TV UK, 4 July

The makers of Teen Species seem more angst-ridden than the teens.

Dolan Cummings

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Teen Species is obviously a facetious title, playing on parents’ sense that their angelic child has been replaced by a creature from another planet – all right, it’s very BBC sitcom, but we know what they mean.

Much of the time, Teen Species (BBC1, Wednesdays at 9pm) looks like a Sex Ed video, with careful explanations of what hormones are and what they do, groovy graphics and tasteful thermal images of the body at various stages of development. To make things entertaining we follow a selection of teenagers who have been filmed over two years. The stars of the opening episode on girls were two adorable twins who are bound to be offered their own comedy series. (I don’t think I have ever used the word adorable before in this column or anywhere else.)

Actually, though, I felt a bit awkward watching 13-year-olds shopping for bras. Teen Species boasts about its unprecedented access to teenagers, but would you want your teenage self to have been exposed to a national TV audience? In next week’s episode on boys, a young guy makes an admirably subtle reference to masturbation, which the female interviewer then insists on making explicit. He leaps behind the sofa in embarrassment. I wanted to do the same.

The thing about adolescence, of course, is that it is really two processes happening not quite at the same time, one biological and the other social. While the former is basically a uniform process, the latter is anything but, and the programme suffers from its failure to make such distinctions. The twins’ first day at secondary school was used as the hook for a long section on the horrors of bullying, apparently a major peril of adolescence. But two years on, the girls warned viewers not to listen to what adults say: their fears had proved unfounded.

Next week’s episode also includes a rather odd theory about teenage crime. The commentary points out that while better diets mean puberty comes earlier (threatening to wipe out the nation’s choirs), social changes mean things are stretched out at the other end, adding up to longer adolescences that ever before. There is something in this, but it is too crude to blame testosterone for the frustration felt by young working-class lads like the Rochdale car thieves featured in the programme.

I can’t see the young New York Jewish kid featured in the same episode succumbing to the same urges, but he certainly demonstrated the historically contingent nature of adolescence. We saw this miniature Woody Allen at his Bar Mitzvah: as far as his ancient religion is concerned he is a man, but in reality he still has several years to play with his rocket – or of course become a crack addict.

The programme’s psychologist suggests that the ‘tiny minority’ of boys who don’t get into some kind of trouble as teenagers are probably not in the best mental health later in life. This seems a bit extreme. I was arrested at 13 on jumped up charges of breaking and entering, but my only real crime was skateboarding in the wrong place at the wrong time (The Man was out to get me). Other than that, I found adolescence remarkably easy, but I have long suspected that this is because I wasn’t doing it right.

This suspicion is reinforced by 4X4 Reports (BBC1, Monday at 7.30pm), which looks at the prevalence of teenage sex. While teenage sex is presented as the norm, however, the four reports all treat it as a problem in one way or another, investigating the ‘just say no’ approach in the USA, the perils of sexually transmitted disease, the difficulty of policing the age of consent, and Britain’s high rates of teenage pregnancy. It’s all a bit morbid.

The news is that teenagers are not really another species, and in fact these programmes about kids tell us much about what it means to be an adult today: the angst, the uncertainty, the obsession with sex…. It’s all so unfair.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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