Let’s face the simple, undeniable fact that, when it comes to writing child characters on television, they suck. Okay, not all, but most. I don’t know what the problem is, maybe the writers just can’t remember what it was like to be a kid; or they think kids are too simple or dumb to truly delve into when developing characters. But, all too often when writers try to write for kids on TV shows they tend to create characters you just can’t stand. I’m talking about you Wesley Crusher, and you Tanner kids, and you Wesley Crusher, and you Rick Stratton, and you Wesley Crusher.
Fortunately these writers find redemption in high school age characters. Perhaps it has something to do with the transition into adulthood, but these kids are older, wiser, and decidedly cooler. I’m talking about you Alex P. Keaton, and you Theo Huxtable, and you Bryce Lynch. Yup, TV script writers have a far better track record when it comes to writing high schoolers.
But that’s not what the following list is about – we’re looking for the few cool kids pre-high school. Only middle school/junior high and below here. Often times the series was successful enough that they grew into high schoolers or beyond. Sometimes I’ll mentioned that, sometimes I won’t. But, in essence, these kids were pretty cool from the get-go. But first some history and rules.
Instead of Top 10 or Top 5 lists, I created Magnificent 7 lists with some film-loving friends in college. We all liked The Magnificent Seven with Hollywood’s All-Time Greatest Actor (Yul Brynner); so I suggested we take that as the name of our best films list. For me, it evolved into ranking everything I deemed worthy of ranking into groups of 7. For this list, I counted groups of kids (siblings, friends, etc.) as one. So many times they played off on each other so well you had to count them together, you’ll see what I mean. But, the list awaits…
7. Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson (The Simpsons): Sure they’re cartoons, not real kids, and voiced by two adults and a plunger, I don’t care. The Simpson clan is made cooler by these three; from Bart’s near-criminal mischief (or sometimes totally criminal) to Lisa’s intelligent sarcasm to Maggie’s scene stealing responses to the adults, particularly Homer, these kids are often more realistic than their real life contemporaries. Perhaps my favorite line came from Lisa when playing youth ice hockey, “Milhouse isn’t wearing shin guards; hack the bone! HACK THE BONE!”
6. DJ and Darlene Connor (Roseanne): Roseanne was an instant hit and the kids were a great part of the reason. (Sorry, high-schooler Becky, cool as you were you’re not qualified for this list.) Darlene’s intense sarcasm and wit matched perfectly with Roseanne Barr’s, but few remember how well DJ fit in to the whole story. He was particularly effective at annoying the crap out of Darlene, and her responses were perfectly written in line with her character. All-in-all, the Connor kids may have been some of the most consistent child characters in all of television, and consistently cool at that.
5. Kevin Arnold and Paul Pfeiffer (The Wonder Years): Why no Winnie Cooper, you ask? Well, she certainly played a key role in the whole saga, but as boys are only just discovering girls at that age it was always the relationship between Kevin and Paul that caught my eye. It’s like the writer said in Stand By Me, something to the effect of never really having friends like you did in the junior high age bracket. Paul’s nerdiness played off Kevin’s semi-popular, semi-jocular, everyday kid. And the episode where Kevin picks Paul and all the other kids who get picked last to play basketball in gym class is a true representation of friendship and rebellion that boys that age are apt to experience. But it’s the Star Trek scene that kills me every time, one of the best Shatner impressions ever pulled off by a young Fred Savage. (Sorry, I was too lazy to link it here – just go to YouTube and type in Wonder Years Star Trek.)
4. Brad, Randy and Mark Taylor (Home Improvement): The popular jock, the wise-cracking honor student, and the awkward little brother – the perfect children to fit into the family modeled after the comedy of Tim Allen. Brad and Randy immediately showed character, but it took one season before giving little Mark more to do than just be the cute, annoying little brother to the two popular older ones. (Gee, I wonder what that’s like!) So many episodes where Tim and Jill had to deal with one or all of the kids and their growing pains made up a fair amount of comedic and dramatic meat for this show the kids had to have strong personalities. Even their interactions with Wilson and Al showed how kids relationships go beyond the family and into the community, or human family, as well. Well-written kids, and important pieces to one of the most popular shows of its time.
3. Malcolm, Reese and Dewey (Malcolm in the Middle): A boy genius with devious nature, a lovable bully, and a quiet little brother hiding talents and creativity beneath a seemingly blank exterior – the beauty of Malcolm in the Middle. I didn’t get to watch much of this show beyond the first three seasons, but those three were amazing, and it all centered around the kids. Yes, Malcolm’s parents and oldest brother, Francis, were a large part of the show (and all also very cool) but few shows are largely carried by the kids. From the first scene of the pilot episode, when Malcolm gets tested, I just knew this was going to be different. From Malcolm’s struggles with his own identity as a genius trying to live the life of a normal kid, to Reese being the badass bully but also more than capable of doing the right thing for his family, to Dewey’s many scene gems (learning to play piano when nobody’s watching, jabbing Reese with the fork while Reese is trying to behave to get his license, and earning the attention of the ultra-hot babysitter at the expense of his two older brothers) there was just so much hilarious material packed into every episode. This is one series I’d like to get on DVD someday; and I’m a cheapskate!
2. Wesley T. Owens (Mr. Belvedere): How can I rank this kid above Malcolm, Reese and Dewey – because, in a way, he’s kind of all three rolled into one. The conniving, wise-cracking, manipulative little brat was the perfect foil for the proper Mr. Belvedere. But he also had his great moments of following non-traditional paths, like taking ballet once he realizes the athleticism necessary. There were more levels than just future con-artist to Wesley. Yet it was his borderline evil personality that won over audiences. I’ll never forget when he left a bowl of cereal out at the table; when his sister begins to eat it he says, under his breath but just loud enough to be heard, “First minute, subject shows no adverse effects.” Or the time he locked the claustrophobic substitute teacher in the closet; when he learns what claustrophobic means he shows his caring side, “Oh, next time I’ll lock him in the gym.”
1. Cory Matthews, Shawn Hunter, Topanga Lawrence (Boy Meets World): I can’t help but think their growth over the course of the series may be manipulating me in this top ranking. These three certainly did grow throughout the series, but it all began with season one, when they were still young kids and well within the parameters of this list. The show dealt with all sorts of issues growing kids have to deal with; sex, abuse, identity, self-esteem, honesty, integrity, you name it. Even in dealing with some grown-up topics, they kept it family friendly without letting these three become one-dimensional. My little brother-in-law said it was by far the best TGIF program on ABC, and he was right. It was good enough to offer the new Disney Channel spin-off Girl Meets World. The kids there are pretty cool as well; just like their parents.