On Monday September 5, 1977, NBC premiered James at 15, a TV movie about 15-year-old James Hunter (Lance Kerwin), whose life is upended when his family moves from Oregon to Boston in the middle of the school year. After a few days at his new high school, where fitting in proves difficult, he hits the road in hopes of reuniting with the girl he left behind, Lacey (Melissa Sue Anderson); and, along the way, he falls in with an art student (Kate Jackson) who teaches him the ways of the road (aka hitch hiking). It did well in the ratings – topped them, in fact – and, as a result, was turned into a TV series that debuted at the end of October.
For its era, both the TV movie and series were unusually frank. It was no Born Innocent, mind you, yet delved into the gradients of teenage life with as much honesty as the network censors would allow. (That interference caused the creator/showrunner, novelist Dan Wakefield, to resign midway through the season.) The series also broke stereotypes with James’ friends, who include aspiring anthropologist-psychologist Marlene (Susan Myers), whose dad is a working-class joe, and capitalist-in-the-making Sly (David Hubbard), a black kid whose straitlaced parents are into classical music. James and the supporting characters aren’t caricatures, in other words, but the kind of kids one might pass in the era’s high-school corridors. Likewise, James’ parents (Linden Chiles, Lynn Carlin) and sisters (Deirdre Berthrong, Kim Richards) come across as variants of the real thing.
That’s not to say the series is perfect. Some episodes veer into ABC Afterschool Special territory, teaching the (presumably) younger viewers life lessons from afar. One early episode, for example, finds James trying to woo a girl (Teri Nunn, who later found fame with the pop group Berlin) with a “bad” reputation only to discover she’s far from promiscuous. Another finds his best friend from Oregon visiting Boston in order to see cancer specialists; he dies, of course. Another possible love interest leads him to consider joining a cult. And, late in the season, he befriends a girl (Rosanna Arquette) who’s an alcoholic. Other stories venture into the “ick” territory, such as his older sister’s involvement with one of her college professors or his uncle “gifting” him with a prostitute for his 16th birthday (James declines, as he’s late for a date with a Swedish exchange student). Along the way, brief Walter Mitty-esque interludes punctuate the stories, but are far more annoying than humorous.
Technically speaking, James – who celebrated his 16th birthday in February 1978, making his birth year 1962 – was a late addition to the Baby Boom generation. A “generation,” for those unsure of what one entails, is defined as people born during a specific stretch of years, though social scientists often quibble about when each begins and/or ends. Individual generations experience the same cultural and societal touchstones and/or upheavals; and those shared references, in turn, result in something akin to a hive-like mindset that plays out in pop culture, politics and societal shifts. In the case of the Baby Boomers, the years range from 1946 (some experts say ’43) to 1964; they experienced the JFK assassination, Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War and Woodstock, among other events. Generation X (1965-80), aka my generation, came next; I tend to think of us more as Generation Jan, however, as – like Jan Brady – we’re the middle child forever overshadowed by our older and younger siblings, the aforementioned Boomers and Millennials (1981-2000), most of whom came of age in the years following 9/11, when the Afghanistan and Iraq wars raged.
Which is to say, teenage James has more in common with first-wave Gen Xers like myself than first- or second-wave boomers, as the defining events of the 1960s would have been beyond his ken. That’s where “micro-generations” come in – subsets that bridge two generations. The ill-named Generation Jones (1954-65) and Xennials (late 1970s to early ‘80s) are two examples. James may have seen news reports on the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and Woodstock as a little kid, but the more mundane matters of childhood would have been foremost on his mind. Watergate, the Bicentennial and Bad News Bears would have all penetrated his consciousness, on the other hand, simply because he was older.
For any late-stage Boomer or first-wave Xer, James at 15/16 (it updated its title on his birthday) is worth watching, if only for nostalgia’s sake. It recalls, via its sensational yet soft-scrubbed stories, a time when kids dressed as we dressed, talked as we talked, and acted like we acted (though the lack of video-arcade scenes is a strike against it). That it’s yet to be officially released on DVD means second-hand recordings uploaded to YouTube or purchased via the bootleg market will have to do. So be it.