Many Millennials in their late 20s and early 30s remember Nickelodeon’s attempt to reach out to a more mature (read: teen and young adult) audience with the launch of The N, a network devoted to teen dramas and comedies. But few of us thought that they would venture outside of the norms of heterosexual relationships and actually push the envelope in any meaningful way. Fortunately, we were wrong, and that’s exactly what they did with South of Nowhere.
On the surface, South of Nowhere is about the massive social transitions being made by the Carlin family when they move from Ohio to Los Angeles, California. But it is so much more than that! The story of Paula and Arthur Carlin (Maeve Quinlan and Rob Moran) and their children Spencer (Gabrielle Christian), Glen (Chris Hunter), and Clay (Danso Gordon) is interesting enough on its own. Paula is a doctor while her husband, Arthur, is a social worker, which makes her the breadwinner. This dynamic is almost never seen on television and when it is, it’s with either party (sometimes both) being incredibly bitter about this reversal in gender roles, but when we meet the Carlins, the couple is more than happy with this structure. Spencer, the couple’s only daughter, is doted on by both of her parents, as well as Clay, their adopted Black son, and their son Glen’s best friend. Glen, though loved by his parents, is presented as the “loser” of the family, aimless and average. Spencer is beautiful, bright, and well-behaved, while Clay, an amazing student and athlete, is the golden boy, and basically a poster child for trans-racial adoption.
The family’s relationships with one another are interesting enough, but when the Carlins come to LA, everything they thought they knew about themselves and each other is tested. Paula is busier in the hospital that she’d ever been in their small Ohio town, Arthur has become a little fish in a big pond, Glen feels more lost than ever, Clay is exploring race and relationships (both romantic and platonic) with other Black people, and Spencer finds herself questioning her sexual orientation for the first time.
No topic was off-limits on South of Nowhere. Race, racism, class, classism, sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, and addiction are all explored with surprising relevancy and sensitivity. The rest of the Carlins’ relationship with Clay is (thankfully) not reduced to “colourblind” platitudes. Homophobia within the family is discussed honestly, as are the unrealistic and often selfish expectations that many parents project onto their children. Crises, though often messy, are dealt with believably. As I’ve mentioned in my review of Train to Busan, it’s easy to love someone when things are going well, but true love is tested, and on this show, the perfect, model family gets tested in ways which they never saw coming.
South of Nowhere is brilliant for myriad reasons, but my top two would have to be the way that the show handles race, as well as coming out. Clay’s race and the unique racial experiences which he endures are acknowledged. He isn’t ashamed of being Black or desperate to assimilate or downplay it. The teaching moments between Clay and his White family, as well as his interactions with his new friend Sean (Austen Parros) and girlfriend, Chelsea (Aasha Davis), make it clear that The N (thankfully) hired some Black writers for this. Ironically, Spencer’s sexual orientation is the biggest source of contention for her liberal parents, particularly Paula, who is an “ally” of the LBGTQIA community… just as long as her own daughter isn’t gay. The growth that Spencer and even the most tolerant of her family members experiences is refreshing to see, as is the evolution of her relationship with Ashley (Mandy Musgrave).
Though packed with pretty, thin White people and having what was (arguably) considered one of the most attractive casts on television at the time, South of Nowhere‘s near perfect navigation of people of colour, and not reducing them to tropes and stereotypes, as well as the honest conversations around how confusing sexual identity can be for teens and their families alike made it must-see TV for me. Though South of Nowhere only got 3 seasons (as well as live webisodes on The N’s website, The Click), it’s one of those shows that, while short-lived, had a tremendous impact. I give this one 4.25 stars.