When I left my office today, it was out the back way, and I almost immediately ran into a teenager I mistook for a homeless person. He was pacing in this endless loop, occasionally stopping to look up the sidewalk, eyes wide with fright. He was dressed sort of grungily, in clothes that, on second look, were too grungy and marked him as one of Santa Monica's privileged children, playing at the imagined aesthetics of poverty.
What really tipped me off was his cologne. He was wearing a LOT of it.
The look of terror in his eyes could mean only one thing: he was going to ask somebody out, and he didn't know how.
This suspicion was immediately confirmed by the sign tied to a tree reading "EMMA [last name redacted]." At first, I didn't quite understand this either, thinking it maybe a handmade sign meant to direct a production crew to a shooting location. (These hang all over LA.) But the very next sign, in the same style, indicated what was up. "WILL YOU," it read, and then on the next tree, "GO TO..."
He hadn't hung any other signs, even though he was evidently waiting for Emma to appear, walking on her way home from school, presumably. The natural conclusion would be a sign reading "The Prom," and then either a sign reading, "With Me" or the boy himself, smiling and holding out a corsage, or whatever it is you do for a promposal.
It was simultaneously sweet and a little terrifying. This kid was so nervous. He was twitterpated, and maybe she knew about it, or maybe she didn't know, but some part of him thought she might say no. And that part was wreaking havoc on his brain, telling him that such a display would inevitably be met with a "no," and then what would he do? Probably just have to give up on love, that's what.
I hope Emma said yes (assuming she wanted to, and I think by the time you get to the "promposal" stage, you usually know the answer). I hope he takes her to prom, and they have a great time, and they dance the night away.
I didn't know this kid, and his background (presumably rich kid growing up in the big city) is pretty different from my own. But in that instant, I knew that kid. I had been that kid, uncertain and putting myself out there, in the name of something I hoped would turn out well.
This, I suppose, is why coming-of-age stories are so popular. Regardless of class or gender or race or creed or anything, there's something so universal about the idea of having a crush, of realizing your parents are just people, too, of feeling like youth will never end.
And, of course, I'm not saying anything new. There's an old adage in the TV biz that high school shows do well, because everybody goes to high school, and being shoved together with people your own age in that space, at a time of maximum hormones, makes for drama, no matter the social background of the kids. But college, goes the adage, doesn't work nearly as well, because nobody has the same college experience. And, indeed, the world is littered with shows about college that didn't do well (though there have been quite a few movies that pulled the trick off, curiously).
People often talk about "tropes" or even "cliches" as if they're bad things, as if they're de facto terrible storytelling devices that we should avoid. But I think on some level, we don't want originality. Of perspective? Sure. Of plotting? Definitely. But deep down, on some level, we want to know what about these characters is the same as us, what is human that we share. So we keep coming back to "growing up" or "facing death" or "falling in love," because, hey, that's a story the vast majority of us can relate to, no matter what. It's why stories are so powerful, so necessary.
This, ultimately, is why I roll my eyes at those who agitate against greater representation of gender, race, class, sexuality, you name it. The greatest pleasure of art is being able to see yourself in someone who's your diametric opposite, of being able to meet somebody halfway between yourself and their brain. And as a white guy who's had to do a LOT less walking to find that halfway space, I figure... isn't it time to extend everybody else the courtesy of us having to go the extra mile?
If nothing else, it's better exercise.
Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.