I recall my teenage years quite fondly. Genial banter on the cafeteria line and sharp discourse in the classroom. Stickball death derbies behind the next town over's elementary school. Quarters bouncing nimbly off the Astroturf-like surface of Carolyn H.'s kitchen table. My acne was under control. I remember thinking that Holden Caulfield needed to get a grip.
So it's through a rosy lens that I view fictions that depict the more monstrous elements of the adolescent experience -- the suffocating peer pressure, the hesitant stabs at forging an identity, the squabbles with parental units, etc. Being as my profound emotional problems didn't manifest themselves until long after I'd donned my first graduation gown, I can't relate. Thus, I should probably avoid shows like Bravo's fogey-baiting reality romp "NYC Prep" and ABC Family's smart-talkin' drama "Make It or Break It."
Oh, the angst! The relentless BlackBerry-mandering! The life lessons, many involving shoes, administered with punishing finality! These poor kids wrestle with some serious demons, everything from sporadically requited crushes to catty peers. They've got the weight of the world on their shoulders and the first hints of hormonal commotion in their pants.
"NYC Prep," easily pitched and packaged as "the real 'Gossip Girl,'" explores the luxe lives of six New York City teens. In doing so, the show actively prods viewers to rage -- rage against the careless lives the protagonists lead. It wants us to bemoan their vanishing youth, their premature descent into jadedness. It wants us to demonize the parents who empower them.
Don't take the bait. This is merely a show about sniveling, graceless little shits, just like "The Simple Life," and thus deserves the same swift dismissal from your leisure-hour consideration. The six bon vivants are neither smart nor charming, and they possess all the self-awareness of a twig. At least "Gossip Girl" dishes out its blithe urban bitchery with a wink and a smirk; the entire point of "NYC Prep," as with each of Bravo's "Housewives" offerings, is to hold its subjects up to ridicule.
It's a dog and pony show. The only reason to root for the network's look-at-the-silly-rich-folk! offerings to survive -- and can "L.A. Prep" be far behind? -- is the blisteringly antic commentaries they inspire. I can read those all day; I can watch "NYC Prep" for 90 seconds at a time before boredom sets in.
Much better is ABC Family's latest fresh-faced teenzapalooza, "Make It or Break It." Set at an elite gymnastics training facility in Boulder, Colo., "Make It" chronicles the fliptastic exploits of a quartet of Olympics wannabes and the fellers/parents/coaches/teachers in their immediate orbit.
Did I mention that they're all positively darling? Did I have to?
"Make It" merits closer inspection, though. Given that the show airs on a network with "Family" in its moniker, I wondered whether it would address any of the darker aspects of the budding-gymnast experience: the creepy relationships with older coaches, the abuse of performance-enhancing substances (including but not limited to Stanozolol and glitter) or the bulimia. To its credit, it does, following in the sorta-taboo footsteps of network peer "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."
While somewhat clumsily scripted -- any episode with an "I hear that!" rejoinder should result in immediate revocation of guild membership for the offending writer -- "Make It" goes out of its way to define each of the crisscrossing relationships. (It says a lot about the current state of TV drama that I feel the need to commend something as fundamental as relationship definition.) By the time the pilot episode concludes, "Make It" has attentively sketched out a wealth of parent-child and peer-peer connections. This does wonders to invest viewers in their fates.
I don't care what happens to any of the NYC Prepsters; I'm actively rooting for the sweet protagonist of "Make It or Break It" to realize her balance-beam destiny. I can't imagine that anybody who watches the two shows back to back would feel otherwise.