(Nancy: Please welcome my special guest reviewer, dyanysion.)
I got my hands on the first episode of South of Nowhere
(called "Secret Truths") a while ago. It was terrible
quality, a downloaded .wav file. Watching it was as painful as
watching old NTSC-to-Pal converted Xena
or Buffy episodes that
we Australians used to get on video from the US before the Internet
I tried to watch the show, but apart from shocking picture and
sound, the writing seemed childish. I just kept thinking, "This
is what those US after-school specials are like". I didn’t
even get halfway through the first episode before dismissing the
show as yet another bad teen melodrama trying to use the whole
"gay" thing to pull in young male viewers. I decided
that the show wasn’t worth my pursuit. I would devote my
time to finding new shows that I may actually watch and enjoy.
I didn’t like South of Nowhere and I was
never going to like South of Nowhere.
On Nancy's urging, I found the entire first series of the show
so that she could watch it and decide for herself. I figured that
since I had it, I may as well watch the first episode again, just
to see if improved picture and sound would make a difference to
Let’s go back to my first impression of SoN.
What had I said? Oh, that’s right, "I didn’t
like SoN and I was never going to like SoN".
I was wrong. I’ll admit it; I was horribly, horribly wrong.
South of Nowhere has a lot more going for it
than I thought. The show has three main storylines. The first
centres around Spencer (Gabrielle Christian), a young girl struggling
with her sexual identity and the development of her relationship
with her best friend Ashley (Mandy Musgrave). The second focuses
on Clay, Spencer's adopted brother, learning to deal with being
an African-American man in LA. He is coping with the complexities
of an urban subculture and learning his place within the African-American
community as someone who has grown up in an all-white family.
The final main plot is the broad issue of family, in particular
how the Carlin family copes with their move from small-town Ohio
to Los Angeles and the issues they face as a family unit.
I’ll be honest; the plot I really care about is the Spencer/Ashley
plot. Spencer is the girl that a lot of us were. She's the one
struggling to figure herself out while grappling with emerging
feelings for Ashley. All that while in high school, being a 16
year old girl with a very visible, popular brother. Oh and she’s
Catholic too, which just adds to the mess in her head, but isn't
the main focus of her struggle. Spencer initially tries to fit
in with the "in" crowd. Heck, she’s even a cheerleader
for a while. She questions herself and her family-taught values,
all the while growing closer to Ashley.
Spencer is one of the most real teenagers I’ve ever seen
on TV. She has all the insecurities of adolescence, coupled with
the anxieties of someone coming out. In a remarkable twist, these
enormous pressures aren’t her undoing; Spencer doesn’t
do the rebellious teen thing and don black or sulk around. She
jokes and flirts and tries her hardest to be a "normal"
teen. She may be shy and unsure of her feelings at first, but
when she starts to come to grips with them she becomes bolder
and starts to define herself. In this way, Spencer is not unlike
Jane from The Truth About
Jane. Unlike Jane, Spencer doesn’t just leap
out of the closet though; she peers out timidly, and then jumps
back in a number of times before taking that last deep breath
and taking the step.
Then there’s Ashley Davies . Ashley is our tyke (teenage
dyke – Yes, I made up that word, but I like it). She is
able to unselfconsciously use words like "gay" and "lesbian"
and accepts these as labels for herself, which is great in any
TV character, let alone a 16-year-old one! Ash knows who she is,
who she likes and what she wants. There is nothing artificial
or contrived about her. She isn’t a plot device nor is she
stereotypical. She oozes confidence around everyone, except when
she is alone with Spencer. It seems that innocent Spencer is more
than just another conquest for her. Ashley allows herself to be
vulnerable and insecure, she finds herself opening up in a real
and heartfelt way to let Spencer in. This makes the relationship
as new to Ashley as it is to Spencer.
The two talented young actresses portraying these characters
do so without overdramatising. They bring out the reality, a kind
of awkward beauty, in what could have been a relationship that
was one big embarrassing cliche. They do the shy looks, gentle
touches and uncertain steps toward each other. Gabrielle Christian
especially plays Spencer just right, portraying her as naïve
and sweet, playful and curious. The head tilts, cheeky grins,
nervous glances and tentative touches are done to perfection.
Mandy Musgrave combines rock chick philosophy with teen rebel
angst to create Ashley. It's easy to forget that she’s just
playing a part.
To top off the instinctive acting, there is real chemistry between
the two leads. I was not surprised to read an interview with Christian
to learn that she and Musgrave get along great and are best friends
off the set. That level of connection between two actresses cannot
be faked, it's either there or it’s not. Fortunately for
South of Nowhere, it’s there by the bucketful.
The music is another drawcard of the show. How can one not appreciate
a show that has an awesome theme song? After the teaser, the hard-rocking
guitars and vocals of The Donnas kick in with "I Don’t
Want to Know (If You Don’t Want Me)". The rest of the
show is enhanced by a diverse range of music from hip-hop to rock
with the odd dash of folk to round it out. There is, of course,
the standard occasional guitar or piano solo to add to the drama.
SoN doesn’t just throw in music randomly
like other shows seem to these days. Certain songs link plot points
over the series as a whole, giving the show musical continuity.
An example I loved was the song "Ghost You Know" by
Lauren Hoffman. We are introduced to this song in the first episode
("Secret Truths") in the events immediately following
the dance. Ashley and Spencer have their first real heart-to-heart,
with Ash letting her guard down for the first time. The song links
with the montage of images in the final episode ("What Just
Happened?") where Ash seems to understand that she's found
exactly what she has been looking for all along. It’s an
effective method of storytelling, and it rewards fans who are
really paying attention.
The language used in the show is also worth a mention. "You
are who you are" is the sentiment. It's made abundantly clear
that being gay is part of who someone is. It is not the defining
characteristic of a person, nor is it something that someone has,
it's just an inherent part of them. The only people who refer
to sexuality as separate to the person are portrayed as homophobic
fools. This deliberate use of language is encouraging, and is
an excellent message to send to the next generation.
It might be aimed at kids, but SoN is highly
recommended viewing for anyone of any age group. Just because
a show isn’t aimed at adults, doesn’t mean we can’t
enjoy it. I’m pretty sure if there was a South of
Nowhere on television ten years ago the world would be
a very different place today. But the world wasn't ready for this
ten years ago.
If the social and political significance of the show doesn’t
get you interested, just the Spencer/Ashley relationship will.
I may have yelled at my TV, laughed, cringed, and even shed the
odd tear, but it was worth every second. Perhaps it’s because
I’m a romantic at heart, or perhaps it’s because defining
yourself at 16 is hard, and I’m not so old as to have forgotten
what it was like. Whatever it was, I have been drawn into the
world of South of Nowhere, and I couldn’t
South of Nowhere may not be the holy grail of
teen lesbian dramas yet, but we’ve only scratched the surface.
No-one can really predict where we’ll be taken in Season
2. Like the tagline says, "it’s not about where you’ve
been, it’s about where you’re going". I’m
willing to follow the show to see where it takes me.
(Nancy's last words: As far as I'm concerned, South of Nowhere
should be required viewing for all teenagers, and their
parents. How something like this came from the pen of the woman
who wrote Wave Babes
I'll never know. )
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