Teenagers on telly: the settings change, but the stories are still worth telling

Is there a dearth of good British teenagers on television?

In Year 11 history class, under the tutelage of Ms Osborne, I learned about the screaming bobby-soxers of the 1940s. They were the ones who paved the way for the invention of a 50s phenomenon called "The Teenager": a new generation of youngsters who were neither children nor proper adults. Prior to the advent of teenagers, I read, people of that age group were considered to be "mini adults" – they dressed like their parents, went where they parents went and watched what their parents watched, passing the years much as their parents before them had while awaiting the sweet embrace of death. Thank God then, my textbook communicated, for the 1950s!

In the 90s, a good forty years after I had been invented, I myself was a finally a teenager. I caught the tail end of Britpop, and the resurgence of black music as "popular" music. I wore Kickers shoes and turned the band of my regulation uniform skirt over to make it as short as possible. With friends, I rode on the top decks of London buses for hours after school, being obnoxiously and unnecessarily loud. I also watched a ridiculous amount of telly, not least one of the most influential TV teenage icons of my – and indeed any – generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "High school as a horror movie" is apparently how its creator Joss Whedon pitched the show to the network – and a TV legend was born.

I was thinking about Buffy this week, after catching some more of BBC Three’s new comedy, Some Girls, in which four – the magic group number for TV – teens stumble their way through life on their inner city council estate: playing football at school, dealing with possessive boyfriends and even feminism: “What is it?” “It’s from the olden days, something to do with Ginger Spice” (by my reckoning the Spice Girls formed two years before these girls were even born). At about a decade and a half older than the protagonists, I am well aware I am not the target demographic here. But it’s oddly enjoyable, if only to compare and contrast teenage life as it is rendered nowadays with what it was for me. These girls are just as silly as me and my mates were, our problems just as amplified in our minds, our issues just as real.

A quick trawl of my @-replies column on Twitter revealed my followers’ ages as surely as looking at their birth certificates. Many of their teenage telly icons were very much of a certain period and not often homegrown: the usual suspects (Buffy’s Scooby gang) came up, but there were also some other forgotten classics. The wounded Drazic (and his deeply attractive eyebrow piercing) from Heartbreak High loomed large, as did city wildchild Jen and broken-but-beautiful Pacey from Dawson’s Creek (incidentally, I can find no one who will admit to fancying Dawson these days, but surely some of us did?). Feminist, smart and daddy issues-laden Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls) came up a fair bit, as did Veronica Mars and the cast of Judd Apatow’s much loved and missed Freaks and Geeks. A couple of people invoked the power of ‘"he way he leans"; Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano of My So-Called Life. A younger fringe of followers emerged, offering shows and teen stars I was aware of, but often only fleetingly invested in: Suburgatory (repeats on E4 and Channel 4), The Vampire Diaries (ITV2, currently less strong than its opening two seasons), Gossip Girl, The Inbetweeners, Modern Family, Misfits, Skins et al. 

The settings change, but the stories of teenagers never really alter. They are at a difficult transitory point in their lives, dealing with grown-up issues with almost child-sized brains, putting out feelers for adulthood. The differences between my era’s teen icons and the current crop are remarkable and often subtle, from the way they speak to how they dress, but I think the most important development is the ubiquitous presence of the internet. Information is everywhere and available all the time. When I was in Year 11, mobile phones were just gaining purchase in the lives of teenagers, not the focal points of social activity that they are today. I look at these smartphones and (not so) fondly remember my brick Motorola, on the now defunct One2One network. 

Is there a dearth of good British teenagers on television? Maybe. Almost all the teenagers I enjoy watching at the moment are American, and not on teen-centred shows: Haddie and Drew on the very, very good Parenthood (from the people who brought you Friday Night Lights), and Zach and Grace on The Good Wife (I cannot understand why this excellent show is not bigger). Best of all, I am loving Dana Brody on Homeland. Actress Morgan Saylor (born 1994) is superb, twisting her hands and face to convey perfectly what her character requires. She also nails the ridiculous leaps of teenage temper: happy and giggling one minute, tough, snarling and spitting the next. (Not to tar all teens with the same brush, but Dana’s excellent punctuation in a recent text does point to a more mature writing team.)

Some Girls’ first episode drew in an audience of 451,000, and this week’s third episode built on that to reach 530,000. I hope it finds a steady home and audience on BBC3, not least because the channel needs more good comedies in its stable. British teenage life as seen on television is distinctive and often inventive and very funny. That is worth portraying.

Morgan Saylor as Dana Brody in Homeland.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era