south of nowhere
(series rating)


Executive Producers: Tom Lynch and NancyLee Myatt

(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 changed everything.

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 me.

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 be happier.

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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Last updated: 10 Feb 2008