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A look back at the ‘toxically compelling’ 90s teen drama Popular

Now one of the most lauded television producers in the world, Ryan Murphy didn’t start well. Sam Brooks was there in the 90s to witness the hot mess that is Popular.

It’s strange to sit in 2017 and see Ryan Murphy be a critically acclaimed, if still messy, maker of television. I look at the awards that American Crime Story: OJ Simpson scooped up, I look at gay Twitter going crazy over American Horror Story: Actresses Slum It, I look at Glee going thoroughly off the rails and I go, “I remember where you came from!” I shout this at the picture on the screen of a man I have never met and likely never will meet.

My first encounter with Popular was as a nine year old sitting in a lounge watching perhaps the biggest TV he had in his life. The show was on TV3 after whatever was on at 7PM, probably The Simpsons, and it was touted as a big thing. There were lots of ads playing for it, there were billboards. This was a big deal. It was a serious teen drama with beautiful teenagers and real issues. At the time there weren’t a lot of teen dramas for ten year olds who wanted to be a teenager so bad; My So-Called Life was a flash of lightning that was five years old by the time I was ten years old.

I started watching. The main characters were called Sam and Brooke. Those are my two first names! (Yes, my middle name is Brooke. No, don’t ask about it.) It’s so complex how one of these girls is the rebel, and the other one is popular, but they’re actually kind of the same! And they talk about this other girl’s weight so openly and realistically! And then there’s Josh, who is the quarterback but also wants to do the musical but society and the concept of popularity refuses to let him to do both! This show is complex! Look at these opening credits:

It was the best thing I’d ever seen, just behind Charmed and the early seasons of Melrose Place, because I was a gay gay child who would grow up to be a gay gay adult.

It would be a solid eleven years before I re-encountered Popular when a friend was selling the DVD boxset. I jumped at the chance. The show was, and still is, nigh impossible to find online through both dubious and non-dubious means, likely because it falls into the uncanny valley of being too popular to ever be cult, but not popular enough to ever be commercially viable. My friend and I met at night and exchanged cash for the DVD,  as though we were making some highly illegal kind of drug deal. Turns out, drugs would’ve been less damaging than watching Popular as an adult.

I’ve tried to get friends to watch it with me these past few years, to mixed success. One friend made the effort of sitting through a good six episodes with me before life – honestly, anything better to do – got in the way. I excitedly introduced it to another friend who sat through two episodes with me, out of what I can only describe as deeply ingrained politeness, before going, “I can’t watch anymore, I’m sorry.”

That is because Popular is very bad. It is unapologetically bad. It is Ryan Murphy bad. If you remember the show, and remember it as being so eminently watchable, you’re not wrong. You want to watch it like you want to watch a drunk guy order a kebab at 3AM. You’re not sure if you want him to fuck up or if you want him to get to his destination, but you want to watch regardless. Analogy aside, Popular is very bad.

Popular, like most Ryan Murphy shows, wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants five cakes! It wants a cake shop. It wants to run the cake shop, but also eat all the cakes. Popular wants to be a serious teen drama tackling issues, but it also wants to be camp and silly. Unfortunately, it ends up dipping into camp and silliness mostly while trying to be serious and earnest.

Take for example, a major early plot in the show. Carmen, whose entire character revolves around being fat (the show lets us know this because she talks about it all the time, and is only seen eating) wants to be a cheerleader. She auditions for the cheerleader squad with this audition, which seems shot, edited and choreographed around Sara Rue not being able to dance.

She doesn’t get a spot on the squad, despite a scene where Brooke, in the space of about 45 seconds, tells Carmen she was the best audition (which is IMPOSSIBLE, based on the footage I have linked you above) and didn’t get a spot on the squad because she is fat.

BUT! This is after Carmen reads the names of those who got into the squad and runs through a crowd of people. In a genius filmmaking move, Carmen LITERALLY fades as the crowd splits for her.

Fat Carmen fades into the distance.

