The Forgotten Brilliance of Popular

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In 1999, I was a junior theatre major at a performing arts high school, in a class that was about 60% female and 30% gay boys. Though Will & Grace, Dawson’s Creek, and Sex and the City were all on air, the only show that was true appointment television at the Boston Arts Academy was a terribly-rated show buried in The WB’s Thursday night line up — Popular, a forgotten gem of female comedy.

Ten years before Glee, Ryan Murphy created Popular, a campy over-the-top comedy disguised as a typical teen drama. The show ostensibly revolved around two high school juniors: the beautiful and popular Brooke McQueen (played by the perpetually underrated Leslie Bibb) and the unpopular Sam McPherson (Carly Pope), who, along with network-mate Dawson Leery, holds a prominent place in the pantheon of wildly unlikable alleged protagonists (sample Sam dialogue: “I’m bored with being penned into the high school corral. That’s why I’m going to get my nose pierced.”). When Sam and Brooke’s parents fall in love, the girls have to negotiate their relationship? Can they look past superficials and become blah blah blah that’s not what’s interesting here. The interesting part is the supporting characters, a veritable treasure trove of weird, funny women.

Let’s start with Nicole Julian, Brooke’s second-in-command. Played brilliantly by Tammy Lynn Michaels (best known as the former Mrs. Melissa Etheridge), Nicole is a super bitch who loves quoting Joan Crawford, wearing insane leather and fur jackets, and Gwyneth Paltrow (hey, it was 1999). She prowls the halls of Jacqueline Kennedy High (a school whose facilities include a Kim Novak-themed bathroom) like a teenage Machiavelli in dominatrix boots. She’s always ready with a scheme, a zinger, and fabulous lip gloss. Sample Nicole plots: stealing the secrets the girls wrote down at the end of a Feminist Lit class and making them guess whose secret belongs to who, blackmailing two eighth graders, and kidnapping Gwyneth’s personal shopper. In short, Nicole Julian was boss.

Nicole, however, was a mere warm up for the single best part of Popular, insane Texas cheerleader Mary Cherry. Mary Cherry, played by the genius Leslie Grossman and always referred to by her full name, is a cheerleader whose career qualifications test revealed her to be a natural serial killer. There is almost nothing realistic about the character of Mary Cherry: she announces that her mother is taking her out to club baby seals as a special treat, she auditions for an American Idol-esque reality show by lip-syncing “Rock Me, Amadeus” in a fully light-up dress, and, when assigned to play the part of Crabs in an STD pageant, she develops a Howard Hughes-esque germophobia. After Popular, Grossman’s talent has been mostly squandered on generic shows like What I Like About You, which is a shame: she’s a hugely gifted physical comedian and might have the best crazy face in the business.

Popular also boasted a host of outsized peripheral female characters. The estimable Diane Delano plays Roberta “Bobbi” Glass, the biology (first season)/chemistry (second season) teacher who puts on the aforementioned STD pageant, a Fosse-inspired musical for elementary schoolers. The butch Bobbi is referred to as Miss Glass and Sir in equal measure, and Delano also plays Jessi Glass, Bobbi’s ultra-girly sister, which is a neat commentary on the performative aspects of gender.

The ne plus ultra of Popular peripheral characters, however, has got to be April Tuna. A dead ringer for the lady from La Roux, April is a super-horny chess player obsessed with the trappings of popularity and also, dry-humping. She collects one (female) character’s underwear. She refers to everyone by their full names multiple times in one-on-one conversation. She runs for student council president on a platform about preparing for alien invasions. She is a lunatic.

Popular, like Glee, is a wildly uneven show, but the first season is very much worth checking out, mainly for two near-perfect episodes. In the first, “Caged,” all six main female characters are locked in the bathroom together while all menstruating simultaneously. Needless to say, shit gets real, particularly when Nicole reveals that she knows everyone’s secrets. The conceit (women be crazy during their periods!) isn’t exactly winning any prizes for progressivism, but it’s also the first time I remember ever seeing any explicit references to menstruation on television, so we’ll count it as a win. Besides, until you’ve attended a women’s college, you have no basis to dismiss stories about synchronized lady time.

“Hard On the Outside, Soft In The Middle” might be Popular’s defining episode. When Sam and her unpopular friends Carmen and Lily dye their hair blond to make a point about lookism, the popular girls go brunette. As a brunette, Mary Cherry “both looks and feels like the diva Barbra Streisand” and spends much of the episode doing impressions of the star. (Says April Tuna: “I loved you in Yentl!”) The rival cliques challenge each other to a bowling match (to which Brooke, Mary Cherry, and Nicole show up in Bob Mackie original gowns) to decide the fate of a lobster that Lily wants to save and Mary Cherry wants to eat. The episode is so weird and funny it’s a miracle it was aired on television, much less The WB.

Interestingly, both episodes were written by Jamie Babbit, better known as the director of But I’m a Cheerleader. Someone please give her a sitcom development deal. Thanks!

Now, the bad news. Intermixed with all these awesome characters are yawn-worthy “serious” plotlines: Will Brooke pursue her love of photography? Will Harrison tell Sam he has feelings for her? Will I fast forward until the next Mary Cherry scene? Despite a few awesome episodes (don’t miss “News of My Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated”), the second season collapses into melodrama (at one point, four characters are in the hospital, two with eating disorders). Nonetheless, I (along with many other twentysomething comedy writers) will always cherish Popular for its funny women and subversion of the 90s teen drama norm.

Leila Cohan-Miccio is a comedy writer in Brooklyn. She blogs here and keeps her work here.