Reading about The ABC Family network is interesting. Did you know it started in 1977, as an extension of a televangelist ministry? Or that the terms of its lease require the network to always contain the word “family?” Or that the network considered changing its name to XYZ to appeal to hip college girls, but Disney, who owns it, found “it could never be renamed as such?” Justifiably, there has always been a creepy picket fence aura around the network.
When I first got cable, the network was heavily promoting The Secret Life of the American Teenager. [Spoiler alert: The secret is that she’s pregnant!] It was like an awkward attempt to create the next 7th Heaven - WASP-y people trying to fight off the temptations presented by their vaguely ethnic peers. Then it was promoting a show version of 10 Things I Hate About You, which equally puzzled me. Why market a show to tweens that was loosely based on a movie they were too young to even know about?
But while the network continued to swing and miss, some of us had a secret. For some odd reason, we couldn’t stop watching their show about frats and sororities, Greek. Despite the douchey concept, the show was surprisingly liberal, self-aware and compelling. During many a drunk night in college, I found myself nodding off to sleep watching Greek, wishing the frat bros at my school were so offbeat, the sorority sisters so free of Ugg boots.
The network must have realized that people like shows about parties, gay people not being evil and other things that resonate with actual reality. I jumped fully down the ABC Family rabbit hole after discovering Pretty Little Liars. The show has everything I didn’t know I wanted: 4 best friends (note: not frenemies) so clean and cute they’re like a box set, lesbian swim champions, an ominous blind girl, a poor man’s Seth Cohen, the lady from Party of 5, and … murder. When I got to the end of Netflix’s supply I frantically downloaded the latest episode from iTunes – that’s how desperate I was for more. (Seriously, never download TV shows from iTunes. Who wants to pay $3 for a slow-ass download of 1 episode of a show?)
Looking for a new show to crawl into, I discovered Switched at Birth, a show about well, two girls who are switched at birth. One of them is deaf and one of them gets to find out her lifelong suspicions that she is somehow Puerto Rican are right. The hot mom from The George Lopez Show is on it (seriously, I watch everything, even George Lopez). The show seemed to create tension between the rich ginger family, who represent traditional ABC Family, and the artistic, broken Puerto Rican family, who represent the edgier “new kind of family” promised by their latest slogan. Plus, it teaches you sign language as you go. I now know how to say important things like, “I’m still a virgin” and “I had to sell my motorcycle to pay for your graffiti habit.”
But ABC Family’s domination became especially apparent when they premiered Bunheads, which is essentially the new Gilmore Girls but with way more ballerinas and cocktails and way fewer saddle shoes. Everyone who missed unrealistically clever dialoge around mother/daughter relationships became immediately addicted. I wasn’t a GG fan, butBunheads really meets me halfway.
It still makes me uncomfortable how much I’ve grown to love ABC Family shows, but it got me thinking about what girls actually want in a TV show. When I was growing up, The WB was my newswire into what it meant to be a girl. A lot of my life was built around trying to physically be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like the 4 years I spent in a Taekwondo studio and the fact that I thought I might look good with strawberry blonde highlights. Dawson’s Creek, Felicity – all those shows were easy to relate to for most of us, portraying characters that wore dorky jeans and worried about money now and again. In other words, they gave us role models.
The CW never exactly got that. The years I spent watching Gossip Girl and 90210 with my roommates were some of my most ambivalent years with TV. Sure I was addicted to watching insanely beautiful, thin, rich girls enact revenge on one another, but at the same time we all knew the shows were kinda dumb. 90210 actually had people going through relatable experiences (did you know that you can get tested for the breast cancer gene?), although they all kinda quit college and just lived in a giant sorority house doing nothing, last I checked. But Gossip Girl truly threw all meaning out the window, demonizing the “poor people” who live in Brooklyn and continuing to mythologize Chuck (can we forget that he tried to rape someone in the first episode?).
The shows on ABC Family this season prove that girls do want TV with a little bit of heart, that aren’t just all tall mermaid-y girls ruining one another’s lives. They bring back some of the WB’s old sweetness. Sure we like to watch idealized versions of rich girls on TV, but maybe that’s fading. I’d rather watch a ballet show about the evil choice between paper or plastic on Bunheads than watch Georgina Sparks being a bitch any day.