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

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Author: Karin Beeler
Date: Dec. 2016
From: Studies in the Humanities(Vol. 43, Issue 1-2)
Publisher: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Department of English
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,387 words

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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 smaller dagger with his new sword. This scene in the pilot includes comic sexual innuendos about the size of daggers or swords that are typical of the kind of humor in television or films targeted at youth culture. But more importantly, the scene suggests how a character with extraordinary abilities must learn to exercise control to avoid hurting others unintentionally. This scene is reminiscent of another "superhero" scene in the "superman" television series, Smallville when Clark (Tom Welling) loses control of his powers in a high school biology class while watching a him about animal reproduction; his eyes generate heat and burn a hole in the movie screen (Smallville "Heat" 2.2).

Like Clark in Smallville and other godlike heroes, Axl has a destiny to fulfill. At the end of the pilot, the youngest of the Johnson brothers is also told that he must find the goddess Frigg as part of a quest so that Odin and Frigg can reunite; as the storyarc of subsequent episodes suggests, this mythic union could affect Axl's current romantic interests; for example, in the second episode of season 1, "This is Where Duty Starts" Axl is interested in a girl called Jaime, but is encouraged to fulfill his destiny by pursuing a different woman called Karla because she could be the goddess Frigg. This episode presents the common coming of age trope of heterosexual romance through the requisite loss of virginity; in this episode we discover that Axl, is a 21 year old virgin, who is juxtaposed against Anders (Dean O'Gorman), his womanizing brother who has the gift of poetry or "the gift of the gab" (1.1). Anders tries to encourage a sexual encounter between Axl and Karla with the consequence that Axl loses the opportunity to become romantically involved with Jaime. Later Axl's destiny interferes with his romantic feelings for his flatmate Gaia (Keisha Castle-Hughes) just as her own destiny to become a goddess interferes with her desire to be with Axl. Over the course of the series Gaia has to determine whether she is the Maori goddess Papatuanuku, a Maori goddess or the Norse goddess Idun; she ends up becoming the goddess Idun and as destiny would have it, she cannot resist being attracted to Axl's brother Bragi. In order to avoid hurting Axl, she decides to put aside her life as a goddess and leaves New Zealand for the UK. Axl also realizes that his "coming of age" as Odin isn't about "cool powers" for his own self-centred enjoyment as his older brother Mike keeps reminding him over the course of the television series.

While many of the episodes show some serious consequences linked to the behavior of the gods, others are more lighthearted such as (2.5 "A Damn Fine Woman") when Axl also discovers that as Odin he can take female form. This occurs when Axl wakes up as a woman after following asleep wearing a dress. This transformation is an interesting reconceptualization or subversion of the makeover that often occurs in coming of age films; the makeover scenes in films can involve teenaged girls like Tai in Clueless who are transformed from unfashionable to chic or even zombie characters like the male protagonist R in Warm Bodies who is made to look more human with the generous application of makeup; Axl's transformation happens in a more mysterious manner, and he does not initially think it is a desirable transformation, but the metamorphosis does allow him to develop some insight into how women perceive men. In Fantastic Worlds, Eric Rabkin argues that metamorphosis "is a fantastic device used for making dramatic a quality which had previously been only a part of a character's psychology" (24). The myth of Narcissus is a key example of this. However, in Axl's case, the physical transformation allows him to develop in a way that did not seem possible before.

As in other coming of age stories, the conflicting relationship between a young person and his or her parents in The Almighty Johnsons becomes an important part of the narrative (Driscoll 2). Axl's key "father figure" has been his brother Mike who raised him and his other brothers in the absence of their "real" parents. During Axl's 21st birthday party, Mike mentions that their father Johan (Joe) is the god (Njordr/Njoror) and that he left the family to sail the seas, while their mother, Agnetha, the goddess Freyja, could not handle the pressure of raising four gods, and headed into the forest to become a tree. This scene therefore functions in a triple capacity; it is a transitional moment for Axl (who is quite upset about the lies he was told as a child with respect to his parents); secondly, the scene connects Axl to his other brothers who learned the truth about their parents at the age of 21; and finally, it offers a glimpse of Mike's own coming of age experience as a young man on his 21st birthday, whose mother left, thus forcing him into the parental role of raising his younger brothers.

