”It’s time to throw convention out the window!” announces a strenuously hip, shaggy teacher in The WB’s new summer drama Young Americans, and the show certainly tries to wring new variations from some time-tested dramatic conventions. Since the teacher — a steely gazing educator named Finn, played by Ed Quinn — follows his proclamation by striding into a lake fully clothed to prove his anarchy-espousing point, one is tempted to say that, like him, Young Americans is all wet. But while that would accurately reflect the show’s reliance upon predictable cliches, it wouldn’t be fair to a couple of YA’s jaw-dropping plot strands. For instance, will you keep reading if I tell you this is probably the first TV show that flirts with teen incest by trying to make it seem like mere puppy love?
Set in a New England boarding school located on the edge of a small working-class village, YA deploys the old rich-kids-versus-townies motif as its central conceit, and embodies that tension in its main character, the inelegantly named Will Krudski (apple-pie-faced Rodney Scott). Will’s folks live and work in town — Mom’s a beautician; Dad seems to drink beer and glower for a living — but Will has just been accepted to the tony Rawley Academy’s summer session.
Will, we learn in tediously earnest voice-over narrations, is awfully conflicted about this. His childhood chums suspect him of turning all snobby, while his Rawley roommate, the preppy Scout Calhoun (chiseled Mark Famiglietti) wants his new friend to relax and enjoy the jock jocularity of boarding school life. But Will’s voice-over whine is insistent: ”I’ve always seen myself as others see me,” he moans. ”I plan to be someone…. But right now I’m just a guy who’s trying to create his life.”
Clearly, series creator Steven Antin, writer of some film called Inside Monkey Zetterland, has a poor ear for the way 15-year-olds speak and think. But then, he and The WB casting department have a flagrant disregard for the way 15-year-olds actually look. When these characters’ ages were disclosed in the first half of the premiere, the 15-year-old in my house hooted, ”Yeah, right — they’re, like, 25!” They should call it Young-Adult Americans.
Anyway, got-it-all Scout doesn’t have a girlfriend, but hopes to snare one when he notices that the local gas station mechanic is a flaxen-haired knockout named Bella, played with much coy lip-licking by Kate Bosworth. That Scout and Bella discover before the debut episode is over that they share the same mother does not prevent them from continuing to share lustful glances. ”It’s so creepy!” shrieked my 15-year-old, as I shamefacedly retreated to another room to ponder my choice of career.
YA also has a subplot about a girl (Katherine Moennig) trying to pass as a boy at Rawley, but since the school is coed and she says she’s straight, it’s difficult to know why the producers are putting Jake/Jacqueline — who could pass for k.d. lang’s son — through this laborious masquerade. If much of YA seems as strained as the T-shirts ”Jake” wears, it at least avoids the unearned angst of the summer’s other 15-year-olds-in-school show, Fox’s hapless Opposite Sex (premiering July 17), which stoops to badminton just to make a cheap joke with shuttlecock in the punchline.
Placed in the context of The WB’s other teens ‘n’ 20s shows — the giddy Popular, the goofy Charmed, the garrulous Dawson’s Creek, the grave Roswell, the great Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the glowing Felicity (which receives a cute salute in YA’s second episode) — Young Americans is okay. Its sexual-confusion subplots alone will make for a summer’s worth of sincere young actors reducing its target audience of skeptical young people to shrieks of appalled amusement. C+