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How Grosse Pointe and Popular brought teen satire to television

From Beverly Hills 90210 and Sex and the City to American Horror Story and Glee, showrunners Darren Star and Ryan Murphy are behind some of the last quarter-century’s most fun television. As Murphy’s The People vs OJ Simpson hits screens and Star’s Younger returns for its second season, Laura Vincent looks back at two of their less-remembered teen shows.

The year 2000 was a strange time. There were a lot of songs in the charts about what year it was. Text messaging was just becoming mainstream. Around 75% of today’s pop stars were yet to be born. I had a crush on the lead singer of the Offspring and longed to win an inflatable South Park couch from a Dolly magazine competition. It was also the crest on a highly fertile wave of late 90s media geared towards teens. Dawson’s Creek, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Pie, Cruel Intentions – it goes on.

The Grosse Pointe cast (Photo: Kwaku Alston/Warner Bros.)

The Grosse Pointe cast (Photo: Kwaku Alston/Warner Bros.)

There was no better time for two satirical teen shows to debut on television. From Darren Star, creator of Beverly Hills 90210, came Grosse Pointe – based liberally and often rather scathingly on none other than Beverly Hills 90210. Write what you know, I guess. It followed behind the scenes drama from the titular show-within-a-show, thus creating layer upon layer of parody. From a pre-Glee/American Horror Story Ryan Murphy we got Popular, a high school drama based around the haves and have-nots and how they reluctantly intersected. Popular is full of Murphy’s signature mix of drama with heightened reality, and bizarre characters existing in utter normalcy – all elements that would later punctuate (and then completely bludgeon) Glee.

Neither of these shows was terribly successful – Grosse Pointe only lasted 17 episodes, while Popular ended suddenly after two seasons, with no real finale. But somehow they made it to New Zealand, and I managed to watch and love them both, despite the of-the-time barriers – like the fact that, maddeningly, in 2000 your actual TV was the only place you could see TV. Not to mention the parental authority over both the remote and one’s schedule. In fact I haven’t met that many people who know about either show. But they’re both very easily available on YouTube (or elsewhere) and so I invite you to come with me for a brief revisit of each show’s pilot episode.

Grosse Pointe Pilot

Characters and exposition: A “previously, on” clip from the show-within-a-show starts us off, but it soon becomes clear that this is the least important bit of Grosse Pointe, and that the onscreen angst is nothing compared to the soap opera of trying to get by behind the scenes. It’s pointedly clear that desperately insecure Marcy is a thinly-veiled parody of Tori Spelling. Her character has been voted least-sexy cheerleader on TV, she repeats mantras to herself about how people are pleased when she walks into a room, and she is manipulated like silly putty by the conniving Shannon Doherty avatar Hunter. They don’t connive like they used to, I tell ya.

The pilot centres on bubbly blonde new girl Courtney, and how her presence throws everyone into chaos that she is blithely unaware of. Hunter channels rivalry-induced rage into playing with Marcy’s insecurities. The ludicrously stupid and vain Jonny – Marcy’s unrequited crush – becomes blatantly attracted to Courtney, meanwhile the rapidly aging Quentin is caught short- bald in fact – without his toupee. Hilarity and tension ensues and it’s very silly, but worth sticking with.

Look out for: Amusing era-specific fashion in the way of elaborately trinketed hair, boob tubes with triangular hems, and embellished, flared capri pants. Later episodes would feature of-the-moment guest stars like Sarah Michelle Gellar, and, in a delicious coincidence, Leslie Bibb and Carly Pope from Popular acting as themselves.

Best lines: It’s clear that Darren Starr is having a lot of fun sending up his prior work. The actors are all so hilariously self-obsessed – “Now’s not a good time!” hisses Hunter at the ‘Make a Dream’ kid with leukemia wants to meet them on a set visit; an affably baffled Jonny is all “man, I’ve got to start reading the script” when Courtney introduces herself as a new character; and the wardrobe person disinterestedly replies “we don’t pay attention to the seasons” when Courtney asks whether jean shorts and a crop top would be appropriate for her character to wear in a Michigan winter.

My favourite line of the episode belongs to Jonny though, and it’s one that I pray Starr heard from someone IRL – when he lifts up his shirt and says “look at how golden and downy these hairs are around my navel!”

Popular Pilot

Characters and exposition: This show can be encapsulated by one particular scene where unpopular Sam McPherson (Carly Pope) and high school goddess Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) are staring at each other in the cafeteria, each having an identical conversation with their friends about how they feel sorry for the other girl, as she’s trying so hard and is trapped in her social position. I guess we’re supposed to be generally pulling for Sam, but her righteousness and self-absorption makes it hard. Meanwhile Brooke has secretly struggled with body image and eating disorders her whole life. The unpopular girl wants to be noticed! The popular girl has hidden depth! Will they ever begrudgingly accept each other?

Leslie Bibb and Carly Pope in Popular.

Leslie Bibb and Carly Pope in Popular.

Look out for: Classic Ryan Murphy moves – the arch dialogue, the sprinkling of monumentally bizarre characters, the internal monologues, and the fantasy sequences, like when the students in the hall turn into a glazed-eyed mooing mob in Sam’s eyes after she claims that “they all dress alike, look alike, they’re terrified of having an opinion…they’re like cattle.” Other highlights of the show include Chad “brother-of-Rob” Lowe as a hip young teacher, and Diana Delano as the nonsensical yet intimidatingly no-nonsense science teacher Ms Glass, clearly a proto-Sue Sylvester.

Best Lines: Sam wants to get her nose pierced because “it’s a true individualistic statement”. Tammy Lynn Michaels is charming as the icy, cunning Nicole, who tells Leslie Bibb’s Brooke, “I am so worshipping your Gwynethness” , which is a reference that has aged surprisingly well. My personal favourite though is when Chad Lowe’s ostensibly sexy teacher character tells Sam he got his ear pierced after “one too many beers at a Limp Bizkit concert over summer”. If nothing else, they can bond over their truly individualistic perforations.


Craving more biting 2000s teen charm? Click below to watch Dawson’s Creek and Buffy on Lightbox today

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