"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 October 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Oedipus Wrecks



In the wake of Kip Kinkel,

Mitchell Johnson, the Menendez

brothers, and the Backstreet

Boys, to list just a few of the

usual suspects, it's no wonder

that a new book, The Nurture

Assumption, has struck such a

resonant chord among parents. In

it, Judith Rich Harris argues

that DNA and that weird neighbor

kid who likes to conduct physics

experiments on frogs have far

more influence on the

development of your child than

any number of hugs, flashcard

sessions, and spankings you

might administer. For parents

who manage to survive the

surprise assaults and precision,

theme-park hoofing of their

aberrant offspring, it's a

welcome message of absolution.

Indeed, enduring the inevitable

supermarket ostracism and Inside

Edition conjecture is hard

enough without having to battle

the terrible knowledge that a

few hours reading Dr. Seuss with

the sociopathic little creep

might have prevented the tragic

demise of Old Fido and the

junior high school chess club.



According to Harris, the

greatest gift parents can give

their progeny is the gift of

conformity: Because peer groups

play a major role in children's

development, it's crucial that

they infiltrate the most

desirable ones. In other words,

those flamehead jinkies and Air

Max Shake 'Em Ups along with

pre-adolescent rhinoplasties

aren't just fashion statements -

they're important investments in

a child's psychological

well-being. And if your kid

isn't fashionable? If he doesn't

sport all the necessary

accoutrements of the in-crowd?

Well, maybe you ought to just go

out and get him his M-21 Super

Match assault rifle right now.


While Harris' pundit-friendly

riff on the old nature vs.

nurture chestnut has even the

most circumspect academics

brandishing laudatory adjectives

with movie-reviewer abandon, a

pack of prescient TV producers

have been dramatizing the same

peer-centered model for almost a

decade now. In 1990, the debut

of Beverly Hills 90210 marked a

fundamental shift in teen

programming: the family-centered

sitcoms from previous decades,

wherein no child's problem was

so great that his or her parents

couldn't solve it within 22

minutes, gave way to hour-long

traumedies in which groups of

teens overreacted to and then

overanalyzed their so-called

strife. The occasional parent

could still be found in the new

world, but with a greatly

diminished role. Mr. and Mrs.

Walsh had been downsized into

Ralph Malph and Jenny Piccalo,




In 1994, My So-Called Life made

the mistake of featuring the

meddlesome, self-absorbed Chase

parents on a far too frequent

basis. The show was cancelled

after just one season. In

contrast, the two most

successful teen traumedies to

follow in 90210's wake honed the

parent-free model to even

greater perfection than their

predecessor. The whole premise

of Party of Five is based on

adolescent orphanage: After the

progenitors of the notoriously

thin-skinned Salinger brood

succumb to some tragic incidence

of emotional hemophilia, the

five ultra-sensitive siblings

are forced to raise themselves.

Last season, when the eldest's

fatherly finger-wagging grew a

bit too tiresome, the producers

sabotaged his authority by

saddling him with Hodgkin's



The creators of Dawson's Creek,

if slightly less lethal than

those of Party of Five, have

been just as imaginative in

liberating the show's main

characters from the fetters of

parenthood. Throughout the first

season, Jen lived with her

doddering grandmother and

comatose grandfather;

apparently, the producers

finally got tired of paying the

old guy to sleep and killed him

off. Joey's mother is similarly

dead, and her father's in jail.

Intermittent viewing has left us

somewhat unclear on the status

of Pacey's parents, but if his

penchant for older women is any

indication, he's probably

momless at the least. And while

Dawson actually lives with two

supraliminal forebears, he's

clearly the adult of the

household: Mom's a needy

philanderer, and pop's an

ineffectual dad-bot played by an

actor so alarmingly wooden he

probably requires the services

of a refinisher rather than a

makeup artist before each new

episode is shot.



What's interesting about these

shows is how they manage to have

it both ways. To make themselves

(and their associated

advertisers) more appealing to

teen viewers, they construct

idealized realms of parent-free

autonomy. But at the same time,

these shows are still created by

adults. And despite the fact

that the generation gap is now

all but confined to that

fragment of the imagination that

lies between Old Navy and Banana

Republic, adults are more scared

than ever of spree-killing,

pot-smoking, Manson-worshipping

teens. As a consequence, shows

like Party of Five and Dawson's

Creek are ultimately exercises

in wishful thinking. Their teen

heroes are model kids -

articulate, prudent, ambitious,

sincere - who don't really

require the parental supervision

they lack. From time to time,

they might experiment with drunk

driving or anxious, unsatisfying

sex, but such moral detours

inevitably end up tempering

their essential good judgment.

Indeed, while Dawson's Creek

quickly earned a reputation for

its sexual preoccupation, two of

its main characters are virgins,

and one's on sabbatical. In the

end, the entire first season of

the winsome foursome's exploits

contained less casual

deflowering, remedial blow job

instruction, unpunished

inebriation, and quotidian

abortion (in the '90s, only God

can abort) than the 92-minute

'80s classic, Fast Times at

Ridgemont High.


Of course, Fast Times was

produced in a less enlightened

era. A dearth of TV

newsmagazines left the public

vulnerably ignorant regarding

the dangers of teen carnage, and

the connection between Pong and

random playground blitzkriegs

had yet to be discerned. Today's

fictional teens, alas, must

serve as the reassuringly docile

counterbalances to their

real-life brethren - the

pubescent, trash-talking

flatbackers who exoticize the

Jerry Springer Show, the callow

killetantes who round out

Dateline NBC and PrimeTime Live.

Were Pacey Witter and Claudia

Salinger allowed to indulge

their hormonal mandates with the

reckless, consequence-free

abandon of Jeff Spicoli and

Stacey Hamilton, who knows what

havoc the Kip Kinkels of the

world might wreak?


Alas, TV, even in its "peer"

mode, seems to have the same

impact on teen behavior that

Harris suggests parents have:

very little. Indeed, even with

supermodel role models like

Brandon Walsh and Julia Salinger

to guide them, kids like Kinkel

continue to show not even trace

amounts of restraint,

compassion, and maturity. In

their outbursts, however, they

do suggest a contradictory, if

not quite so articulate,

alternative to Harris'

peer-centered perspective:

While these adolescent

time bombs usually manage to

kill at least a few of their

schoolyard acquaintances, they

almost always make sure to kill

Mom and Dad first. And if that's

not persuasive testimony in

favor of the primary role that

parents play in the lives of

their children, what is?

courtesy of St. Huck