Bubblegum Tv

OK, LIKE, ELIZABETH JUST BROKE up with Todd, this major basketball babe. So her twin sister, Jessica, says, ""What you need is to find a new boyfriend!'' And she is soooo right! Was there ever a more, like, profound adolescent dilemma? Or a better excuse for a makeover scene? ""Sweet Valley High,'' the syndicated TV series based on Francine Pascal's best-selling young-adult novels, knows there isn't. Hence the rock-video montage with bad-girl Jessica supervising an image overhaul of her goody-two-pumps sibling. ""Dating has changed drastically since the early '90s,'' Jess instructs. Duh. So has Saturday-morning television, once the exclusive domain of cartoons and Power Rangers. A huge chunk of it is now devoted to prematurely mature youths acting out low comedy and saccharine morality tales in the hormonally charged environment known as high school.

It's Bubblegum TV -- and the bubble keeps getting bigger. ""Sweet Valley'' (which begs to be nicknamed ""Exposed-Midriff High'') is the top-rated syndicated show among girls 12 to 17. NBC boasts that its Saturday teen block -- ""California Dreams,'' ""Hang Time'' and ""Saved by the Bell'' -- is watched by 75 percent of teenage American girls at some time during the course of the year. ""SBTB'' reaches nearly 10 million kids a week in this country, and goes out to 85 countries around the world. Essentially, they're all the same show, with minor variations. ""Hang Time'' is a junior feminist parable about a girl who plays on a boys' basketball team. On ""California Dreams'' the kids play in a band. The Tiger Beat fantasies of these shows prep their impressionable viewers for grown-up eye candy like ""Beverly Hills, 90210'' and ""Baywatch,'' whose challenging narratives and fine acting they'll soon be old enough to appreciate.

They're also a farm system for what in Hollywood is sometimes euphemistically called ""talent.'' Consider the progeny of ""Saved by the Bell,'' which this month taped its 200th episode. Tori Spelling debuted on the show when she was 16, before advancing to ""90210'' and a lot of cheesy TV movies. Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, who replaced Shannen Doherty as resident vixen on ""90210,'' started as a girl next door on ""SBTB.'' (When cast members get too old, they are graduated, Menudo style, to make room for ""Saved by the Bell: The New Class.'') The show's most notorious alumna is Elizabeth Berkley, star of the appalling stripper movie ""Showgirls.'' That disappointed Peter Engel, creator of ""SBTB'' and the man revered as the Aaron Spelling of teen TV. ""It upset me a lot,'' Engel says of Berkley's questionable career trajectory. Watching his G-rated series, you'd never have figured her as the Girl Most Likely to Lap Dance. ""I felt bad for her,'' he says. ""But young people make mistakes.''

Young people making mistakes, but looking really, really good while they make them, is what bubblegum TV is all about. The producers comply scrupulously with FCC regulations concerning the educational content of children's television by frowning on smoking, violence and drugs. Episodes have been devoted to anorexia, illiteracy and that all-important teen issue: peer pressure. ""Teens don't want to have a moral lesson on Saturday morning,'' says NBC VP John Miller. ""But they don't mind seeing right from wrong.'' Nor do they mind seeing teen idols of both genders act out adolescent fantasies in tight jeans and skimpy sundresses. Shameless titillation? ""The kids on "90210' will go to bed with each other,'' says ""Sweet Valley'' executive producer Lance Robbins. ""We stop at the kiss.'' Ah, prudish titillation. That mixed sexual message is a guiding principle of the genre. It may also explain the weird age gap between the kids watching these shows, who are generally younger than the teens portrayed on them, and the actors, who are often older than their characters. If Cynthia and Brittany Daniel, the former Doublemint twins who star in ""Sweet Valley,'' look like they're about 20 years old, it's because they are. Naturally, little girls worship them. ""Some of them are writing in crayon,'' says Cynthia. ""Of course, you get the occasional 30-year-old man writing, too.'' (Seeking clarification of some complex plot twist, perhaps.) ""The casts are attractive,'' admits NBC's Miller. ""It is television, after all.''

Realism is probably overrated anyway. ABC's zits-and-all teen drama ""My So-Called Life'' was so realistic it was canceled after one season. The angsty ""Party of Five'' has had similar problems. Teenagers' lives are tormented enough: they don't need TV shows bumming them out even more. At a recent taping of ""Saved by the Bell,'' a bunch of kids from Jordan Junior High in Burbank have shown up to sit in the studio audience. They're here to witness the debut of their friend Lindsay McKeon, a 14-year-old Annette Bening look-alike. None of them seems to think ""SBTB'' bears any more resemblance to their lives than McKeon does to the average 14-year-old. ""It's, like, too fake,'' says Patty Jenkins, 13. ""They're not, like, realistic problems. Everything always turns out happy and that's not what it's like.'' Coral Long, 15 going on 21, finds the show ""too fairy tale-ish,'' although not so much so that she couldn't find time to attend a taping. Does McKeon, an eighth grader, think high school is going to be like ""SBTB''? ""No! Not at all. Not this good. Nope.'' Which is, of course, exactly why she's here.