While much of the series hinges on Axl's coming of age moments as he discovers his Odin powers, and as he reassesses his relationship to his fragmented family, other life changing moments are experienced by the "older crowd" or more "seasoned" characters. The Almighty Johnsons therefore functions as a show that can attract multiple audiences much like the phenomenon of books that now cross the boundaries of young adult, new adult and adult. (5) It is worth noting that MediaWorks adjusted the target demographic for TV3 from 18-49 year olds to a target audience of 25-54 year olds before launching the lineup for its new season show line-up, which included The Almighty Johnsons (Mace, "Major shake-up for TV3"). Fans of NA or New Adult literature argue that coming of age is still the realm of the twenty-plus experience, and it would seem that this is also the case for a television show like The Almighty Johnsons and the coming of age experiences of post-teen characters.

In addition to the concerns of the "younger crowd" or twenty-somethings like Axl and his friends Zeb and Gaia, this telefantasy includes transformative (coming of age) moments for the older thirty-something and forty-something crowd. For example, the life of Ty Johnson (Jared Turner), Axl's brother changes dramatically as he arranges to lose his identity as the god Hod, the god of all things cold and dark; he can freeze objects and people by lowering the temperature around him but he is prepared to lose this power in order to be with his human love. Dawn (Fern Sutherland). Michele (Michelle Langstone), the goddess Sjofn who becomes Mike's new girlfriend acquires the enviable ability to heal others in a supernatural fashion (she is already a doctor) and becomes a mega star healer. The series also follows the development of Olaf(Ben Barrington) the fun loving, pot smoking god Baldr who has a relationship with two women (fellow oracle Ingrid/Snotra (Rachel Nash) and Stacey/Fulla (Eve Gordon) the handmaid or servant to the goddesses; in some ways he is just as "immature" as or even more immature than Axl.

It is worth considering why The Almighty Johnsons depicts a number of characters who engage in activities or behaviors often associated with younger people. In the case of Axl and other characters who act in a dependent fashion, they seem to be reflecting some of the social issues affecting Western society including children who are still financially dependent on their parents or living at home for a longer period of time ("Home and Way: the Living Arrangements of Young People" 2009), and the changing family structure from dual parent families to an increasing number of single parent families (Torrie, "One Child in Four in Single-Parent Home" 2011). Axl's brother Mike (who initially raised him alone because their mother and father were absentee parents) ends up helping Axl and his other brother Ty with their rent payments, and even gives Ingrid, a goddess friend, money for rent ("And then on to Norsewood" 3.6); Ingrid, who appears to be in her forties, is presented as the consummate freeloader who tries to live rent free whenever she can. Her dependency on others may reflect a current trend of how post-teen "children" are living with "parents" longer (or perhaps returning home later in life).

Like the younger twenty-year olds in this television dramedy who have their coming of age experiences, older characters including Olaf Johnson, the youthful grandfather surfer bum, (Ben Barrington who plays Olaf is 35) and Mike who is divorced by his wife and subsequently moves in with Michele, the goddess Sjofn, are clearly experiencing transformations in their lives. Olaf, called a "'20-something/90 something'" by the show's co-creator James Griffin (Eramo 2015) is a 92 year old who has the body of a 30 year old, and the mentality of a 20 year old; Olaf may well represent a baby boomer impulse: "A Generation which once hoped to die before it got old, has, it seems settled for postponing the inevitable by regressing to its youth" (Horin, "Aging boomers going the whole hog to relive youth" 2004). Mike's dual role as Axl's surrogate "parent" while also functioning as a kind of parent to his own immature father Olaf, is a reconceptualization of the (baby boomer) sandwich generation: "individuals who have come to midlife and who find themselves "sandwiched" between their children and their aging parents, nurturing, providing for, and filling what can seem like nonstop, too numerous and maybe even overwhelming needs of both their offspring and their elders, most often while carrying career demands and household chores to boot" (Bertini, Strength for the Sandwich Generation 1) (6) Mike even moves in with Axl for a while, thus suggesting the malleable concepts of dependency and family relations in today's world. (Brandon)

Another character whose actions resemble the impulsiveness and spontaneity of youth but who is significantly older is Colin Gunderson (Shane Cortese). His physical appearance is that of a man in his 40s. Colin also happens to be the Norse trickster god Loki and injects chaos into the lives of the Johnson brothers. Carl Jung refers to the "Trickster-like wildness of the juvenile nature" (Man and his Symbols 149) before "man" moves to a "more mature stage in his development" (Man and his Symbols 149), and Colin as Loki certainly embodies this wildness. A character like Colin/the god Loki crosses the boundaries of youth and adulthood with his boyish glee and sinister plans; the harmful and potentially deadly consequences of some of his "jokes" or "games" constitute the drama side of this New Zealand dramedy and thus counterbalance the comic elements or create dark comedy. Yet paradoxically his disturbing presence appears to be instrumental in helping others "mature" even as they suffer as a result of his pranks. For example, he takes Axl out drinking ("Frigg Magnet" 2.2) and Axl is falsely accused of raping Brianna, a junior lawyer who works for Colin. Clearly this component of the show is hardly the stuff of lighthearted comedy but it does indicate how Axl's coming of age experiences involve the need to weigh boyish fun against the potentially serious consequences of his actions. The trickster figure Colin/Loki thus maintains the connection between contemporary society and mythic characters or narratives by facilitating the expression of impulsive behavior that may otherwise be repressed in more sophisticated adult society.

