While Hilary Duff is a smart businesswoman in real life, a lot of people might be surprised to see her playing a prodigy on network TV for the 2009-2010 season. Most of Duff’s TV and movie roles so far have depicted blondes of average if not typical (or perhaps stigmatized) intelligence levels. Whether that was because she was forced into taking roles that were more identifiable for a family audience, then perhaps you have an explanation. Certainly her near-classic Lizzie McGuire character at Disney wasn’t out to depict the latest fictional prodigy on the block. Disney has never really allowed their star characters to be prodigies and instead be more relatable to the average teenager. And that’s been a successful formula for the most part.
In real life, though, the chance of running into a prodigious teenager is increasing by the month. Thirty to forty years ago, a young prodigy was considerably rarer, particularly here in America. In the field of music, for instance, you’d be more apt to see a prodigy from Europe or Asia. Well, it’s still that way to a large degree, though America has since developed its stronger share of kids with eerily adult brains. Many of those kids aren’t necessarily whiz kids in music either.
As commonplace as it’s starting to be, you’ll occasionally get a prodigy who gets written about in the press because he or she managed to do something that’s never been done before by any other of their type. A couple of years ago, there was a California girl named Kathleen Holtz who happened to be a rare prodigy in the field of law. Not that you can’t find some brilliant young legal minds out there, though not typically in one’s teen years when that much intellectual engagement is usually superseded by the usual teenage angst over life in general. Holtz, however, seemed to have one of those strange prodigious traits of having a natural affinity for law at a young age rather than anything to do with education.
When Holtz passed the California State Bar exam at the age of 18, you could pretty much predict either a movie being made or a TV show about her life. Leave it up to former “Northern Exposure” star and current star of “Numbers”, Rob Morrow, to latch onto the idea for a TV series to get his foot farther into the door of TV producing.
Let’s be thankful we have an intelligent actor turned producer who just so happens to not be hellbent on creating the next variation of reality show. Instead, he’ll be bringing back a small part of TV that’s been missing for a while: Smart young people as star characters.
Let’s also give some credit to Hilary Duff who reportedly had four TV shows choices to choose from with her incredible deal with NBC. The fact that she chose the show that had a smart character (when the other three undoubtedly didn’t have one) proves to me Duff wants to do something significant in entertainment as an adult. Even though she’s probably too young to remember shows like “Doogie Howser M.D.” in the late 80’s/early 90’s, it was really the first TV show that dealt with a teenager being cerebrally advanced enough to have a professional high-end career.
Clear back to the days of radio and the first three decades of TV, children were always made to look like typical kids of the era, if perhaps made to look dumber than many kids really were in real life back then. In fact, a lot of child actors of yore were intellectually advanced enough where the roles they were playing became just a job rather than true satisfaction they found later with more advanced roles…if they got that far. What made Doogie Howser such a standout is that the show explored the psychological aspects to a teenager having a professional career before he was even 18.
It wasn’t until the final episode of “Doogie Howser” in 1993 when, after psychological analysis of himself and fellow prodigies, Doogie decided to quit his job in medicine to try to lead a more normal life. If you remember at the time, ending the show that way ruffled the feathers of a few of the show’s fans. Nevertheless, it provided a deeper truth to how some prodigies function–or can’t function–in society when they shouldn’t have such pressures at a young age.
The only current example where you can get a sense that the child of the family is smarter than everybody else (and could have issues later because of it) is Lisa Simpson on “The Simpsons.” It shouldn’t surprise anybody “The Simpsons” picked up on the realities of many families having smart kids who just don’t fit in with the average and below average kids, hence leading to psychological issues as the result. After all, the show has picked up every nuance of family life and pop culture in hilarious detail. But if the show lasts another 20 years, perhaps they should explore where Doogie Howser left off.
Then again, Hilary Duff could do the same thing playing Elizabeth Holtz if the series takes off. Before that, they should probably change the title from the current working title of “Barely Legal.” A clever title to be sure–yet could be taken the wrong way. Or, it could be the message this is a show for adults about an 18-year-old who has to now live the life of a sophisticated adult. While perhaps not ready for Harvard, Duff is far from dumb and likely understands some of that pain of wanting to be something more significant than pop culture allows at a young age.
This is likely a much more diffuse issue in America than we’ve long understood. All of it may be the result of better diets making smarter kids–or perhaps just natural evolution. Whatever the case, America has true prodigies out there that don’t get reflected enough in the wider picture of the U.S. where we frequently get knocked for having a nation of dunce kids.
No, we probably never expected Hilary Duff to be the one who’d bring that to the fore in the beginnings of her more mature acting career. Heaven help us for having such a dearth of TV characters like that for so long other than Lisa Simpson, who’s ultimately stuck in an age time warp. Yet irony will eventually paint the picture of intelligent TV showing how intelligence can ultimately be a liability in America…