Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Once every so often, there is a teen drama that takes over the world and everyone, absolutely everyone, promptly falls in love with it. In a short amount of time, the word about this new series spreads like fire; the number of fans quickly grows, following every episode religiously. The audience gets obsessed with this kind of series: they then get the dvds, communities are created to chat and exchange notes with fellow fans, viewers like to imitate the fashion trends and those who are impatient  search for spoilers every chance they get. It was all about "Beverly Hills 90210" back in the 1990s. Approaching the millennium, youngsters adored "Dawson's Creek." "The O.C." became the new hit series in 2003; and now entering its third season,  young -- and not-so-young-anymore -- fans are totally smitten with the very popular, successful "Gossip Girl." 

The scenario is similar every single time, whether it is filmed in a small town like in "Dawson's Creek" or it goes down in the big city like in "Gossip Girl", it is a 'perfect' simulation of the so-called typical teenage life: fans get excited watching the protagonists' interaction with friends, frenemies and enemies; getting through high school and eventually going to College, dealing with parents and the law, falling in and out of love, the drug and excess of alcohol issue is also usually addressed; and so on and so forth... The characters' traits remain the same as well: there is the bad girl gone good (or the opposite), a girl whom everyone hates, we got the bad boy who actually has a very sweet side to him and that insecure yet adorable, smart young man. Everyone is friends -- or at least connected on some level -- with everyone, everyone -- at one point or the other -- has a fling or a relationship with everyone. There is one special couple that fans absolutely love and another one they despise. In addition, there's always this couple the audience eventually gets tired of after their various on-and-off's. And please, let's not forget the infamous love triangles. Nothing really changes in terms of the plot, yet for some odd reason, teen dramas become a smash hit every single time -- from "Beverly Hills 90210" (which, by the way, got a revival) to "Gossip Girl", they obviously got the success they wanted (and needed.) 

This subject suddenly got me wondering about teen dramas and ask myself why this particular kind of series charm people in millions. More importantly, I started thinking about the (sometimes dangerous) implications of para-social interaction with fictional characters. Undoubtedly, this concerns television series in general but I decided to zero-in on teen dramas.  

I, like many individuals around the globe, name myself a huge fan of this sort of series. I've followed a few of them as a (young) teenager; and although I might get laugh at for admitting this, I still enjoy such shows in my mid-twenties. Force of habit probably? Scratch that. I just love "Gossip Girl" and feel like a bubbly teenager again every time it airs on television: bitching about this or that character and story-line, being in awe in the sight of this new, unexpected happening; getting a small crush on one of the gorgeous protagonists (although today, he is probably way too young for me), finding one of the couples totally cute... Call me crazy if you must, but I proudly stand to this statement and will remain an avid fan (as long as the show is good of course.)

The reason to why we have a somewhat strong para-social interaction with these characters lays in the fact that, in my opinion, fiction, whether we admit it or not, often looks much more interesting than actual reality. There is always something juicy happening in every episode, and I am not quite sure we can say the same about each episode of our lives (I am definitely not pointing out that real life is always, ever boring. That is positively not the case!) Furthermore, unlike films, we follow the characters' development through countless seasons and with time, we will have a certain comfort in getting to know them (better.) Once again, even if these individuals are only fictional, the viewer feels for the character like he/she would if it were a real friend or family member. De facto fans get sad when their favorite character is sad, they get happy when he/she is happy. Characters become familiar to the audience and somehow manage to infiltrate our own, real lives.

I do not reckon this para-social relationship to be an unhealthy thing, but I believe it is very important to see the difference between real life and television. The majority might think it is easy to make that distinction; but it is not always as explicit as it sounds. More than often, it is not that show that wants to portray 'real' life, but it is the audience that copies the show. TV series can have such a massive influence on someone's life in a sense that this particular fan, for instance, will believe that real life is exactly like the life on the show. For example, he/she'll deal with issues and desires to see his/her mistakes right away; the same way his/her favorite characters do. At the end of the episode, the problem is usually solved and everyone is on cloud seven again, hugging each other. In real life, naming the obvious, it takes a little more time and requires a little more effort to deal with different (and difficult) situations. Your episode, unfortunately, might not end as well or as fast! In addition, I believe para-social relationships are delicate because some fans demand and in effect, will provoke the same drama their characters get in their own personal lives, because they are addicted to the thrill. It might be a dangerous game since not everyone is able to handle 'drama': cheating on your boyfriend with his best mate, trying hard drugs or something along those lines... Drama is fun as long as it is not your own! Finally, after careful observation, although these are real people behind the characters, it is more common to only perceive these actors as their characters on the show (because the audience is so used to them and think they are "like that" in real life.) This is to their disadvantage because fact is, not many actors manage to break away from their TV characters to switch to the wide screen for instance. Worst case scenario is that they'll always get the same roles as well. These are a few unlikely consequences of para-social relationships.

In conclusion, we got to see the good and bad sides of para-social interaction. Either way, we can assess that teen dramas -- including my favorite "Gossip Girl" -- will continue to have millions of fans around the world, from generation to generation. It is definitely a pass-time that is fun to watch and simultaneously occupy yourself with. A lot of us might envy and want the lifestyle of these teenagers, but in my own experience, it is of course so much more exciting to discover life on your own terms. These series do not come close to giving a glimpse of it. Indeed, real life is never, ever boring: you might not get luscious happenings each week like they do in every single episode, but you'll get enough (sometimes even more than you wished for) in your own pacing! It is perhaps evident but always remember: appreciate the characters on these shows; but do enjoy your friends, family, your crush or your boyfriend on a livelier, real level. Talking about actual social interaction... Everyone likes to watch, but experience it yourself and love that instead!