played brainy Andrea Zuckerman. She was born January 2, 1961; at times she played someone literally half her age. 90210 was often praised as tackling "real" issues: date rape, teen pregnancy, drug abuse. However, during its 10(!) year run, the series could not escape the reality of receding hairlines and crow's feet. Why they didn't just move everyone to Melrose Place, I'll never know.

Katie Holmes — remember when she wasn't Mrs. Tom Cruise? — had just turned 19 when Dawson's Creek bowed in January 1998. Josh Jackson was also 19. James Van Der Beek was 20, and Michelle Williams was 17. They may have been able to pass for 15 at first, if you squinted (they eventually spent four seasons at Capeside High). But the pretentious graduate-school level dialogue only added to the preposterous storylines. Pacey sleeps with his teacher! Dawson makes amazing movies! Joey thinks Dawson is attractive! It is, as MadTV memorialized in one paraody, "Pretty White Kids with Problems." Michael McDonald is a new sophomore, and when he turns his head we see a bald spot shining through.

Even cult classics praised for their accurate portrayals suffer from this form of progeria. Freaks and Geeks, which presented a spot-on look at high school in the early 1980s, had a 25-year-old as its lead. However, the entire cast wasn't dewy pretty like Smallville or Young Americans, and several of them were actual teenagers. This often happens: at least one of the actors plays close to his or her age. My So-Called Life's Claire Danes was 15, the same age as her character, Angela Chase. But Jared Leto, a.k.a. superwoobie Jared Catalano, is eight years older. Emily VanCamp was 16 when she debuted as Amy Abbott on Everwood in 2002. And Aimee Teegarden from Friday Night Lights was 16 when she shot the pilot. (The other actors portraying her peers range from six to 10 years her senior.) Gee, it's so odd that the females are often several years younger than the males, isn't it?

It's not only television that casts older. James Dean was in his mid-20s when he filmed Rebel Without a Cause with teens Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. But perhaps the most egregious aging appears in 1978's Grease. When Marty says, "Yeah, but this year we're seniors," she ain't kidding. The ages of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies range from Kelly Ward's 19 to Stockard Channing's 33; most of them were in their late 20s during filming. (It could have been worse: When I saw Adrian Zmed as Danny in a touring production — long story — in the mid-'90s, he was in his mid-40s.)

A confession: I'm actually enjoying Gossip Girl, and not for the reasons you'd think. At one point, Blair's mother cooed, "You will never be more beautiful or thin or happy than you are right now," to her daughter. Blair looked pale, as I most certainly would have been had anyone said that to me at the age of 16, let alone my mom. Blair's complicated relationship with her best friend, Serena, is what I find interesting. Yes, the boys are pretty, but that's it; they're boys. I'm getting older, and they're staying the same age. And unlike Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed and Confused — another movie about teens starring twentysomethings — that's not my bag.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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