The superimposition of carefree, youthful antics onto characters who are older or who have important positions (e.g. Ingrid and Olaf, the seers, or Colin/ Loki the lawyer/candidate for mayor) allows for a wider audience of viewers for The Almighty Johnsons. The show has appealed to crossover audiences not only because of the different ages of the characters, but because some of its success is undoubtedly related to the genre of comedy. Kristin Thompson indicates that crossover audiences are more likely to be found "in the sphere of comedy, where experimentation is easier to accept" (115). I would add that fantasy and its subversive elements can also facilitate these kinds of crossover audiences, especially with an "older" character like Olaf, "the wizened grandfather ... who isn't" (Moran 2013). His godlike status breaks down the easy differentiation between old and young, much like the physical appearance of a vampire in telefantasy or him since the vampire's age does not usually reflect his or her chronological age.

Simon Bennett, the producer of The Almighty Johnsons, has pointed out the uniqueness of the series and how it is "not trying to follow in the footsteps of any other genre show" ("Interview" n.p.) The Almighty Johnsons is a blend of genres (drama, comedy, fantasy) and refashions the conventions of the coming of age narrative to accommodate the stories of myth and telefantasy while also depicting the desires of older characters who wish to extend or relive their youth. By focusing on the life decisions of a variety of characters and by including post-adulthood issues, and not just young adult issues, The Almighty Johnsons questions the more limited scope of the traditional coming of age genre that has focused on teens. This genre is effectively turned on its head since we observe older characters who must also wrestle with changing circumstances. These characters reflect people in contemporary society who are reinventing themselves today amid changing careers, who experience anxiety surrounding aging or who worry about their elderly relatives or the future of their children and the sustainability of living arrangements. (7) The co-habitation by members of different generations appears to be a new reality in Western society as baby boomers move in with adult children (Brandon 2008); this phenomenon also seems to be influencing the construction of the coming of age television narrative (Mike, who is like a father to Axl, moves in with his younger brother at one point). In The Almighty Johnsons there is often no clear separation between the world of young adults and the world of older characters; sometimes those who appear to be older and wiser are no more mature than their younger counterparts. The spontaneous actions of these older characters indicate that juvenile or impulsive behavior --and the dangers which accompany it--are not just associated with twenty-somethings. A show like The Almighty Johnsons urges us to reassess the term "coming of age" or to recognize that different life stages and circumstances can demand a shift in perspective or a form of maturation. In this sense a return to the German term Bildungsroman (the novel of "formation" or education) may offer a less age dependent way of approaching contemporary television narratives. Characters of all age groups in this New Zealand television show learn new life lessons and are thus "re-formed" or repositioned as individuals who are on the cusp of a new beginning. The reconfiguration of coming of age experiences, youth and adulthood in The Almighty Johnsons therefore intersects with Andrew King's comments about Harry Blatterer's book on redefinitions of contemporary adulthood in most advanced industrial societies: "the values of youth have now permeated the life course. Youth is something that any adult can acquire whatever [their] age."

Notes

(1) The series aired on the US Syfy network in 2014. Kelly Martin, CEO, South Pacific Pictures, said: "We are thrilled with the deal that ALL3MEDIA International has done. The Almighty Johnsons will be the first wholly New Zealand originated and produced drama series to be broadcast in the United States, which is a terrific accomplishment and reflects the quality of the series." ("The Almighty Johnsons are Headed to the USA"). It also aired in Canada in 2012 on SPACE .

