Ten years ago, these things would have labeled Kirk Cameron a twerp. A wimp. A nerd. A Cub Scout.
Times change and so do the current crop of teen-agers on television. Today Cameron is the leading teen lust object in the land. He has enjoyed a full year as Teen Beat magazine's most popular cover subject. He gets 10,000 fan letters a month. (That is nowhere near Michael J. Fox's 20,000 letters a week, but Fox is in a class by himself.) He's shooting a movie now. A recent TV Guide cover story detailed his courtesy, thrift and enterprise.
Cameron's "Pains" character, Mike Seaver, often tries to put one over on his parents, but is basically a wittier version of Cameron.
Ten years ago, Henry Winkler's Arthur Fonzarelli was the leading teen lust object in the land. The Fonz, de facto star of "Happy Days," wore a leather jacket, drove a motorcycle and had little knowledge of table manners. Granted, as he grew more popular, the Fonz was spruced up by the show's writers, who sent him back to high school and caused many of the sitcom's moralisms to issue from his mouth. But the Fonz's burly essence remained intact until "Happy Days" expired in 1984.
By then, "Family Ties" was two years old. The Fonz, who had something in common with James Dean, gave way to Michael J. Fox's Alex Keaton, who has something in common with Wally and Beaver Cleaver. After Fox came Cameron. There hasn't been a muscular, or a sinful, TV teen-ager since.
"It's revenge of the nerds," said Mark Hirschfeld, the Embassy Studios casting director who cast "Square Pegs." "I think it's what kids want to see. Intellectuals, not hunks, are hot right now."
Here is what I saw, in a week of teen-watching:
Kirk Cameron's "Growing Pains" character told his parents he didn't want to go to college but, after watching his physician father deliver a baby, was made to understand the value of education and learned his lesson.
Jason Bateman's "Valerie" character borrowed his father's new car without asking and wrecked it, thereby learning his lesson.
Malcolm Jamal-Warner's "Cosby" character told his parents he wanted to take flying lessons, but then found out how much they cost, and learned his lesson.
Justine Bateman's "Family Ties" character was rude to an older woman assigned as her partner in a college class, but learned her lesson.
Granted, if you want grit and hoodlums, you should watch "Crime Story," not "Cosby." It's the nature of the sitcom to teach a lesson every 22 minutes, and it's natural that kids be on the receiving end. But these sitcom
adolescents are unreal even in their unreal contexts. Baldly insincere, they grin while they lie through their perfect teeth, because they know they're going to lose, and they don't even mind.
If Theo Huxtable were a real teen-ager, he would have no friends. (The ''Cosby" people seem to know this; they have given Theo a slick hustler of a buddy named Cockroach who serves the same function as Eddie Haskell did on ''Beaver"; he aids Theo in his clumsy machinations to outwit his parents.)
"Most of these kids are cuddly, not sexy," said Maggie Murphy, managing editor of Teen Beat. "We'd say Rob Lowe has a good bod, but we'd never say that about Cameron."
So teen actors are successful not because they are sexy, but because they aren't. "Cory Haim seems rather promising," said Murphy of the goofy star of ''Lucas" and "Roomies." Casting director Hirschfeld agreed: "He's rather sensitive and awkward."
"Ultimately, Kirk Cameron is the boy in front of you in class who torments you but whom you secretly have a crush on," Murphy added. "I'd say that kids who are like real kids are the most successful, with an asterisk by Michael J. Fox's name."