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Weekly Alibi Wallow in the Shame

'Popular' on the WB

By Scott Phillips

MARCH 28, 2000:  My friend Pat hates me -- a hate born from a scandalous passion set loose one night a week. I'm not talking the underpants-polka; she hates me because I got her hooked on "Popular." I didn't like it either -- at first. Then someone got me hooked. "You really should watch it," she purred. "Just part-way. If you don't like it, we'll stop." So I tried it again. And God help me, I loved it.

At first, "Popular" looked like just another teen TV show: Sam McPherson (Carly Pope) is part of the unpopular crowd at Kennedy High. She loathes ultra-popular Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb), co-captain of the cheerleading "Glamazons." Merry mix-ups ensue when Brooke's dad and Sam's mom get engaged and the battling schoolgirls are forced to become stepsisters and share a bathroom.

It took exactly two episodes for the show to become one big over-the-top cartoon, fueled by intelligent, clever writing and a wicked cast of secondary characters -- Glamazon über-bitch Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels); chubby dancing queen Carmen Ferrara (Sara Rue); Brooke's football star/lover of musical theater boyfriend Josh (Bryce Johnson), perky and snotty Southern princess Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman); frog-loving vegan Lilly Esposito (Tamara Mello); and the oddball collection of students in their orbit, including Popita "Poppy" Fresh and April and May Tuna (one of whom delights in eating dirt and kitty litter).

Once the set-up was out of the way, the show hit its stride with episodes like "Wild Wild Mess," wherein Nicole and Mary Cherry kidnap Gwyneth Paltrow's personal shopper and hold him in the school's basement in hopes of forcing Gwyneth to become Kennedy High's Guest Principal. Then there was "Caged," the episode where the girls all get their periods at the same time and find themselves locked in the bathroom together, only to discover they each have histories with Josh. In the midst of the frenzied catfighting, Mary Cherry tearfully reveals that she has webbed feet.

Don't get me wrong -- they're not all winners, and when the show gets PC, it really bogs down (the "Booty Camp" episode was a real stinker). But dialogue like "Cancel my subscription, 'cause I am so over your issues," and the Tuna twins cultivating slut-rocker Lolli Pop's nasty style as they contemplate sex with a balloon animal more than make up for it.

My only real complaint is the show's central conceit: that Carly Pope (who looks like the younger sister of Gina Gershon) is unable to land a boyfriend. There's only so far I can suspend my disbelief, y'know?


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