For years, thousands of teen-age girls wouldn't be caught dead without a floppy flowered hat. They went wild for a boy who wore a leather jacket and torn jeans. And their feelings about everything from a bad hair day to a surprise midterm exam could be summed up in a single word: "Whoa!"
Not anymore. "Blossom," the show that launched these Teen Beat trends, has fallen victim to the fickle teen. Many of the show's former fans have flocked to "Melrose Place." And so the series concludes tonight, with Blossom Russo (Mayim Bialik) headed off to college.
"When we began this series, we set out to tell this story about this girl growing up," says Don Reo, the show's creator and an executive producer. "But the fact of the matter is, she is grown up [now].... Fashions change and times change. It was time to move on with the audience."
Says Bialik: "For me this was a good way for it to go. I was sad it was over, but I didn't feel there was anything left to be said."
Critics put the show in the same category as "Full House" and "Punky Brewster," and "Blossom" has been the butt of jokes NBC's own "Saturday Night Live." But cast members, producers and fans of "Blossom" saw realism in the plucky teen-ager.
She wasn't drop-dead beautiful, she was at times gawky, and she came from a dysfunctional family. She had a single dad, Nick (Ted Wass), a rock musician; and two older brothers, Anthony (Michael Stoyanov), a recovering substance abuser, and Joey (Joey Lawrence), a bit of brain-dead hunk.
"Blossom is like everybody," says Heidi Aden, 14, a student at Madrona Middle School in Torrance. "She's a kid who has to make decisions. I learned [from the show] to make the right decision, to do what your heart tells you."
Another Madrona student, Becci Davage, 13, says that on "Blossom," "things that were happening were real." "She was real. She was down to earth."
At first, the show wasn't even going to be about a girl. Reo says he pitched NBC on the idea of a "'Catcher in the Rye' type of story, a 'James at 16' show," but with a boy. An NBC executive, however, suggested the change in gender.
"That was a really good idea," Bialik says. "Really, all the shows that I watched [at the time the show debuted in 1991] were about guys. With 'Blossom' you were seeing more about the sister and less about the brother. You got to see what girls go through."
And as Reo puts it: "It meant that I could steal every story that 'The Wonder Years' had ever done and no one would know it." He's joking, given the show's first story line: Blossom has her first period.
"People [at the network] really went bananas over this," Reo says. "But after the first season the network really trusted us more. They knew we were not trying to do anything salacious or trying to find cheap jokes. . . . We really tried to be honest and not talk down to the audience."
This season, Blossom got assaulted on a date. Over the years there were other very special episodes , as NBC's promos would say, about drug abuse, gun control, eating disorders and homosexuality. One character, Blossom's fast-talking friend Six (Jenna von Oy), saw her parents divorce, developed a drinking problem, thought she was pregnant and went out with an older man.
"I would get letters on a constant basis asking for advice," Von Oy says. "They would say everything like, 'I like the dress that you were wearing' to 'I'm so glad you had a show where your parents got divorced; I now understand it wasn't my fault.' "
Parents liked the show's messages. Patrick Corwin, principal of Miraleste Intermediate School in Rancho Palos Verdes, recalls an episode where Six got drunk at a gathering of friends. Six thought she was the life of the party; her friends thought she was a fool.
"I thought they dealt with an issue very sensitively," says Corwin, who regularly watched the show with his daughter. "It said, 'Hey, drinking can really screw you up and it can happen very quickly.' "
Off-screen, cast and crew faced their own struggles. Series director Bill Bixby died in November, 1993, after a long battle with prostate cancer. Wass' wife, actress Janet Margolin, died of ovarian cancer a month later. He continued working.
"We had 11 shows left to do that season and I don't remember one," Wass says. "I don't remember them coming on the air.... There was a lot of care and consideration. That was a tough time for a lot of people. It was my most difficult time."
Wass says that he was somewhat of a "surrogate dad" during the show's 4 1/2-year run, counseling the show's young cast members, who had to struggle with their own growing pains and newfound fame.
Lawrence became a teen idol. He got 4,000 to 7,000 pieces of mail a day, and at times was followed home. He had to hire a bodyguard.
Bialik said that she found it "a little weird" when she first spotted people wearing Blossom hats.
"I get accosted in public," Bialik says. "It goes from really nice, 'Hi, I really like your show,' to, 'Hi, I think your show is really stupid.' Or it gets a little weird when they feel they have to touch you. These are all things that I realize are now part of my reality."
For all the serious issues the show dealt with, cast members are well aware that at least some of their fans had their minds on other things, like Blossom's attire. On NBC's on-line service, there was a bitter message battle over the prom dress Blossom wore in an episode last year.
But that was then. At Madrona Middle School recently, there wasn't a floppy hat to be found.
"I used to like the way she dressed," says Sara Lawson, 13, an eighth grader at Madrona. "But I don't watch the show anymore. I grew out of it."
* "Blossom" airs at 8 tonight on NBC Channel 4.