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Friday, November 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Kay McFadden

Teen drama "Nowhere" hooks up values, vices

Seattle Times TV critic

Words do it. Deeds do it. Filings with the FCC do it.

After a breather between Janet Jackson's breasts and last week's censorship-skewering episode of "Family Guy," it's apparently time to rail against sex on TV again.

This week, the Federal Communications Commission reported that indecency and obscenity complaints against television were up sharply in the three-month period ending Sept. 30, following several quarters of decline.

Meanwhile, the Kaiser Foundation released a study finding "sexual depictions" on TV doubled from 1998 to 2004. The foundation hooked its findings to their potentially deleterious effect on teenagers.

Frankly, it's hard to muster more than irritation at this stuff, whose value is political rather than practical. The FCC complaints lump together a single expletive on "The Concert for Live 8" with HBO after midnight. The study confirms what any parent knows — TV is a major handmaiden in the increased sexualization of our society.

I thought about this while watching The N, which is what Noggin turns into at night when it guns for the "tween" audience. A digital cable channel, the N's lineup includes "DeGrassi: The Next Generation," old coming-of-age shows like "Moesha" and its first original series, "South of Nowhere."

"South of Nowhere" is about a family from Ohio that moves to Los Angeles. There are three high-school kids: 16-year-old Spencer (Gabrielle Christian), a blond cheerleader; 17-year-old Glen (Chris Hunter), a basketball star; and 17-year-old Clay (Danso Gordon), who is the family's adopted African-American son.

The show, airing at 5:30 tonight and repeated frequently, thrives on conflict. In last week's first episode, Spencer makes friends with Ashley (Mandy Musgrave), who may be lesbian. Clay is treated to his first "Driving While Black" experience courtesy of the LAPD. Glen gets into two separate fistfights with another Big Man on Campus.

"South of Nowhere" follows a tradition of shows that pit individual values against an alluring, corrupt environment. Others include "Beverly Hills, 90210," also about a Midwestern family moving to crass L.A.; "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," about a poor boy from Philly moving to snobbish L.A.; and "The O.C.," about a poor boy moving from one part of L.A. to another.

It's a good set-up for the intended adolescent audience. But to get them into the tent, "South of Nowhere" has to bow to certain conventions that send mixed messages.

For starters, there's a fair amount of sex. It isn't "depicted" as per the Kaiser Foundation study; it's presented as a complex history of prior relationships whose intensity brings an enticing adult veneer to the characters.

But that veneer introduces adult pressures and expectations that seem awfully fraught. It's a perverse aspect of American TV — and American culture — that as middle-age parents grow ever more youthful, teenage children are becoming prematurely mature.

"South of Nowhere" also suffers from the pretty plague that afflicts most television for teens (except "DeGrassi"). Be the characters bitchy alpha girls, Goth rebels or conceited jocks, they've got pleasing faces, shining hair and apparently pore-free skin.

To its credit, the series strives to upset clichés. Glen's basketball rival is thoughtful and writes poetry. Instead of Clay being the prototypical black athlete, he's a bit of a klutz. I fully expect to learn there's a reason why the mean girl is mean.

Nevertheless, the unrelenting good looks emphasize the show's sexual aspects and set a weird standard for young viewers. Even if the message is to say "no," the implication is that they'll have many opportunities to get asked and that anything else isn't normal.

Part of the problem with "South of Nowhere" is that it's driven by plot machinations instead of character development. The stories also seemed overbalanced toward sexually tinged issues — dating competition, gender preference, popularity.

Still, I wasn't prepared for The N Web site poll that asks preteen fans which characters they'd like to see "hook up." For all the thoughtful situations that "South of Nowhere" allegedly wants to pose, how did this one rise to the top?

Crusading groups like the Parents Television Council would have it that evil lurks in the proliferation of sex on TV. But the well-intentioned "South of Nowhere" illustrates that the real devil is in the details.

TV notes: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, HBO presents a half-hour documentary called "I Have Tourette's, But Tourette's Doesn't Have Me." Children from ages 8 to 13 tell in their own words — witty, brave and idiosyncratic — what it's like to have Tourette's syndrome. The photography and editing help create a sense of exhilaration that banishes pity.

Kay McFadden:

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