the 90s tv show that walked so ‘riverdale’ could run
Cancelled after just two seasons, 'Popular' creator Ryan Murphy said years later the network was only interested in its gay characters if they were made to suffer.
It’s hard to imagine Ryan Murphy as anything but the super-producer he is today. Celebrated for dramatically changing the face of TV with shows including Glee, American Horror Story and POSE, Murphy is a man who can seemingly do no wrong (even Netflix agree). But his first foray into the world of TV two-decades ago with the short-lived teen drama Popular was far less acclaimed.
Though looking back Popular not only set the tone for Murphy’s later works, but also unknowingly laid the groundwork for TV to begin championing queer stories at prime time.
Premiering in 1999 on The WB (now The CW), Popular told the story of cheerleader and all-round queen bee Brooke McQueen (Leslie Gibb) and social outcast Sam McPherson (Carly Pope), who, along with their respective friendships groups, are forced together when their single parents announce they’re engaged. The popular clique clashing with the nerds is by no means an original take on the teen drama genre, but compared to its nearest network rival at the time, Dawson’s Creek, Popular was well aware of its own genre.
While giving viewers an acidic insight into the high school ecosystem, Popular included subtle wink to the camera moments that routinely broke the fourth wall and flipped the genre on its head. In one episode the cast are stalked by a pantomime murderer claiming it knew what they did last spring break. In another episode the character of Mary Cherry (Murphy’s greatest character creation, IMO) played by Leslie Grossman finds out that her estranged father is RuPaul. Much to its credit, Popular never shied away from being camp, it fully leaned into it. So much so, the season one finale, Two Weddings & A Funeral, was just an hour of ticking off every teen drama season finale cliché imaginable. Iconic.
But beyond creating a witty and self-aware teen drama that captured the late 90s/early 00s zeitgeist beautifully -- chunky Apple Mac computers, frosted lip gloss, tattoo choker necklaces and FUBU aplenty -- Murphy used the cartoonish and sometimes slapstick feel of Popular as a glossy veneer to subtly weave in the stories of queer people at a time when most other teen dramas were more concerned solely on prom and pregnancy scares.
"While Dawson’s Creek focused on the will-they-won’t-they romance between Joey and Dawson, Popular shed light on challenges queer people genuinely faced from society in the late 90s."
Interspersed between cliché storylines about dating drama and cheerleading tryouts, Murphy told the story of a lesbian mother who was fired from her job immediately after she came out to her coworkers and the design technology teacher who, after telling her class she was transgender, battled pushback from confused students and narrow-minded parents who threatened to get her fired from her job and in an episode titled Fag.
Murphy highlighted the grotesque level of homophobic language and abuse that still runs rampant in school hallways today.
While Dawson’s Creek focused on the will-they-won’t-they romance between Joey and Dawson, Popular shed light on challenges queer people genuinely faced from society in the late 90s. Better so, these stories weren't plot devices conjured up to shock and increase ratings; they were fleshed out, complex and more often than weren’t happily resolved by the time the credits started rolling.
It’s a stark contrast from the teen dramas that would later come to dominate TV in the mid-noughties that would include the classic one-off gay storyline as if it were a box-ticking exercise. In The O.C., Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) explored her sexuality and engaged in a same-sex relationship, only for it to be used to reunite her with her ex-boyfriend Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie). Similarly, in its nine years on air, One Tree Hill included just one queer character, who lasted only 12 episodes. Even Riverdale, a show that some have celebrated for its progressive approach to sexuality, has come under fire recently, accused by fans of queerbaiting for ratings.
But despite the show’s charismatic cast and incredibly quotable dialogue that in 2019 would produce endless Twitter gif fodder, The WB pulled the plug on Popular in 2001 after just two seasons. But perhaps more interesting was that as Murphy’s star continued to rise in the years to come off the back of his other shows, including Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story and Feud, he made concerted attempts to distance himself from Popular altogether. When the Producers Guild of America honoured him with its Norman Lear Achievement Award in 2018, he didn’t include the teen drama on his repertoire of production achievements.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2016, Murphy admitted he had a “bad experience” when making Popular. He claimed The WB were homophobic at the time the show was on air, which is what led to the show’s premature end. He said: “They never got me and they kept trying to turn me into something else. And they were very homophobic even though they would have gay characters on the air.” He added the network were only ever interested in the show’s gay characters if they were made to suffer.
"Ryan Murphy admitted he had a “bad experience” when making Popular. He claimed The WB were homophobic at the time the show was on air, which is what led to the show’s premature end."
It would be an entire decade later in 2009 until Murphy would attempt to master the teen drama genre once again with Glee, which aired on FOX. The all singing, all dancing dramedy was an instant hit becoming a global pop culture phenomenon. It shared the same surreal verve as Popular and put queer kids and their stories at the front. But unlike Popular, Glee benefited from something else -- timing. It’s worth remembering that by the time Glee came to air, Will & Grace had just finished its eight-season stint on NBC in 2006, ABC just launched Modern Family and Logo TV was in the middle of airing the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. TV’s queer revolution was underway.
In hindsight, Popular feels like a show that was both too smart for its own good and too ahead of its time for TV networks who weren’t ready, nor comfortable, with queer stories being so prominent in their shows. 20 years on and Popular may have faded into the background, but it’s become a cult classic among its modest fanbase. It’s even got its own “Where are they now?” Buzzfeed listicle. But its invisibility from the public’s consciousness is by no means a reflection of the show’s quality, it’s due to it’s inaccessibility. Unlike other teen dramas from its era, Popular isn’t available to stream on Netflix or Hulu. Instead it lives a humble existence on YouTube, with all 43 episodes of the show uploaded by one user.
On the surface Popular may have looked like just any other cliche-ridden teen drama. But if you dug a little deeper you’d see a show that challenged taboos and pushed the envelope in ways no other teen drama has since. History may not credit it for having any impact on TV’s now healthy appetite for queer people and queer stories, but it should and that’s why 20 years later Popular remains one of Murphy’s finest hours.