Bigger Bites of Youthful Loves: The WB (I know! oh god!), Celebrity Encounters, and Pop Solace

Why did any of us watch Seventh Heaven?  It was nigh-inconceivably bad, every one of my friends who shared my inclination to watch at seven o’clock on Tuesday nights was vocally aware of this.  Eye candy, however, is a balm to the stomach-knots of an insecure adolescent, and when I look back on the show, that’s all I can think of to have pulled us in:  The smooth looks of older-brother Matt who bore no resemblance to the boys we went to school with, the glossy lips of then-newcomer Jessica Beale, who I wonder now if I had something of a crush on.  Maybe we watched because we saw how determined this show seemed to be to make some sort of impact, and we wanted to see if it was actually possible.

                It did teach me about Holocaust-deniers, a group of people I hadn’t known existed until then.  Unfortunately, an episode memorable for its otherwise-effective moments was unintentionally comical in an instant I never quite got over.  The show’s forgettable middle-child comes home from and announces to his minister-father that “Larry’s dad told him that the Holocaust never happened.”  The minister, in his sagely paternal voice that had become a trademark by then, responds succinctly, “Larry’s father obviously has a problem.”  Seven o’clock was typical dinner hour, and my father was always remarkably generous about giving me TV-authority when the show was important to me, even if inexplicably so.  “Larry’s father obviously has a problem,” my dad couldn’t help repeating, mocking of course, not the issue, but this approach which was somehow both hamfisted and not enough.  Seventh Heaven, however, had a way of resolving-at-the-end-of-the-hour that made The Brady Bunch look like they were in perpetual conflict, so we can rest assured that the genuinely moving instance of a Holocaust survivor recounting her story as a class presentation (for which many parents were present) effectively woke up Larry’s father and did something to mitigate his obvious problem.

                My problem, however, persisted:  I was still watching this show.  On an episode about sexual harassment the maternal component of this family’s sagely compass comes to the fore in a line that, once again, sounds even better coming from my dad.  Placing her hands protectively on her youngest daughter’s shoulders, the mother looks her square in the eye and says, “In a perfect world, a girl would be able to walk down a dark alley in a miniskirt and a tank top.  But it is not a perfect world, and a girl can not walk down a dark alley in a minkiskirt and a tank top.”  Once again, way to hammer home a message while somehow totally eschewing authentic dialogue about a very real problem.  Not even the good looks of reoccurring cast member Andrew Keegan could justify adherence to a narrative that relies on this kind of writing. But, ultimately, television relies not on writing but on Viewers Like You, and in retrospect I resent my compliance:  The WB understood that I would watch a program I was only peripherally invested in as long as I was promised the stories that pulled me in and got me afterwards, and so they made sure to follow Seventh Heaven with the stuff that really mattered:  Dawson’s Creek.

                Even as a fourteen-year-old, I understood that Dawson’s Creek was making every effort to cram as many question-marks and exclamation points into its humorously overdramatic first season as was possible, but I wasn’t cool enough for my social drama to be stories, It was just frustrations and outbursts, so I gobbled up this teenage-consumer bait, because, I reasoned, it was almost as exciting as having a posse of real friends.

                In the first episode alone, a high-school student becomes sexually involved with his teacher, the main character’s mother is found to be having an extramarital affair with her coworker,  the female protagonist’s father is revealed to be in jail for cocaine possession, and the love interest, who lost her virginity at age twelve, is found to have been sent to the Creek by her father, who essentially disowned her after walking in on her having sex, so she’s constantly having her atheism affronted by her conservative Christian grandmother, whose other granddaughter fares not much better because of her out-of-wedlock child and the committed interracial relationship that spawned it.  On a laughably, infuriatingly monochromatic TV program, it’s even more inexcusable that the single non-white character who was constantly pointed out as such spawned no dialogue whatsoever about race, but at the time the fact that the kids all used such big words was a bigger point of attention than anything the words did or didn’t describe.  But at the time, I didn’t see the stories as missing anything.  The surprises, and the actors, were fodder for more teenage conversation than seems kosher to admit now.

                One of such conversations that kept coming up with my closest friend (with whom I was united in more than pop culture obsession and a crushing feeling of isolation at our respective schools, but that too), was the introduction of a new character named Andy, played by Meredith Monroe, and how she was so adorable we basically didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  That same weekend, my friend was coming to visit me for the famous and long-awaited Halloween ball held by Anne Rice in the Masonic Temple. 

                My dad, my best friend, and I were driving, as so often we did, through the French Quarter, looking for a place to park so we could get out and walk around.  We saw a woman who looked strikingly like the character whose praises we had just been singing at the top of our teenage voices only several days before.   My dad rolled down the window.  “They think your friend looks like the girl from Dawson’s Creek,” he said to the group.  I was mortified, hissing “Dad!” in that desperate way teenagers do when trying to stop time.  My magic failed though; they heard us, no matter how many times I scolded in the same minute.

                “She is,” came the casual response.

                My tuned changed instantly.  “Wait, she is?” An apology to my dad might have been in order here, but I didn’t think of that.  “Can we meet her?”

                They generously, and smilingly, said of course we could, and my dad pulled over so we could brush with the stars.  “This is Kerr Smth,” Meredith said, pointing to a tall, model-faced man with spiky black hair and an unassuming smile. “He plays my brother Jack on the show.”  My best friend and I were stunned.  Jack looked so awkward on Dawson’s Creek, but the force of the star power in front of us was staggering.  I murmured something far too enthusiastically about not having recognized him.  He was later to become a focal point of the show’s first-ever gay storyline, but, before any of that came to the front, Jack’s main point of interest was his developing attraction to the show’s main female character, Joey. As a fan,I couldn’t resist the chance at some inside info.

                “So, Jack likes Joey, right?” I asked.

                Kerr nodded with a confident smile that makes me wonder in retrospect whether he had any inkling of where the character was about to go in future seasons.  “Yep,” he said.

                “So….are the two of them ever gonna…you know….”

                Before I could scrape together any semblance of eloquence, he replied, “next week,” instantly making me giddy.  This having been the most spontaneous possible celebrity encounter, neither my best friend nor I had anything expected to sign, and I don’t remember which of us had the ingenuous idea to halve a stray envelope.  Meredith and Kerr generously signed the envelope twice, one for each of us, and I vividly remember the inscriptions that made rest of my year.  Meredith wrote, “Enjoy the season” (done!) and Kerr wrote, “Great meeting you!” with an exclamation point to which I’m sure I ascribed undue significance. When I brought that to school the next day, I was saved, for a little while, from how going to school usually felt.