With a precious name like “Blossom” and all those floppy hats, it was easy at first to dismiss the only network television show centered around a teen-age girl as just another silly sitcom--"Punky Brewster” with her period. And the show did struggle its first season, barely surviving the ratings wars as it chronicled the wacky antics of 13-year-old Blossom Russo and her best friend, Six.
But halfway through its third year, “Blossom” has bloomed, zooming often into the Top 20 and frequently capturing its Monday time period over Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s high-profile new series “Hearts Afire.”
“We did start out doing a bouncy, cute, little teen-age show, but now that everyone is getting older, we are moving into areas of more reality and more adult storytelling,” said Don Reo, creator and executive producer of “Blossom.”
“And by telling more stories with her two brothers, one of whom is a recovering drug addict, and the dad and grandfather, all of that I think has helped us broaden the audience well beyond all the teen-age girls out there.”
The show has also been helped by the success of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” which precedes it and has similarly blossomed into a big hit for NBC in the last few years. Reo said that “Blossom” is the No. 4 ranked show among black households and the only show among the top-10 favorites of blacks that does not have an all-black cast. Reo contends that many males and adults who watch “Fresh Prince” stick around to watch “Blossom” at 8:30 p.m. because the show has a lot to offer.
Brenda Hampton, one of the show’s writers, said that she recently was talking to a group of young minority men at a car dealership and that, when they discovered she wrote for “Blossom,” they became animated discussing the troubles of Anthony, Blossom’s older brother who is a recovering addict, because of their own struggles with substance abuse.
Still, teen-agers, especially girls, support the show. “Blossom” is the favorite show of teens among all programs on the four commercial networks, according to Reo, 46, who previously worked on such comedies as “MASH” and “Rhoda.” And groups of young girls watch the show each week and then call or fax each other to coordinate “Blossom"-inspired outfits to wear to school the following day.
For that reason, Blossom, played by Mayim Bialik, still dominates the show. The plot lines mostly revolve around her battles with school authorities, her trials of romance, the temptations of marijuana, alcohol and sex, wrecking her father’s car or having to sneak back into the house after staying out all night.
Reo, the father of three in their 20s, said stories come from his own experience as a teen-ager and a parent and from chatting about life with his teen-age cast.
“We try to be as realistic as possible, and all this stuff is a part of every teen-ager’s lore,” Reo said. “But mostly we are trying to be entertaining, and you don’t have to go to the most dramatic thing that can happen to tell a good story. When you’re a teen-ager, if your clothes don’t come back from the cleaners in time for the dance, that can be a major catastrophe. Actually, I wasn’t thinking about teen-agers; I was thinking about myself. I think my emotional development stopped when I was about 17 and that’s why I’m perfect for this job.”
Reo beat the odds just getting a show about a teen-age girl on the air. Those who work on “Blossom” said that shows about boys have long been a staple of television while shows about girls have been rare, for two reasons.
First, young girls in the audience will write tons of fan mail to teen-age male TV stars, leading executives to believe that they need a hot male on the show to pull in the audience. One “Blossom” staffer said that Joey Lawrence, who plays Blossom’s jock brother, gets far more fan mail than Bialik herself. As if to prove the point, teen-agers in the audience politely applaud Bialik on tape night, but they squeal loudly whenever Lawrence walks on the set.
Second, most of the people who sell television shows are men. Reo admitted that this show started off with a male lead and Blossom was just a younger sister until a female executive at NBC suggested he make Blossom the main character. “I didn’t even think of that because I was so intent on telling my own coming-of-age stories,” Reo said.
While family sitcoms such as “Roseanne” do routinely tackle the stories of teen-age girls, the only other series told from a teen-age girl’s point of view is Nickelodeon’s “Clarissa Explains It All.” Research shows that though the star of the show is a 15-year-old girl, nearly half the audience at 8 p.m. Saturdays for “Clarissa,” one of the cable network’s most popular shows, is male.
“There are two myths that we are disproving,” said Mitchell Kreigman, 40, creator and executive producer of “Clarissa.” “One is that kids can’t drive a show, and two, that boys won’t watch girls. That is an old idea from the toy industry that boys won’t put up with girl stuff. But I wanted to do something from a girl’s point of view from the start because they are sort of in this incredible pocket of understanding of the universe. They know a ton, unlike 14-year-old boys who are a complete mess and probably dangerous. Clarissa at this age can be both provocative, precise and intelligent about explaining the world around her. And that can be very empowering for kids out there watching, to see somebody being themselves, not giving in to peer pressure, and taking action to get what they want.”
Clarissa, part of a traditional nuclear family, bickers mercilessly with her pesky younger brother and argues and negotiates with her busy parents. Blossom, on the other hand, is part of a recent network TV trend that finds many family sitcoms run by single dads. And while Blossom goes through typical teen-age traumas, she is no ordinary teen-ager. Reo has created a bright, self-confident, self-aware kid who is often wise beyond her years. She does mess up, even lies now and then, but she rarely really gets into any sticky trouble.
“She’s a fairly, I don’t want to say white bread, but she’s happy, she’s bubbly,” Bialik said. “We try to show a little bit of the temptations teens face, but we can’t really hit people over the head with issues. She’s a nice person and if you have millions of people watching she might as well be good because if TV is going to educate, it might as well be with good.”
Some of the writers concede that as the show has become more successful, they have become more conscious of the fact that Blossom is a hero to millions of impressionable young people. During an episode in which Blossom and Six debated whether to smoke marijuana, the staff had to dance around the creative desire to write a fantasy sequence about what it would look like if the girls got high.
“We don’t want to do a show that says it’s cool to fantasize about drugs or that it might be fun, but as a writer you want to do that scene with the purple haze and all that,” Jonathan Prince, supervising producer, said. “So we did it as the nightmare of her father. So that’s emblematic, I think, of the thin line we walk. The audience might be turned off if we don’t do it, because then we’re too boring or too preachy, but if we write it as Blossom’s wish fulfillment, then you risk the censors saying, ‘Hey, you are encouraging people to get stoned.’ So we walk that tightrope with this character all the time.”
But Reo said that he never thinks about the character as a role model and feels no obligation to candy-coat her attitude or experiences. “I think of her as a character who screws up all the time and she will continue to do that,” he said. “Whether we’ll do anything dramatic, I’m not sure, but if it works, I’ll do it. She could get pregnant. I’m not ruling anything out.”