Remembering "Young Americans"

Beneath heavy coding and subterfuge, "Young Americans" got a lot right about the uneasy, dangerous ground that closeted queer boys trod at the turn of the century.

Note: Over the summer, I will be highlighting on Substack some of my overlooked and less-read cultural and historical essays and blog posts that deserve a second chance. The essay below first ran on my blog last year to mark the twentieth anniversary of Young Americans.

The high school drama is a staple of modern American television and movies, but the genre’s audience understands that its stories cannot be taken literally. To do so would invite troubling, dangerous thoughts. And so, the high school drama exists in two superimposed states. The surface level tells stories about teenagers barely into puberty navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence. But the high school drama as a genre demands its audience look beyond the surface. It uses attractive actors of college age or older and asks the viewer to lust after them as they move through stories more appropriate to adults and reach levels of romantic ecstasy and agony that are on the surface absurd. Anyone who has had to look up the age of an actor on one of these shows to determine how guilty to feel about the sexualization of high schoolers recognizes that tension. Viewers understand, however, that the high school drama isn’t really an exercise in training potential pedophiles. Instead, we are supposed to look past the surface level to a mythic representation of archetypical ideals.

When I was in college at the turn of the century, I gradually realized that the stories so many “teen” shows and movies told about high school were really about college. After cracking that code, suddenly the inconsistencies and absurdities of the TV high school started to make sense. I learned the truth at nineteen, watching a summer replacement show on the now-defunct WB network. Attractive young adults in the early twenties passed through the traumas and triumph of life at a leafy northeastern college by a lake not much different than my own. Except that the show claimed these obvious men and women were 15-year-olds and that their college campus was, preposterously, a boarding school where teens lived on their own, came and went as they pleased, and discussed literature like grad students.

Coca-Cola Presents Young Americans was an outlier even among WB teen dramas at the height of the Dawson’s Creek era. Although it lasted only eight episodes, it was ahead of its time in many ways, not all of them good. Originally conceived by Columbia Tri-Star Television as a fall series for the 1999-2000 season, the show narrowly made it to air in the summer of 2000 when Coca-Cola ponied up $6 million to rebrand the series under their name. The pilot was reshot to feature more Coca-Cola products. On The Daily Show in August of that year, Steve Carrell blasted Young Americans for its blatant product placement, calling it an “hour-long commercial.” Today, we would hardly notice. Coke also had the WB write the series’ protagonist into fellow Columbia Tri-Star production Dawson’s Creek to retroactively make the new show a Dawson’s spinoff.

Young Americans is an artifact of a particular time in American history. Bathed in the yellow hues of perpetual sunset, it has the warm glow of the long afternoon of the American dream, a portrait of an innocent world poised on the edge of disaster. Everyone is content and happy most of the time, and everyone is startlingly white. The teens talk about the roaring economy and how it will last for years to come. The Nasdaq crashed between the time the episodes filmed and when they aired. Soon enough, the dot-com bubble took down the economy, which lurched from crisis to crisis afterward. They spoke too of how they had never known war. A year later, 9/11 launched the era of perpetual war. To watch the show now is to revisit what George F. Will once called the “holiday from history,” an idyll frozen in time.

The bare bones of the show are instantly familiar from a hundred other similar shows. Young Americans is the story of Will Krudski (Rodney Scott), a poor 15-year-old kid from an abusive home who arrives on scholarship at the prestigious Rawley Academy for Boys, a luxe boarding school populated entirely by the sons of the wealthy and powerful, and conveniently located in Will’s hometown. He quickly befriends his roommate Scout Calhoun (Mark Famiglietti), a senator’s son. Will introduces Scout to his childhood friend Bella (Kate Bosworth), and Scout and Bella fall in love. Meanwhile, the dean’s son, Hamilton Fleming (Ian Somerhalder), similarly befriends another unusual outsider, Jake Pratt (Katherine Moennig), whose motorcycle got his engine revving.

But before the end of the pilot, the show took a hard turn into territory not regularly seen in teen soaps of the era. Bella’s stepfather tells Scout that he can’t date Bella because the two are secret siblings, and Scout struggles with his incestuous attraction for her. Jake kisses Hamilton, and Hamilton panics, worrying that he may be “a gay.” Jake is revealed to be Jacqueline, a girl posing as a boy to get back at her negligent mother. It did not escape my teenage notice that Coca-Cola was cool with putting its name on (apparent) incest, but featuring actual gay people seemed a step too far.

During the show’s initial run, Hamilton’s relationship with Jake attracted the most press attention because it circled around questions of gender and sexuality in an unusual way. To modern eyes, it’s confusing that show skips over Hamilton’s deep struggle with his attraction to Jake, and that it takes not a single beat after Hamilton finally accepts himself as gay (his term—today, he’d probably call himself bisexual, pansexual, or something else) before undermining his journey. Only four episodes into what was planned to be a multiyear series, Jake reveals her true gender to Hamilton, who is relieved that he no longer needs to explore the reasons he was attracted to what he thought was a male. He attributes it all to Jake’s strong female smell. Seriously. It’s also not entirely comforting that the show asks us to see Hamilton as a romantic hero despite him twice reminding Jake that he might have become violent toward her for making him think he was gay.

