Youth and the older crowd: The Almighty Johnsons and redefining coming of age television.

Author:Beeler, Karin
Position:Youth Culture in Film and Television

Coming of age series have populated American television over the last few decades. Shows like The Wonder Years, Gilmore Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have presented different kinds of teen characters in transition. Usually these series foreground a teenaged male or female protagonist and include the narrative conventions associated with coming of age him or television: "young heterosexuality, frequently with a romance plot; intense age-based peer relationships and conflict either within those relationships or with an older generation ... coming-of-age plots focused on motifs like virginity, graduation, and the makeover" (Driscoll, Teen Film, 2).

A current New Zealand television fantasy dramedy, The Almighty Johnsons (which was broadcast on TV3 in New Zealand from 2011-2013 for three seasons) (1) incorporates some of these common coming of age conventions including young romance, the virginity motif, peer relationships and conflicts with an older generation. The series, co-created by James Griffin and Rachel Lang, enhances the conventions of the Bildungsroman (2) or coming of age narrative by adding the fantasy premise of characters who have alternate identities as gods' and focuses on a twenty-one year old student, Axl Johnson, who discovers that he is the Norse god Odin. The Almighty Johnsons also extends the concept of "coming of age" and the kind of behavior usually associated with "youth" to a variety of age groups including twenty-somethings, and older characters in their 30s and 40s. The Almighty Johnsons seems to be responding to some of the social issues affecting Western society including children who are still financially dependent on their parents. It also engages with issues of dependence and independence as they affect older characters who may be standins for baby boomers, and the series reflects the changes in the family structure in New Zealand society from the norm of dual parent families to a greater number of single parent families. (4) The genre of the fantasy dramedy and ITV3's redefinition of its target audience also facilitate the changing representations of youth, adulthood or coming of age in contemporary television culture and in Western society.

The initial focus of The Almighty Johnsons involves the coming of age of Axl Johnson (Emmett Skilton), a young New Zealander who was essentially raised by his older brother Mikkel or Mike (Tim Balme) in the absence of both parents. The show incorporates some of the conventions of teen films; Axl is a student who shares a flat with two friends, enjoys drinking and partying, and (except for his studies) appears to live a life with very little direction. This part of the narrative does not sound too different from coming of age films or American television series like The OC or That 70s Show which highlight youth culture, until Mike tells his brother Axl on his 21st birthday that he is from a family of gods and that he will become one too. Despite its New Zealand setting, the show begins to resemble the now familiar format of other "coming of age" fantasy television series like The Vampire Diaries, Charmed or Teen Wolf where a male or female protagonist acquires a new identity as a supernatural creature or entity (in Teen Wolf, Scott the protagonist is bitten by a werewolf). These shows appeal to teen and twenty-something audiences, often because their characters are at life changing stages that may parallel those of the viewers who are increasingly faced with adult responsibilities but who may be reluctant to accept them. On his twenty-first birthday Axl's brothers take him to a forest and reveal that they are all Norse gods with different powers. They then tell him to take off his clothes as part of his initiation process and direct him to hold a sword above his head. Axl's transformative moment involves a rite of passage as his brothers watch how he is struck by lightning while holding up a sword. The coming of age twist is that he is uncertain about how exactly he has changed; he still looks the same, and he is still waiting to find out which god he has become because only Olaf, his 92 year old grandfather and family oracle--who looks like a man in his 30s, and acts like a man in his 20s--has this knowledge. Olaf eventually provides the grand revelation when he utters the name "Odin" much to the astonishment of Axl's other brothers as their stunned expressions suggest. Even Axl appears to know that Odin is "the big Kahuna" of the gods. Odin is considered the ruler of the Norse gods or the ruler of Asgard, the home of the gods. Axl then asks Mike, "If I'm Odin, how come you still get to tell me what to do?" and Mike responds, "I'm still your big brother," thus indicating that Axl's coming of age initiation is not synonymous with immediate maturity.

Perhaps because The Almighty Johnsons is a television series (with an ensemble cast) and not a him, it can develop the concept of "coming of age" in a more nuanced way that challenges the tidier kind of transformation that might be presented in a two hour film. Axl must come to grips with the expectations surrounding his new role as Odin when he interacts with friends and family and the world at large, including encounters with other mythic characters like Loki and even Maori gods. Upon learning from his grandfather Olaf (Ben Barrington) that he is the god Odin, his excited response is: "Odin. I've heard of him. What can he do? Can he do cool shit? ("It's a Kind of Birthday Present" 1.1) However, the first episode shows that being a god--a metaphor for coming of age and becoming an adult--is not just about doing "cool shit." He must learn to control his power as he discovers when he unthinkingly slices off a piece of his friend's...

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