If you are over 16, you might not know about "Blossom," the NBC sitcom starring Mayim Bialik as a teen-age girl coming of age in an all-male household.
But there are a bunch of reasons that you should. They range from understanding why adolescent girls dress the way they do to making sure your daughter grows up knowing her life counts as much as a boy's.
TV plays a role in such matters, and "Blossom" is groundbreaking in the positive role model it offers millions of young female viewers every Monday night at 8:30 (Channel 2 in Baltimore), as the only girls' coming-of-age story in a sea of similar shows featuring boys. Besides, with shows like "Cosby" leaving and "Cheers" graying, "Blossom" is one of the shows NBC is betting its prime-time future on and all the millions of advertising dollars that entails.
Last year at this time, most adults didn't know about Fox TV's "Beverly Hills, 90210." Then there was a wire service story during the summer about stars of the show being mobbed and fans injured at a Florida shopping mall, and adults suddenly found out that more than one out of every two teen-agers near a TV set on Thursday nights had been religiously watching "Beverly Hills, 90210." Many of the teens have since told interviewers that the show is one of the most important things in their lives.
"Blossom," now ending its second year on NBC, is not the phenomenon that "Beverly Hills, 90210" has become. Though Bialik, a gifted musician and singer who played the young Bette Midler character in "Beaches," is all over the teen magazines -- Teen Beat, 16 Magazine, Seventeen, YM -- there have been no mall mobbings yet for her or any of her co-stars. But "Blossom" is getting there in its own way.
The show is right behind "90210" as the second most popular show with teens -- at about the same 50 percent audience share. And it's having the same kind of high impact on the lifestyle of that audience.
More than consumerism
Fan and fashion clubs have sprung up in response to the show and Blossom's funky, eclectic wardrobe. Club members watch the show and then call each other to talk about Blossom's outfits (she averages six a show). Club members also cooperate in trying to put together the various pieces -- hats, leggings, suspenders, vests and layered shirts -- that make for a Blossom outfit. One of those members, Courtney Porter, 15, told the Chicago Tribune's fashion writer that she likes Blossom's look "because it's not fake. . . . And when you see it on TV, you want to wear it more."
In corporate headquarters, the kind of television that makes you "want" something "more" is considered great television. But "Blossom" is teaching more than consumerism.
The show is also telling adolescent girls that their concerns and feelings are as important as the concerns and feelings of adolescent boys. And that is a radical departure from the usual message of TV, says Dr. Sheri L. Parks, who teaches television at the University of Maryland in College Park.
It starts with the structure of the show. Instead of the tribe of male and female teen characters who clique together in the halls of Beverly Hills High, most of "Blossom" is set in the Russo household, where Blossom Russo, 16, lives with her father, a rock musician, and her two older brothers. One of the brothers is a recovering drug and alcohol abuser. This is not the Nelson household of "Ozzie and Harriet."
Much of the important stuff takes place in Blossom's bedroom, where she's often visited by her best friend and confidante, Six (Jenna von Oy). Blossom is constantly negotiating between her private (female) space of the bedroom and the more public (male) space of the rest of the Russo household. You don't need to be a women's studies major to appreciate the parallels between the world of "Blossom" and the larger society. Adolescent girls can find more than fashion tips in this show; they can watch someone like themselves try to work within a male power structure.
But, Dr. Parks says, it's even more basic than that. Studies show that girls will watch TV programs featuring boys, whereas boys are far less likely to watch shows featuring girls. The reason, she says, is that boys are socialized to believe that girls are less important. As a result, Dr. Parks says, the pattern in television is to "overprogram male." And that overload of programming with male stars and male concerns reinforces girls being undervalued in society. It's a vicious circle of sexism.
"The message that adolescent girls get [from television] is the culturally consistent message -- which is an unfortunate one -- that boys are more important than girls and that the dramas that boys go through are more socially and culturally important to the rest of us than that which girls go through," Dr. Parks says. "Even in 'Beverly Hills, 90210,' the boys are the main characters, and the girls come up and either create the problem or tag along. The boys talk the most . . . and they are the ones who come up with the solutions."
But Blossom is at the center of "Blossom." Her problems and concerns are what count. She finds her own solutions. Which is what makes "Blossom" such a rare show and an interesting case study of network television and our attitudes about what makes for a good TV show.
Coming of age on TV
The irony is that "Blossom" actually started out as yet another boy's coming-of-age show, like "Wonder Years," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," and all the other boys' shows, according to Don Reo, the executive producer and creator of the show.
Reo said in a recent interview that he based the show on the homelife of a friend in Florida. The friend happens to be Dion, of Dion and the Belmonts, which is where the father-as-rock-musician aspect came from.
"Initially the show focused on the boy, and Blossom was his younger sister," Reo said. "But as we went through the development process, Leslie Laurie, [vice president for program development] at NBC, suggested making the girl the focal point. And she suggested that because of the overabundance of coming-of-age stories with boys."
Reo, 46, has a daughter, which he says helped him relate to the character of Blossom. He also said the show's staff is now primarily made up of women producers and writers -- something the credits bear out. There are not many women in Laurie's position at TV networks; Reo said he feels lucky that his idea was brought to a network with a woman calling such shots.
The good vibes are mutual. The first two shows to be renewed for next season by NBC were "Blossom" and "Seinfeld." And in making that announcement last month, NBC put the two shows at the heart of its effort next year to regain first place from CBS. NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield said that the network will jump-start the new season next fall by bringing back Blossom" and Seinfeld" in August right after NBC's coverage of the Olympic Games in Barcelona. Fox used "Beverly Hills, 90210"
last fall to jump-start its season.
Going for third season
NBC also wants "Blossom" and "Seinfeld" on right after the Olympics, Littlefield said, because he wants to use Olympic coverage as a "promotional platform" for the show. The thinking at NBC is that CBS wasted much of the advantage of its huge audiences for the winter games by endlessly promoting two new shows, "Scorch" and "Fish Police," which were terrible and have already been canceled. But by promoting what it thinks are two of its best shows, NBC's Littlefield believes he can bring new viewers to the network's regular schedule.
There is another reason, though, that NBC needs to use the Olympics to bring new viewers to "Blossom." That is that critics have mainly ignored the show despite its impressive ratings. The reasons are debatable. Some will say they don't think it's that good a show. But I think it's more a problem with the critics than the show.
The overwhelming majority of newspaper TV critics, like the one writing this story, are white, male and fortysomething, and our tastes are all, to one degree or another, influenced by culture and gender. Because they are male, they like male coming-of-age stories. As a result, a show like "Brooklyn Bridge," even though it's a ratings failure, is celebrated, while "Blossom" is ignored or dismissed.
This white-male-fortysomething bias is also why I believe terrific shows about black life -- such as "A Different World," which is a huge ratings hit -- get no critical respect. There are virtually no black TV critics.
These are things we need to think and talk about more. But the danger of such sociology and culture-talk is that one last important aspect of "Blossom" gets overlooked: The show is a lot of fun.
"Blossom" does regularly deal with serious topics: Blossom's first period, using condoms, Blossom possibly running away (in the season finale on May 4th). But some of the plots are as simple as Blossom and Six camping out overnight to get tickets to a C + C Music Factory concert, then meeting the group members and getting to dance with them -- a nice half-hour of teen fantasy that ends on some high-energy, feel-good dancing. And let's not forget those "fave" outfits Blossom creates or Blossom's own thoughts on what the show is all about.
"I hope people watch to see what Blossom is wearing and what Blossom and her family do," Bialik said. "It's about being your