Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Goodbye "South of Nowhere": A Tribute

In late 2005, I was visiting my Aunt Joan in Chicago. The visit pretty much entailed me trying to avoid the cold and, thus, spending much time with her remote in hand, flipping through the gazillion channels offered by her Satellite provider. One day I stumbled across a network called The N and was thrilled to find out that the MTV subsidiary ran repeats of shows like “Degrassi Junior High” and “My So-Called Life.”

As I relived my youth by watching The N, I discovered a new show the network was promoting called “South of Nowhere.” I was instantly hooked. Now, I’m bummed to find out that The N is canceling the show, which is in its third season. “SoN,” as it is called by fans, was groundbreaking in many ways. It chronicled a high school girl’s budding awareness that she is a lesbian and the reactions that her classmates and conservative Catholic family have to that realization. Yes, the girl, Spencer Carlin, is hot and her love interest is even hotter, but the relationship they have isn’t depicted in an exploitative way. My only real criticism of the relationship is that the actresses don’t have much onscreen chemistry.

As Spencer begins to accept her sexual identity, her adopted black brother, Clay, struggles with his racial identity. I loved that the adoptee character wasn’t added to be gimmicky, i.e. Natalie Portman’s brother in “Garden State” and the black, deaf, gay love interest of a character in “The Family Stone.” Instead, there’s genuine exploration of how growing up in a white family shaped Clay’s perceptions of race, which make him vulnerable as a black teen in Los Angeles (the Carlins are Ohio transplants), and the stereotypes that he has of other blacks, like his street-savvy classmate Sean Miller.

I admit that while watching the show I fell a bit in love with Sean (hey, in real life he’s in his late 20s). But I digress. Sean is a character rarely seen on film and television. He’s a black, inner-city youth who can effortlessly dissect Poe’s “Tell-tale Heart” and spends his free time watching Wong Kar-wai films. He can be a bit intimidating at first but, as others get to know him, they find that he is sensitive, listens well and gives great advice. Oh, and did I mention that this guy regularly attends church with his grandmother? We just don’t find these kinds of young African American characters depicted on television—three dimensional, well-read and nonconformist.

Clay’s love interest, Chelsea, the first black girl he’s ever dated, is just as unconventional of a black Hollywood character. She’s covered in tattoos, has a bohemian style and is bent on going abroad to study art.

Even the head cheerleader at the school is not what one would expect. Rather than being a skinny blonde, she’s a shapely Latina named Madison. Portrayed as unbearably bitchy at first, Madison’s character deepens as the series progresses.

While there’s more development of characters like Madison in the second and third seasons of “SoN,” the show took a turn for the worst in that its plotlines began to mirror those of prototypical teenage dramas. The characters all begin to sleep with each other. Long-lost relatives emerge from nowhere. There’s an unexpected pregnancy and two unexpected deaths, one of which results in a character finding herself filthy rich.

Due to these storylines, not to mention sometimes underwhelming acting, I realize that maybe it was time for “SoN” to retire before its original, groundbreaking vision was tainted. Still, I’ll miss seeing how the show’s characters grow. If you like, view an episode of “SoN” here.


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Ebony said...

Hi Nadra-

It's really interesting to read your interpretation of Clay on SoN, because I interpreted him in a completely different way.

I felt the writers of the show were sending some weird messages concerning Clay. Although I agree that he is a positive representation of a black character on television, I always found myself a little miffed with his background because the writers seemed to be implying he had the great life he had because of his white parents. I found myself thinking "what about his birth parents?" When he finally meet his birth mother (played by Tempestt Bledsoe) we find out she was a teen mother who couldn't take care of him.

I can't express to you my dissapointment when Clay was killed. I felt a really strong, negative implication there. I can't really articulate it, but I didn't like it. Although I liked Clay overall, I still feel his character was sort of a cop out on part of the writers.

Aside from that, you made some observations about the characters that I never really considered/ thought about. So, thanks for the insight :)