It’s this kind of earnestness that makes the show both off-puttingly bad and toxically compelling. This show wants to tackle absolutely everything: Weight issues, gay rights, trans rights, sex, sexuality, race, class, and basically everything that a teenager could possibly go through. Unfortunately, this is done with all the grace of your hairdresser using blunt garden shears. What looked real and complex to ten year old me now looks shockingly unsubtle and serious to the point of hilarity.

Look at this scene, where Carmen and Brooke both talk about their weight! LOOK AT IT.

Popular also suffers from trying very hard to be of its time, in every single way, so now it is horrifyingly dated. The references are simultaneously so of the moment and so old that it makes you wonder who this show is for. In one scene, this show references Ally McBeal and Vertigo actress Kim Novak, who donated the impossibly lush bathroom that the girls use at their high school. Who is this show for? It’s for teenagers, gay preteens, gay gay men and the people they force to watch the show with them. Take, for example, this screenshot:

Fashion Criminals circa 1999.

1) These actors have all been out of high school for about ten years. 2) THE CRIMPING. 3) The little bit of blue dye on Harrison’s hair for no reason. 4) THE CRIMPING. This couldn’t be more 90s if Linda Perry was playing in the background.

Popular is the worst and I love it a lot. There’s an episode where Carmen gets hypnotised at her birthday party and clucks like a chicken, so the popular girls (including an unspecific Latina character named Popita Fresh which is… not great) take her to a fast food chicken restaurant where her friend Lily (a vegetarian who refuses to dissect a frog in science class because of course she does) works. Carmen clucks like a chicken at this restaurant and eats chicken, which is incredibly messed up if you think about it, and then Brooke realises what is happening and clucks like a chicken as well. In this same episode, Nicole tries to seduce Carmen’s brother by gluing hair to her armpits and hanging out in his bedroom and trying to be mature, even though the actress playing Nicole is pushing 30 at this point.

There’s another episode where Nicole and Mary Cherry (the best character on this show, because she is the comic relief and has no need to adhere to the dire seriousness the rest of the show engages in) kidnap a man, believing him to be Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal shopper, and torture him in a basement. This is the same episode where Brooke has a pregnancy scare.

It’s very hard to watch the show nowadays, as in it is literally quite hard to find it, but if you’re a Ryan Murphy fan (and god forsake you if you are), then it’s worth it. It’s where you can find the roots of all his problems, namely the way his shows run off the rails early on and show no signs of rerailing but gleefully plow through every single thing in their path. It’s also where you can find a lot of plotlines they later used on Glee. Because if your teen drama is already broke, you don’t fix it.

While Popular is bad, and is maybe even the worst, it’s a brilliant time capsule from an age when we expected a lot less from our television. This is pre-Downton Abbey, pre-Mad Men, hell it’s pre-The O.C. If you wanted to put 42 episodes of teenagers going through insane drama (there are TWO episodes that revolve around a Ghost of Christmas Past/Present/Future structure) on television, you could go right ahead and do it.

Whenever somebody praises Ryan Murphy for how great his shows are now, I shake my head at them and go, “You don’t even know the things he’s done. YOU DON’T KNOW.” Because they don’t know. They don’t. They don’t know that he did a show that did an earnest plotline where all the brunette characters dyed their hair blonde for an episode and did better at everything, while all the blonde characters dyed their hair brown and did worse at everything. A human being wrote this! Other human beings turned on cameras while other human beings said words and stood in front of those cameras. Other human beings then edited the footage and put it onto television, where millions of human beings watched it. Human beings with families who loved them, and potential futures. This happened! This wasn’t just a dream. This is Ryan Murphy’s fault.

Honestly? Power to you, Ryan Murphy circa 1999, for getting 42 episodes of this deranged show on television. Power to Sam Brooke Brooks, circa 1999, for finding something and loving it so much it hurt. And power to Sam Brooke Brooks, circa 2017, for continuing to inflict this show on his friends like an alcoholic aunt inflicts her dark stories upon her unsuspecting family.

May you live in the shameful darkness forever, Popular.


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