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A look inside the WB's surprise hit series

Why ”Popular” is attracting more female teens than ”Friends” and ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

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Carly Pope, Leslie Bibb, ...
Touchstone TV Press

In high school, ”Popular” star Leslie Bibb wasn’t, well… popular. Even among her miniscule class of 38 girls at a Virginia single-sex Catholic school, Bibb says she ranked ”somewhere in the middle” when it came to being cool. ”I was no head cheerleader,” the actress tells EW Online. ”I didn’t even have a boyfriend.”

If only the nuns could see her now. The 26-year-old Bibb is finding herself more in demand every week, thanks to the WB’s freshman drama, which is striking a chord among teenage girls. Created by Touchstone Television, ”Popular” has become No. 1 in its Thursday time slot in this key demographic, regularly beating ”Friends” and ”Jesse.” And the series is No. 3 on the WB among female teens — behind ”Dawson’s Creek” and ”7th Heaven,” but, surprisingly, ahead of the girl-powered ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Still, ”Popular”’s success didn’t come overnight. ”The pilot we did was similar to 99 other shows that were on the air,” admits cocreator Ryan Murphy. With episode seven, however, (which featured Delta Burke as the wacky mom of homecoming queen candidate Mary Cherry) Murphy hit his stride: ”I just decided to write something that was so irreverent and odd that I wondered how it would even get on the air. But the network immediately embraced it; it was so out there and wacky. Before, we were in this netherland — was it a comedy or a drama? But from there we found a voice and our niche. Now there’s nothing like this show on the air.”

For those who aren’t regular viewers, ”Popular” focuses on two very different sophomores — Brooke McQueen (Bibb), a beautiful but self-conscious cheerleader, and Sam McPherson (Carly Pope), a bright but insecure writer — who become unlikely stepsisters after their single parents suddenly hook up. All the while, Brooke and Sam continue their painful quest for acceptance at Kennedy High School, where they hang with two very different peer groups.

”Stories are coupled with something serious and something funny. We have a balance so it’s never heavy,” says Bibb, recalling an episode in which her character thought she was pregnant while Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman) kidnapped Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal shopper. ”Life has ups and downs and ‘Popular’ will always be that way. There will always be a comedic thread through it.”

Inventive recent episodes — such as the one featuring two members of the U.S. Women’s World Cup Soccer Team — helped boost the series’ ratings. So did the WB’s decision to air reruns on Mondays at 9 p.m., in addition to the shows on Thursdays. And ”Popular”’s success is all the more surprising given the dismal failure of such hyped young-skewing series as Kevin Wiliamson’s ”Wasteland” and the WB’s own ”Brutally Normal.” ”We hear from young people all the time who say the show is a great role model, and that it’s hitting home,” says Bibb. ”It’s not like a soap opera, it’s high school, and being popular, that’s high school. It’s about fitting in.”

Expect ”Popular” to keep fitting in with its faithful teen audience, as upcoming episodes deal with the marriage of Delta Burke’s character to Erik Estrada (who plays himself), and another teen’s pregnancy, which, unlike Brooke’s near brush, is for real. Bibb, who hits the big screen in the ”The Skulls” (April 7) with fellow WB actor Joshua Jackson, understands why the freshman drama is a hit among the Clearasil set. Though she considers her own school days to be uneventful, she says ”every high school is its own drama series. You’re dealing with young people who are on the brink of adulthood and who are not sure who they are.” At least not until they land a hit show.