"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 October 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The New Earnestness



When Verso publishes its coffee

table history of the end of the

1990s, the liner-notes scribes

may want to start with a

compendium of the mawk-heroic

hosannas with which our

small-screen Ruskins have

greeted the coming of Felicity

over the past few weeks:


"An emotive tour de force ...

bursting with honest


- Ray Richmond, Variety


"A deeper humor, warmer but also

more raw."

- Sarah Kerr, Slate


"Emotionally plausible and


- James Collins, Time


"Searing in its intensity."

- Orange Julius, Videaste


"A drama

that is intense because it is

real, every minute [in sharp

contrast to a TV culture that]

has rarely had the resolve,

particularly in recent years, to

wear its heart on its sleeve

with a really good drama."

- Tim Goodman, the San Francisco



When TV critics smell blood in

the water, we must be on the

verge of a feeding frenzy. So

here's predicting that before

it's time to begin your holiday

shopping, you'll have read

several glossy-paged articles

heralding the long-delayed

arrival of the New Earnestness.

Maybe you've read a few already,

possibly accompanied by cover

stories on the Goo Goo Dolls or

Matchbox 20. Some enterprising

feature writer may actually

pinpoint Good Will Hunting as

the moment when the last yelps

of youth market snarkasm were

buried under the lugubrious

strains of Elliot Smith's

dare-you-to-laugh dirge "Miss




And the best thing about it is

that it will all seem true.

We've already passed the goal of

three cross-media items that

make a trend piece. In film, the

heroes of the

historical diptych of Titanic and

Saving Private Ryan were unironic,

single-meaning guys - the kind

of solid souls this nation

hasn't seen since whenever those

movies were supposed to take

place. In literature, the fact

that Ethan Canin's For Kings and

Planets is actually a book was

immediately understood to be

secondary to its function as the

fulfillment of David Foster

Wallace's post-ironic dream. As

for music, well, take your pick.

Just believe you can fly.


And you can hardly blame the

culturizers for wanting to find

new Icons of integrity, antigens

for the diseases breeding in the

still-warm corpse of irony. And

indeed, studies have shown that

after a few quarter hours of

exposure Paula Cole and Sarah

McLachlan, no pathogens - or

much of anything else - can

survive. What is surprising,

though, is how readily even the

carriers of the dread disease

seem to be responding to

treatment. In their mezzanine

round of softball interviews,

South Park creators Matt Stone

and Trey Parker now routinely

speak of the "sincere heart"

that beats under their

nonanimated cartoons' thin skin.

"As bizarre as it is," Parker

told The New York Times,

"there's this overlying

sweetness to it all. Like: 'Hey,

you know what? The world's all

right.' And I think that's

because Matt and I are really

very happy and optimistic. It

wouldn't work if we were really

dark, coffee-drinking,

leather-jacket-wearing guys. It

would just be us making all

these crass remarks about the

world, and it would get old."



Well, we know a thing or two

about drinking coffee and making

crass remarks about the world,

but we can't blame anybody for

latching onto a winning concept.

More important, Matt and Trey

are TV people, and it's on the

small screen that the writers of

these New Earnestness stories

will find most of their examples

(not surprising, given that this

is where they do the bulk of

their reporting). They won't

lack for evidence. Having spent

several years up Dawson's Creek

without a paddle, the networks

seem to be catching up. Already

this season, the CBS snoozefest

Promised Land has made a rope of

tears out of a teen coming-out

story (to be teenaged and gay on

TV is to possess superhuman

emotional capabilities). The WB

has responded in kind by

refitting Sabrina the Teenage

Witch's dippy congeniality to

the three-eyes-blind dourness of

Charmed, the supernatural

Y-generation Charlie's Angels

from implacable genius Aaron

Spelling (minus that hella funny

Salem the Cat).


Only a visionary like Spelling

could have spotted the simple

numerical reason why Tearjerk TV

should be synonymous with Youth

TV. Teenagers now comprise a

larger population group than the

baby boom generation that ruled

the roost when Spelling pulled

off The Mod Squad with a

straight face. And since

adolescence is something all

true adults remember as a time

of humorless, unrelieved

suffering, the current

importance of Being Earnest

isn't so much a natural cycle as

a labored effort to get 'n Sync

with the youngsters. Back when

MBA hipsters were trying to get

wif da wisecracking layabouts of

the fabled Generation X, the

result was pure frustration. But

who needs them when you've got a

whole Woodstock Generation to

sell to?



Success in the future may well

go to those most proficient at

connecting sincerity with its

logical under-20 target

demographic. Granted, Keri

Russell's very neck muscles seem

to radiate an earnestness worthy

of Felicity's Flaubertian

namesake, but she's already

getting long in the tooth and

had better move fast if she

wants to join the


Hewitt mafia currently remaking

Hollywood in its own

wrinkle-free image. That this

group has the collective comedic

talents of Charles de Gaulle is

no accident. Earnestness is

about more than just being

bummed out; it's about the

purity of youth. No wonder Riley

Weston - the 32-year-old

writer, actress, and sometime

Felicity guest star currently in

hot water for being able to pass

as a teen - has been singled out

for such abuse. In the new

Woodstock generation, only Neve

Campbell has the necessary

gravitas to be the brown acid.


For those of an entrepreneurial

bent, earnestness also offers

something worth its weight in

Backstreet Boys - a pain-free

way to talk to the young at

their own level. Right now,

Levi's Silvertab (TM) is running

a series of youth-centric

billboard ads featuring gobs of

gibberish phrases like

"Candissy," "todo tranquilo!"

and "talismanik." Back when the

Beatles were appearing on Ed

Sullivan, Marshall McLuhan

defined the following as a joke

Young People liked to tell:

"What's green and hums? An

electric grape." And when Elvis

was still a young King, Anthony

Burgess envisioned youthspeak as

the Joycean argot of Nadsat.

This is the standard grown-up

response to the forgotten

mysteries of adolescence: "These

kids are speaking some kind of

kooky patois that only they

understand!" By comparison to

flying on that flippety-flop, the

rhetoric of Earnestness is a

breeze. Everybody hurts.


But it's at that level - the

level of rhetoric - that we have

reason to suspect this New

Earnestness business will never

get much beyond an ardent

trendspotter's unfulfilled wish.

Because sincerity isn't a

convincing rhetorical flourish -

it's what you pull out when

every other rhetorical device

has failed. It's the kid who

starts yelling "Cut it out!"

after getting bested in the



More to the point, there are

strong reasons to question

whether this stuff is really

appealing to the young and

whether Felicity's viewers are

actually young women or

middle-aged men enamored of the

show's underripe emotional

current (and just-ripe star).

You see, while we steer as clear

from teenagers as possible, the

ones we deal with on a daily

basis (usually to chase them

away from the entrance to our

building) remind us less of the

angsty but telegenic ingénues we

know from TV than of the same

sarcastic louts who terrified us

when we were in high school. In

fact, our empirical diagnosis

suggests Earnestness as a trope

may have a shorter half-life

than Julia's marriage to

Griffin. It won't be long before

America gives up on this effort

to get through to the kids and

goes back to handling young

people in the more time-honored

way - by locking them up and

breaking their spirits. Almost

as if on cue with that prophecy,

Congress is now discussing

proposals to bring back the

draft. Now that would be a

great, exceedingly Earnest way

for the Woodstock-2K generation

to stake its claim on history -

with induction-center riots and

burned draft cards. And

Felicity's almost got that

hippie-hair thing going already.

courtesy of Bartel D'Arcy