THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Either/or no more

In defying labels, the millennials are leaving their mark on TV

(Carin Baer/Fox)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 1, 2009

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Back in 1963, a sitcom named “The Patty Duke Show’’ defined what a girl could be. She was either a Cathy or a Patty. Cousin Cathy was a classy little lady who adored minuets and Crepe Suzette; rock ’n’ roller cousin Patty lost control when it came to, um, hot dogs. The pair, both played by Patty Duke, were matching bookends, different as night and day.

That simplistic kind of presentation of youth on TV has shown its limits over the decades; easy-to-read stereotypes no longer seem credible. It’s archaic to define young TV characters at a glance, to merely stamp them with shorthand labels such as “popular kid’’ or “jock.’’ Young lead characters such as Finn on “Glee’’ and Chuck Bass on “Gossip Girl’’ aren’t any one thing anymore; likewise kids who occupy the peripheries of the action, such as Marshall, the well-adjusted 14-year-old gay son on “United States of Tara’’ or Damon, the possibly-gay possibly-depressed goth son on “Hung.’’ To know who they are, you have to experience them, plain and simple.

This season in particular, “Mad Men’’ has highlighted the difference between giving TV audiences a stock figure and giving them a more dimensional kid. Little Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) is a “Patty Duke’’-era girl - indeed, “Mad Men’’ is currently set during the month “The Patty Duke Show’’ premiered in 1963 - and on a “Patty Duke’’-like show, she’d just be a lispy Shirley Temple doll with a crush on Daddy.

But with its quietly revisionist approach to the early 1960s, “Mad Men’’ presents a far more complicated and unhappy kid whom we’ve seen drinking liquor, stealing money, and openly grieving the death of her beloved grandfather despite the emotional repression that surrounds her. She’s an old-school TV kid drawn with new-school ambiguities.

Generationally, Sally Draper will grow up to be a baby boomer. It’s her generation’s children - what pop sociologists have dubbed the millennials - who are leaving an interesting mark on television these days.

Born between 1978 and the turn of this century, millennials are not worked up over the culture wars that have raged since the Reagan era. According to a 2009 survey by the Center for American Progress, a think tank, the majority of millennials focus less than their parents on battles over sexual orientation and race. When it comes to same-sex marriage, for example, 58 percent are for it, and 35 are opposed, while the older generations are 60 percent against it and only 31 percent for it. Today’s younger demographics don’t necessarily find the idea of dividing into us and them, or gay and straight, or black and white, as compelling.

This shift away from pigeonholing is at the heart of one of the season’s best new shows, “Glee.’’ The main characters at McKinley High School are struggling not to be reduced to one of two bookends, either the artsy Cathy or the gregarious Patty. A group of popular football players and cheerleaders - notably the school’s First Couple, Quinn (Dianna Agron) and Finn (Cory Monteith) - have joined the much-scorned glee club, and their friends and coaches (including Jane Lynch’s fabulously demonic cheerleader leader) are tormenting them.

Last week, sensitive quarterback Finn delivered a speech that was one of the pop-operatic series’ realest moments so far. It came off like a generational anthem:

“I’m the quarterback, right, the leader,’’ he said plaintively to the football coach. “Well, all this stuff about having to choose between glee and football is making it hard for me to lead. Leaders are supposed to see things that other guys don’t, right, like they can imagine a future when things are better. . . . I see a future where it’s cool to be in glee club, where you can play football and sing and dance and no one gets down on you for it. The more different you are, the better. . . . I don’t want to have to choose between them anymore. It’s not cool.’’

In short, Finn is saying, “Don’t fence me in.’’ He doesn’t want to have to be either “the jock’’ or “the geek’’; he wants enough freedom from dated cultural definitions to be both, and more. That urge to be unencumbered by predefined roles drives most of the youth drama in “Glee,’’ as the students learn - with the guidance of teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) - that they can be whatever personality hybrid they desire. The show, created by Ryan Murphy (“Nip/Tuck’’), Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, is all about eschewing the George W. Bush-bred notion that real cowboys can’t have moments of indecision - or love musical theater. They can be human.

Recently on “Gossip Girl,’’ the womanizing Chuck Bass - played with serpentine charm by Ed Westwick - rejected categorization in a small but critical way regarding his sexuality. Generally on the soapy “Gossip Girl,’’ the teens are hard to classify in moral terms, as each seems to pass in and out of good and bad behavior in every episode. Are Serena, Vanessa, Blair, Chuck, or Jenny good guys or villains? The writers keep the answers to that question in play, which is one of the show’s best qualities.

But Chuck took the ambiguity to a new level after Blair manipulated him into kissing a guy, which he did with ease. “You really think I’ve never kissed a guy before,’’ he said to her in his whispery coo. Chuck is the Mr. Darcy in the sophisticated Manhattan world of “Gossip Girl,’’ but he has a decidedly contemporary comfort level when it comes to sexual vagueness. The slightly older Ella (Katie Cassidy) on “Melrose Place’’ also insists on a degree of murk regarding her sexuality. While her progenitor on the original “Melrose Place,’’ Heather Locklear’s Amanda, was firmly heterosexual, Ella wants to take both male and female lovers. She refuses to limit herself.

When you see shows that fit young characters into pre-made boxes, on a sitcom such as “Gary Unmarried,’’ you’re often seeing the work of lazy scriptwriters who don’t extend the art of serial character development below a certain age. These writers play into viewers’ expectations of type, rather than challenge them. Patty or Cathy - those are the cardboard cutouts. But as most of us remember, youth isn’t easily and quickly defined. It’s a longer, far more interesting story.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

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