One of the Best Family Sitcoms on TV Is 20 Years Old. (Yeah, It’s Blossom.)

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July 28 2014 2:05 PM

Full Bloom

The complicated, endearing maturity of Blossom. Yes, Blossom.

Mayim Bialik as Blossom Russo in NBC's Blossom.
Mayim Bialik (second from left) as Blossom Russo in Blossom.

Photo courtesy NBC/Buena Vista Television

This month, for the first time in 15 years, Blossom began airing on television again, nightly on the Hub network. The sitcom about funky, precocious Blossom Russo (Mayim Bialik) and her family, which ran on NBC from 1990 to 1995, was in syndication for a few years immediately after its finale, but the third millennium has (give or take an Old Navy ad or SNL sketch) been a wasteland for Blossom and its signature whoas and zany hats. (Only the first two seasons have even been released on DVD.) But Blossom, despite its fairly time-specific ’90s stylings, is a show that, like its protagonist, was and remains mature beyond its years.

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Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

The series, created by Don Reo, who had worked on shows like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Rhoda (and currently writes for Two and a Half Men), was initially supposed to be about an emotionally astute teenage boy and his hip musician father. NBC asked that the boy become a girl. (“It meant that I could steal every story that The Wonder Years had ever done and no one would know it,” Reo joked.) NBC also worried that having such a child and a single, hip dad in one show was too much: In the series’ pilot, 14-year-old Blossom lived in Los Angeles with her nuclear family. By the second episode, in which Blossom gets her period and tries to buy tampons from a very young Giovanni Ribisi, Reo had prevailed on NBC: Her mother had moved to Paris to follow her own dreams (and Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” had been replaced by “My Opinionation” as the show’s theme song). Blossom and her older brothers, recovering addict (a bold choice at the time)  Anthony (Michael Stoyanov) and doltish Joey (Joey Lawrence, whom the show made a Tiger Beat pin up), lived with their relatively cool musician father Nick (Ted Wass). Blossom is an old-fashioned family values show, with some structural and emotional twists: a close-knit, slightly broken clan relying on dad, who often, but definitely not always, knows best.

Blossom is good, sensible, grounded, loveable, wise beyond her years. That is to say that she is the exact character that current conventional wisdom says it is both difficult and potentially boring to build a show around. Blossom rarely gets in any real trouble, and when she does—say, by running off with a boy in a leather jacket she loves but barely knows—she usually ends up being right: That boy, Vinnie (David Lascher), turns out to be a stand-up guy and her on-again-off-again boyfriend for the final three seasons of the show.

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Yet despite her decency, Blossom is not boring. She is the human equivalent of her dancing style: lively, bright, energetic, unembarrassed. She is precocious without being twee. She’s curious, kind, level-headed, smart, social—but she also has absolutely no chance of peaking in high school. Blossom is comfortable being who she is—that’s what all the crazy clothes are about, she has a personal style, and she will express it. And the show carries itself just like its heroine. The stakes may not be those of Breaking Bad, but especially in the early seasons, Blossom’s relaxed, confident energy is much more in keeping with the rhythms of real life than are the hyped-up-goings on of a soap opera or even the manic hijinks of a standard family sitcom.

One of the sweetest early episodes, “Such a Night,” takes place during a single long night in the Russo house. Nick confronts Joey about a phone bill racked up on sex lines, Tony tries and fails to keep a friend on the wagon, and Six and Blossom have an epic sleepover conversation—a long talk covering boys, plastic surgery, dancing, kissing, pregnancy, and whether they’ll still be friends when “we’re really old, like 30.” It’s My Dinner with Andre, Tweens, and a Laugh Track. Nothing exactly happens, but all that nothing feels exactly right:

Blossom, like any sitcom with teenagers, features lots of lessons learned, but most of those lessons skirt a cheesy Full House fate because they aren’t overly simplistic. (As the show went on, and Blossom got older, it started tackling Very Special Issues like alcoholism, assault, divorce, bulimia, and gun control, a little more heavy-handedly.) In the first season, Blossom and Six go to a make-out party instead of a movie and get busted. Blossom gets grounded, but has a very nuanced conversation with Nick about lying, which includes Blossom asking a parental brain-teaser: “Do you really think it’s possible for a kid to go through her teenage years without lying to her parents?” At the end of the episode Nick and Blossom have talked the incident through, but they haven’t reached an easy conclusion or declared that she’ll never lie again.

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