Billed as a comedy, but with generous helpings of drama, “Popular” is a hip-sounding and visually entertaining piece that might best be summed up as “The Odd Couple” meets the “The Brady Bunch” meets “teensomething.”
The pains of adolescence are told here from the perspectives of two high school sophomores; Sam McPherson (Carly Pope) a wannabe journalist who tries desperately to not be just another crayon in the box, and Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) a prom queen in the making who dictates the social strata when not obsessing over the number of calories in a grape. Sam is being brought up by her widowed mom, while Brooke is being raised by her divorced — and frequently absent — father. We discover at the end of the second episode, much to the horror of the two girls, that wedding bells may be in their parents’ future.
Although Pope as Sam is far too pretty to be unpopular, one thing that creators Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews deftly convey is that high school popularity is a nebulous force, constantly shifting its tide. Even the esteemed Brooke cannot escape the scrutiny of this “Lord of the Flies” like environment. The caste system at the fictional Kennedy High is such that magenta striped hair or tattoos don’t necessarily make for distinguishing features, and being invisible is almost worse than being made fun of.
The best part about “Popular” is that it doesn’t mind shifting focus from the stories of the two leads. The show scores points for being among the few to have a fairly diverse cast, working in characters of not only different ethnicities but of that dreaded of all high school creatures, the social outcast.
In fact, several story arcs introduced in the pilot beg further exploration, including Brooke’s star football boyfriend Josh Ford (Bryce Johnson), who defies his father and coaches so he can go out for a role in the school production of “South Pacific,” and Carmen Ferrara (Sara Rue), a beautiful but plus-size girl who has the talent but not the look to be a cheerleader.
All the obvious heartbreaks of the teen years are targeted here, but there’s a deeper theme of alienation and isolation that resonates under the laughs. Perhaps the seemingly has-it-all Brooke sums up today’s teen experience best: When wondering about how to bring up safe sex with her boyfriend, she asks herself, “Who do you talk to about these things? Is there a Web site?”
While the “Dawson’s Creek”-like verbose dialogue makes for entertaining television, it is far from realistic. Most teenagers can’t identify their feelings, let alone have enough presence to express them eloquently. But this is high school a la “Ally McBeal,” rife with fantasy segments, colorful visuals and one of the best collaborations of sight and sound this season. Music editor Mary Parker, working hand in hand with Ned Bastille and Donald Markowitz, has created a bright and colorful and toe-tapping world. Bill Gregory’s set is gorgeous, and Carol Ramsey’s costume design is catalogue-ready.
“Popular” will premiere in two parts beginning Wednesday, Sept. 29 at 9 p.m. with part two airing Sept. 30 in what will be its regular timeslot, Thursdays at 8 p.m.