And yet, this was only model of young gay male love I had ever seen on TV, and only the second queer relationship. The first was Willow and Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer only a few weeks earlier. By the fall, the National Post declared 2000 the “year of the queer,” noting that 23 primetime programs for the 2000-2001 season featured “homosexual characters,” few of whom, though, had significant gay stories. Despite being an avid TV watcher at the time, I can barely remember any of them, except one. The show Young Americans spun off from, Dawson’s Creek, had a gay story arc that culminated in Jack (Kerr Smith) coming out as gay and passionately kissing another boy in show’s season 3 finale that May—considered a major milestone for television at the time. Nevertheless, the story ended in sadness and heartbreak rather than love. Things were changing, but slowly.

Young Americans, on the other hand, began production a year earlier, in 1999, and became one of the very last in twentieth-century Hollywood’s very long line of coded productions that attempted to tell gay stories without having any gay people in them. It stood at a pivotal moment of transition in Hollywood between what Vito Russo once called “the celluloid closet” and a more open future, and the tension showed.

Beneath the attempt to refashion Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into a queer story neutered for a mainstream audience, Young Americans got a lot right about the uneasy, dangerous ground that closeted queer boys in college faced in those days, just two years after college student Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered in what was widely seen as a hate crime.

When I went off to college in a leafy lakeside town the year before, a few of my high school friends went to. They were football players, so one night during a weeklong freshman summer orientation my dorm room filled up with drunken football players, one of whom brought his temporary roommate with him. I had long ago learned the limits of what I could say about myself around people like them, about the choice I had to make between brotherhood and honesty. But the roommate did not. Near midnight in a room full of inebriated small-town boys, he decided to come out. At first, there were jokes. Then there was anger. One of the boys shouted and punched a wall and made threats. Several refused to be in the same room with one of “them” and stormed out. The college, in its infinite wisdom, thought it a good idea to pair that roommate with more football players when assigning permanent housing for the fall. It made for a long semester, and I understood the tightrope I walked. It was inconceivably frightening that a group of warm, friendly young men could turn scared and violent with a word.

So I understood the symbolism behind the story of Hamilton and Jake, the pain of having to hide yourself, and the toll that it took. But it wasn’t the story I identified with.

The more conventional half of Young Americans appealed to me more because I saw—or thought I saw—a story more like my own underneath the trappings of a conventional romance. Since the high school drama demands we read adult stories into tales of children, it was no great stretch to read a little bit deeper into the awkward love stories surrounding Will and Scout.

Young Americans presents Will and Scout as fast friends from the first time they met, but even at nineteen I recognized that the show did so in a very unusual way. Will and Scout have a classic meet-cute, end up nearly naked, and bond with one another while baring their souls during a long, romantic walk through a sun-dappled forest. It was straight out of a romance. It also didn’t escape my notice that Scout’s love interest, Bella, wasn’t just Will’s childhood friend and didn’t just share his socioeconomic background and speaking style. Bosworth and Scott also bore an uncanny resemblance, from hair color to facial features. I couldn’t have been the only one to think that the incest plot keeping Scout from Bella was symbolism representing what a more honest story would have depicted as the homophobia keeping Scout from Will.

Sure, I might have been reading too much into a throwaway Coke commercial masquerading as an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, but the early episodes of Young Americans practically demanded this reading. In the second episode, Scout talks to Will like a boyfriend, enthusiastically gushing that Will has “finally” allowed him to meet his friends. Very similar scenes occur in the second and third episodes, where both Will and Bella find themselves in the middle of a triangle, torn between their childhood friend Sean (Matt Czuchry) and Scout. Twice Scout gets into fights with Sean. The first ends with Scout more or less jealously looking for Will to choose him over Sean. The second involves Scout wanting Bella to choose him over Sean but being unable to ask because of, well, incest. Will chooses Scout. Bella wants to but cannot. The surface level of the story is ridiculous. The symbolic one was very clear: Scout’s story with Will was really happening, while his story with Bella was his romantic fantasy of Will, thwarted by what that time saw as society and nature.

I don’t think a closeted teen in 2000 would have failed to relate.

When read in that context, the rest of the story starts to make more sense. It explains why Will’s love interest is Scout’s childhood friend, an exaggerated version of him. To my young eyes, both halves of Young Americans wanted to be stories of two boys in love with each other. But instead we got a neutered story made acceptable to Coca-Cola and the WB, for whom red-hot incest was AOK but two boys together was not.

How much of the subtext was intentional and how much was due to me projecting myself onto the narrative is hard to say. The creator of Young Americans, Steve Antin, is himself openly gay, and was once David Geffen’s boyfriend. I have a feeling it wasn’t all just coincidence.

Near the end of the show’s run, in an apparent effort to position the show for another season and a long run, the story became more conventional, and it started to undo all the hints and subtext that marked those first few episodes. The effort failed, and the WB canceled the show after just two months. A few weeks later, however, I told someone I was gay for the first time in my life. Young Americans didn’t make that happen, but the most prominent model I had for being gay was Will & Grace, which trafficked in flamboyant stereotypes straight from Paul Lynd’s repertoire. I couldn’t see myself in that world, and so it helped to be able to imagine something closer to my own experience.

Young Americans used the misadventures of straight fifteen-year-olds at boarding school to tell the story of queer boys at college. Nineteen-year-old me appreciated that Young Americans seemed to be speaking to me in a secret language, promising that the cute boy in the dorm might have hidden depths, that the world might be kinder than it seemed. Two decades later, 39-year-old me still feels the ache of the warm hope of a long-ago summer, but my heart still hurts for that teenage boy who had to look so hard at a Coke commercial to see himself reflected on screen among the young, the happy, and the beautiful.