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.

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had prevailed on NBC: Her mother had moved to Paris to follow her own dreams (and Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” had been replaced by “My Opinionation” as the show’s theme song).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.

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.

It’s still rare for sitcoms, even the good ones, to embrace ambiguity. But in episode after episode, Blossom ends where other shows would include one more clarifying beat. In the first episode of the second season, Blossom narrates a long story to her diary about the question of whether she went to second base with a boy named Jimmy. At the end of the episode, Blossom realizes that if she writes down what happened—whether she got to second base or not—it won’t be private. So she doesn’t. We never find out. In another episode, Blossom gets tricked into going to a dance with a geek. Worried about her social capital, she lies that she can’t go, and then feels so horrible about it she changes her mind. On a different show, her guilt would exonerate her, they’d go to the dance, and he might even turn out to be cute. On Blossom, the geek isn’t having it. “Are you suffering from the delusion that you’re super cool?” he asks. The episode ends with her confessing her guilt to her father, who reassures her that’s what makes her a good person: “It’s a good sign you feel bad, it means you’re a good person. Really good people are miserable all the time,” he says.

Yes, Blossom is very ’90s specific. It’s not just the clothes, the lack of Internet and cellphones, the entire episode spoofing Madonna’s Truth or Dare. It’s not just the guest stars, who include Will Smith, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Alf, C+C Music Factory, Doogie-era Neil Patrick Harris, and Phylicia Rashad drawing fallopian tubes on a birthday cake. The show has a kind of Zen calm about its progressive cultural politics that feels both specific to its era and refreshing in our own. By 1994, near the end of Blossom’s run, partisanship was shutting down the government, but Blossom wasn’t that worried about being polarizing and Blossom never hesitated to declare herself a feminist. (In “Blue Blossom,” a great episode that consists mostly of Blossom moping around, Joey gets a letter from first lady Hillary Clinton asking for input on her health care initiative. He has some thoughts about hair care.)

In “Losing Your Religion,” Blossom has to practice and learn about another religion as a school assignment. Blossom, who gets assigned Judaism—something of an in-joke about Bialik’s own religion—says she got one of the “biggies” because when the teacher asked the class what religion they were, she was the only one who said “none,” even though, as Nick points out, her family celebrates Christmas. Nick says, “Look honey, I was raised in the church, but I rejected it in the ’60s along with everything else my parents liked. … So we decided that until you could choose for yourself, we’d bring you up believing in the strength of the family.” “The divorce kind of hurt that a little,” Blossom replies. “Well, I think we’re still a pretty strong family,” Nick says. This scene, a kind of secular cri de coeur, is not even the episode’s Full House moment (that comes, later, when Six almost gets pressured into having sex with a boy). It’s almost a throwaway, a casual, short conversation at the very beginning of the episode, book-ended by jokes.

Because the actors were so young when the show started—Lawrence was 14; Von Oy was 13; Bialik was 15 but looked younger, and had recently made a name for herself playing the young Bette Midler in Beaches, a movie Blossom and Six would have watched a million times—the show has the Harry Potter effect: Everything else aside, it’s touching just to watch the actors grow old.

But there’s no need to put everything else aside. One of the running, bittersweet jokes of Blossom, about a really grown-up kid growing up, is that she doesn’t want to. “I don’t like getting older. I don’t want to get older. What could be better than being 16?” she says to Tony in “Blue Blossom,” dressed all in black and a beret, moping about her 17th birthday. Not even Blossom could stop herself from turning into a real adult, right before our very eyes.