My mom used to say it is in our darkest moment that God is watching us most closely. We just need to look for His light.
So muses resilient underdog T in the twenty-minute premiere of Teenagers’ third season. It’s been a good while since we last spent time with this particular gang of drama-laden kids searching for the meaning of it all, and this initial taste has left plenty to unpack. Before this review gets going, however, let it be known that the talented team behind the web series currently has an Indiegogo campaign going to help get the resources they need to make the remaining episodes of the season happen. If you’re a fan, a new viewer, or just someone with an appreciation for the time and effort any independent production requires, you can support Teenagers’ cast and crew at the link above! Sharing the campaign through social media avenues like Twitter and Facebook is also much appreciated.
Now: since we last partied with these wayward youths, what have they been up to?
Bree and Gabriel
After a relatively tumultuous beginning, these two have found themselves in a good place: their issues seem mostly resolved, and they now enjoy comfortable arguments about Gabriel’s chest hair. (Just go with it.) Since this couple’s storyline could still go in any number of directions, I don’t have much to comment on at this time — although as a Degrassi veteran, I will say it’s always fun to watch Chloe Rose and Raymond Ablack at work. Their chemistry is killer, and they make their characters easy to root for despite past mistakes. Here’s to those two crazy kids working it out.
Sara and Adele
During Sara’s pleasantly lighthearted coming out arc last season, she began dating Adele, a relative newcomer to the show who we still don’t know that much about (but who seems very charming and has the advantage of a charismatic low-key performance by Shadowhunters’ Shailene Garnett). There’s already a lot going on with this couple, and we’re granted a respectable nuanced glimpse of their relationship’s many sides. The episode starts out in a good place, with a sweet sexual encounter that emphasizes the importance of verbal consent. One of my favorite things about Teenagers is how it’s what could be termed an “issues” show with writing slanted towards teachable moments, but nothing about it is ever preachy or cloying. Adele checking in with Sara isn’t played up with heavy-handed dialogue or stilted PSA-level writing — it just is. It’s a natural and organic moment that demonstrates exactly how these conversations should be natural and organic in real life.
Of course, it is an eternal truth that all fictional couples must experience lows to match their highs, and these girls are no exception. Sara clearly has unresolved feelings for Olive, despite turning her down last season for being a hot mess (which, speaking as someone who loves Olive’s character to death: accurate), and Olive has just as blatant a continuing interest in Sara despite her reconnection with T. Adele catches them in the act of…what, exactly? Sara doesn’t kiss Olive — technically she doesn’t do anything other than making eye contact with her, but what loaded eye contact it is! And the looks they both give Adele afterward make it seem as if she just walked in on them ironing out their unresolved sexual tension. I tell you: this is the gay representation I am about.
(Haha, but really, jokes aside: it’s great when same-gender pairings get to have the same level of angst and drama and complexity as straight couples in fiction. I know some writers might be a little gunshy about writing any negative complications for gay and bisexual characters after the much-needed criticism of movements like LGBT Fans Deserve Better, but rich and engaging conflict is just as valuable to a well-told story as a happy ending. Commence with the dramatic love triangles!)
Speaking of: I’ve missed this girl SO MUCH, you guys. Olive has always been one of the most lively and compelling central players on Teenagers, and that has not changed a smidgen. Outside of her evolving dynamic with Sara, “Blue Isn’t the Warmest Color” also touched on her history with T. This romance was purposefully built into the DNA of the show from the very first episode; we’ve seen them be so many contrasting things to each other. (There is a reason why I’ve split the characters into their own sections rather than grouping them together as with other relationships, but we’ll get there.) Watching Olive cautiously allow her long-buried feelings to reform when T contacts her was such a cathartic moment after they’ve spent so much time apart. Combine that with Sara’s own forgiveness and desire to bring back their friendship, and we’re looking at a fascinating era for Olive’s arc indeed. Her growth from resident queen bee to the girl who says, “f-ck, I’m nervous” before going to a party has been some of the most nuanced storytelling Teenagers has to offer. I cannot wait to see where she ends up.
From the opening moments of the show, T has always existed in a fragile space. Teenagers’ first scene was a brutal attack by Olive’s abusive then-boyfriend Jeremy and his friends, leading to all manner of terrible consequences. Season one closed with T paying that violence back as vengeance for Olive; in the following chapter, his mother left town, and Jeremy’s sister Molly sexually assaulted T, only to get him arrested with a false accusation of abusing her. That’s just a bare-bones summary of his circumstances, too — the negative social ramifications branch out further into cyberbullying and isolation. Basically, T’s life is the worst, and Emmanuel Kabongo has always carried the weight of the show’s harshest storylines with a strong performance conveying grace and pathos.
“Blue Isn’t the Warmest Color” continues this pattern, with Molly still out for blood and pledging to find another way to harm T on Jeremy’s behalf after the wrongful charges against him are dropped. T spends most of the episode in a hopeful place, on his way to healing as he goes to the episode-ending party with Olive as his date. Molly lurks in the crowd until she gets the opportunity to stab him, and our cliffhanger is a wounded T lying on the floor as the kids around him panic and call for help.
