People Change People: Part 2 of a Defense of 'Kid' Entertainment

3:04 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

I realized I had more to say on the topic of entertainment ostensibly geared for young audiences, so here's part two of the discussion started here. This time, we're focusing on television geared at younger demographics, although, it must be noted, all the discussed shows do have a strong fanbase above age 20 as well.

The CW, like its predecessor The WB, has made a brand for itself as home to supernatural shows featuring inordinately pretty people who have a) superpowers, b) tragic backstories, c) epic romances, or d) tragic backstories that lead to superpowers and cause massive problems with epic romances. While its hour-long female-centric comedy double-header of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin has received critical acclaim and skews more adult, the cornerstone of the network has become its four- count 'em, four- superhero shows: a genre which traditionally covers a broad demographic that reaches all but the very youngest viewers. Each of these DC shows is a different genre: Arrow is a crime drama in a broken city; The Flash is quippy sci-fi; Legends of Tomorrow is workplace dramedy transplanted to a time-traveling spaceship; and Supergirl skews closer to corporate and romantic comedy than any of its fellows.

What these four shows have in common, however, is an implicit contract with their audience that things will, eventually, be okay. The heroes may doubt and falter, but they will always rise. The best in humanity wars with the worst possibilities of humanity, and guess what? The best win. Not without losses- and this is crucial, because it adds dimension. Death does come for characters we love (and ones we don't- sorry, Hawkman!). In fact, this family of shows had developed such a pattern of killing off a very specific character in each of its first season finales (the handsome young man on the wrong side of a love triangle involving the lead) that it was a shock when Supergirl broke the pattern. But even with death and despair, cities in crisis and relationships made fragile, they never leave us without a glimmer of hope.

These shows function best when read on a metaphorical level, as a means of putting complex concepts into understandable terms. It's important to note that the reasons why they skew youthful have little, if anything, to do with the quality of the show. Young (by which I here mean teen and college-age) audiences often are drawn to shows with epic mythologies that reward loyal viewing and with, let's face it, young, attractive casts. Neither of those qualities make a show innately bad- but they do provide easy targets for critics to attack. But that same epic, sometimes silly supernatural mythology also functions as metaphor for a slew of socio-political concepts. Why should we dismiss a dissection of human and political corruption and decay just because it includes red and green leather masks? Why should we ignore a show that highlights the experiences of women in male-dominated fields just because one of those women is from a different planet?

All the while, the youthful nature of these shows means it never becomes too angry, too full of negativity. While some might argue that those are restrictions on content that result in watered-down stories, I would argue the opposite. Having to make a nuanced point is a lot harder when working within restrictions; a lack of restrictions may lead to innovative ideas, true, but it also makes it much easier to just go as dark as possible and call it good art. But giving hope? A family dinner, a sunset drive, a gathering of friends... that's something we can all strive for, and it can give us hope, no matter our age.

More than any other show on my radar right now, Girl Meets World is the epitome of why we shouldn't dismiss a show as "shallow" just because it's geared for audiences who can't drive or vote yet. Let's be real, here. GMW has two fanbases of equal passion: the tweens who started watching the saga of the Matthews family and those who love them only a few years ago, and the twenty- and thirty-somethings who met the Matthewses decades ago and can't bear to not watch their story continue. It can't be easy to make a show that appeals to both demographics. But the writers of GMW manage to find a way, and it's so incredibly simple that it makes one wonder why the other tween-marketed shows haven't done the same thing: they don't pander. They don't talk down to their young audience members. Love and loyalty, betrayal and confusion, faith and diagnoses, separation and even death are all dealt with in a way that feels real to the young characters and rings true for adults as well.

Take, for instance, a recent storyline focused on crises of identity- familiar territory for a youth sitcom. Even GMW has tapped this before in classic single-episode "crisis" fashion- although that episode also included a subtle lesson on cultural appropriation. One of the core tenets of the show, repeated over and over again, is "people change people." Like the Harry Potter saga (another youth-oriented tale with much more complex themes), much of this show operates on a system of parallels with the past. Protagonist Riley is Cory: cheerful, stable at home, more than a little dorky, meddlesome with the best intentions. Her best friend Maya is Shawn: troubled, mischievous, from a broken home, cynical and artistic yet oddly hopeful.

Both shows allowed their "people change people" theme to apply to these mismatched friendships, but more in one direction than the other. Though the "bad kids" helped their "goody-goody" friends loosen up a little, the influence was more about how the "bad" kids became "good" because of their friends. GMW has taken the time to explore when this positive influence crosses the line into an erasing of identity. It's even taking the time to tie the story to- you guessed it, a parallel one with the classic characters; in this case, Shawn's pride in the more reckless, edgy aspects of his personality at war with his desire for a family like Cory's. The end result is a thoughtful meditation on the nuances of shifting identity- and it doesn't need to be a dark, gritty, antihero drama to explore the ins and outs of evolving identity.

It's unfortunate, then, that a large part of the discourse surrounding the show instead revolves around incessant arguing over who should end up with who- thus missing the entire point of the show, which is that there is a wide array of relationships that matter and shape who we are. And it's not just the younger fans who are guilty of this: although there is a great deal of heated argument about who tween-heartthrob Lucas should have/should "choose" (ignoring the theme that there are as many variations of love and affection as there are people who love), there is just as much uproar from old-school fans upset over (spoiler alert!) Shawn getting married to Maya's mother Katy, rather than reuniting with original love Angela (ignoring the idea that not everyone ends up with their first love, but that those relationships can and do still matter). But I digress.

One of the easiest ways for "legitimate" critics to dismiss a series is to imply it might or does appeal to a younger audience. The wonderful thing about series with younger demographics, however, is that they are more likely to still have a hopeful outlook on the world. It might get dark. We might shed tears. People we love might leave us. But for some reason, we still look for hope, and we are not disappointed. For some reason, we don't want children to think the world is a dark and hopeless place. So why do we want adults to think that it is?

I don't.