In our past interview with Mat Murray, he laid out his intentions with the character’s continually dark material:
Society can be so harsh and I want to use this whole issue with T and Molly — with the false accusations and how quickly he was viewed as guilty by his peers — to shine a light on that. T definitely has a lot of obstacles ahead of him and the odds never seem to be in his favor, but the beautiful thing is that he has the courage to continue living and fighting. I can’t say whether he’ll have a happy ending or not, but his journey will hopefully spark some much-needed conversations about race relations in North America.
As I mentioned above, Teenagers has always been an “issues” show with an interest in portraying realistic problems that youth face, and it makes sense that they would approach the subject of racial violence the way they have misogyny and partner abuse. I get what the series is trying to do here.
And yet. . .
Writing about the oppression any marginalized group faces is a tightrope act. This isn’t to say creators shouldn’t try, but such topics require a lot of research and care, especially when it comes to depictions of graphic violence (and especially if said creator is an ally rather than someone speaking about their experiences). There’s a thin line between bold criticism and an overindulgent replication of abuse that borders on misery porn. For example: I can’t speak to Black issues myself, but as a female fan of pop culture, I can say that it gets disheartening when women are consistently portrayed as victims of (usually sexualized) violence. Even if a male writer has good intentions, it gets objectifying and weird to always see yourself being abused over and over onscreen in the name of making a point. Representation is never only about who gets to be on screen: it is also about how they exist when they are there. When Mad Max: Fury Road came out last year, one of the reasons so many women I knew loved it was because it featured rape survivors without portraying their violations on screen and thus fetishizing the very thing it tried to criticize.
On a similar note, this past year many writers of color levied criticism at shows like Orange is the New Black for trying to take a stand against racism and only succeeding at playing into voyeuristic and disrespectful tropes. Shanice Brim at Philadelphia Printworks described this problem particularly well:
I do not, however, think it was responsible to have the show essentially make sacrificial lambs out of their characters of color in what felt like an ceaseless spiral into misery. […] I’m tired of Black/Brown/Queer characters dying and suffering to make a point to white, cis, Hetero, audiences. I’m tired of white writers milking very real stories that we have to live with offscreen to teach other white people about the real world. And I’m tired of them doing it wrong.
The sentiment I’ve seen over and over from people of any given marginalized identity is that it’s an exhausting, frustrating experience to see your representative characters consistently receive the absolute worst treatment, even if an author or a showrunner does it with sincere intentions. Criticizing society through fiction also meant to entertain is incredibly complicated, and I’m concerned about T’s place on Teenagers as he is constantly subjected to more violence and hardship than any other character.
(And, on a different but adjacent note: isn’t Porky, a supposedly charming character who helped Sara come out last year, one of the guys who helped Jeremy beat T up in that horrific early scene? I didn’t realize it during my initial viewing, and I will happily take a correction if I’m mistaken, but I’m fairly confident he is. I do not understand why in the world this character would become an “endearing” recurring member of the gang after participating in a vicious event that still stands as one of most terrifying things to ever happen on this show.)
Again, this does not mean that the series is forbidden from ever talking about institutional oppression, or that it should just stick to neutral topics like cheating on your girlfriend. For example, I think season two did an excellent job at studying how misogyny affects Bree’s life — naked pictures of her were leaked without her consent, and boys like Gabriel and Ash tried to shame her for it. She wasn’t forced to endure graphic violent rape scenes or be continually victimized by gendered violence. Similarly, Sara faced a lot of problems unique to being a gay teenager, like crushing on a (seemingly) straight best friend and dealing with internalized homophobia when someone asks her about her sexuality. Mercifully, however, she is not stuck in a nightmare cluster of horrific bullying from which there is no escape. If I remember correctly, Olive is the only other character to survive significant physical harm — first Jeremy’s abuse, and then being shot — and her storyline is still primarily centered on her emotional state and her relationships, not a constant onslaught of new traumas. In my opinion, this is the kind of approach in we should see more often in media: something that acknowledges social issues and the struggles they cause, while still providing room for happiness and dimensions beyond suffering.
This isn’t to say T’s material in “Blue is Not the Warmest Color” is entirely made of undiluted tragedy. As mentioned, his stuff with Olive is sweet, and scenes of him prepping himself for their date or playing basketball alone are a beautifully personal look at the character. I’m just concerned that, rather than signifying ups and downs to build tension the way storylines for every other character do, they are flashes of happiness that only exist to be crushed once again. I want to link one more article — Adam Shatz’s review of Moonlight, which eloquently talks about the need for stories that are honest about pain and joy, rather than overbalancing into constant grief:
In daring not only to imagine black men in love, but to treat drug dealers with empathy, Moonlight embodies, more than any film yet, the sensibility of the Black Lives Matter generation. It rebels, moreover, against a black protest tradition in literature and film that has tended to depict the ghetto as an inferno in an effort to stir white compassion. […] What makes Moonlight such a transcendent work is that it illuminates these invisible lives, beyond the categories that have blinded so many to their humanity and their beauty.
That’s all I have for now, folks. Here’s to season three of Teenagers, and don’t forget to support the campaign.