(2) The Bildungsroman or novel of formation/novel of education includes "the development of the protagonist's mind and character, in the passage from childhood through varied experiences--and often through a spiritual crisis--into maturity and the recognition of his or her identity and role in the world" (M.H. Abrams A Glossary of Literary Terms. Sixth Edition. 132) 'A New Zealand tv3 promotional piece describes The Almighty Johnsons as follows: "The Johnsons are typical Kiwi blokes who don't much like to stand out from the crowd. And everyday gods have everyday struggles--striving to love stroppy women, overcoming sibling rivalry and fulfilling your God-like destiny, all while still finding the time to enjoy a few beers with your mates." (http://www. tv3.co.nz/Shows/TheAlmightyJohnsons/About.aspx)

(4) A 1999 report prepared by Denise Brown indicates that the make-up of New Zealand families is changing with more children living in sole-parent families: "In 1996. 189,900 children (defined as those under 15 years of age) were living in sole-parent families, an increase of 57 percent since 1986" New Zealand's children--article" June 1999. Statistics New Zealand. http://www.stats.govt.nz"

(5) "The term "new adult" is a result of a contest held by St. Martin's Press in 2009 seeking manuscripts with characters eighteen and older that read like YA but could be published for adults. New-adult storylines tend to follow the form of contemporary romance novels but with a younger cast of characters. While traditional YA deals with coming-of-age, sexuality and relationships, fans of NA argue that coming-of-age is still the realm of the twenty-plus experience. Some suggest that YA is about the emotional preparation for the journey of becoming an adult and NA is the journey itself. Advocates of NA explain that readers in their early twenties want more books about people their age dealing with the same kinds of issues they're dealing with" (Sharry Wright, "Crossing the Borders between Young Adult, New Adult and Adult Books" February 3, 2014 5:46 PM)

(6) Mike's 40? something age (Tim Balme who plays Mike was born in 1968 and was 43 when the series was released) makes him a gen x-er instead of a baby boomer but he seems to share some of the concerns experienced by the boomers.

(7) Dylan Moran who discussed the third season with actors Emmett Skilton (Axl) and Ben Barrington (Olaf) notes that the third seasons of The Almighty Johnsons is "more stripped back --the mythology plays less of a role and the family relationship comes to the fore." "It's much more Jackass, the show's been brought back to being about a bunch of guys living and having fun in modern-day New Zealand," says Ben Barringten--who plays Olaf Johnson, the wizened grandfather ... who isn't. (Dylan Moran)

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. "Bildungsroman." Dictionary of Literary Terms. Sixth Edition. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993. Print.

Bertini, Kristine. Strength for the Sandwich Generation: Help to Thrive While Simultaneously Caring for Our Kids and Our Aging Parents. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011. Print.

Brandon, Emily. "Baby Boomers Moving in With Adult Children." Nov. 20, 2008. Web. 10 September 2016. http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/ articles/2008/11/20/baby-boomers-moving-in-with-adult-children

Brown, Denise. "New Zealand's Children." June 1999. Web. 10 September 2016. http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse for stats/people and communities/ Children/nzs-children.aspx.

Driscoll, Catherine. Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Berg, 2011. Print.

Dunleavy, Trisha and Hester Joyce. New Zealand Film and Television: Institution. Industry and Cultural Change. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect and University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

Eramo, Steve "Brotherhood: Interview with The Almighty Johnsons' James Griffin." 05/05/2015. Web. 10 September 2016. http://scihandtvtalk. typepad.com/scihandtvtalk/2015/05/brotherhood-interview-with-the-almighty-johnsons-james-griffin.html

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Horin, Adele. "Ageing Boomers Going the Whole Hog to Relive Youth." July 24, 2004. Web. 10 September 2016. http://www.smh.com.au/ articles/2004/07/23/1090464867460?html?from=storvlhs

"Interview: The Almighty Johnsons [sic] Producer Simon Bennett." Web. 10 September 2016. http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/news/exclusive-interview-with-the-producer-of-the-almighty-johnsons/

Jung, Carl, ed. Man and his Symbols. New York: Doubleday/Anchor Press, 1964. Print. King, Andrew. Review of Coming of Age in Times of Uncertainty: Redefining Contemporary Adulthood by Harry Blatterer (New York/ Oxford: Berghahn 2007). Review, 2009. Web. 14 September 2016.http:// www.socresonline.org.uk/14/5/reviews/king.htnil

Mace, William. "Major Shake-up for TV3" 20/10/2010. Web. 10 September 2016. http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/4253005/Major-shake-up-for-TV3

Moran, Dylan. "Almighty Johnsons Irons Out the Kinks." July 4, 2013. Web. 10 September 2016. http://www.3news.co.nz/Almighty-Johnsons-irons-out -the-kinks/tabid/418/articleID/303805/Default.aspx

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Rabkin, Eric S. Fantastic Worlds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.

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The Almighty Johnsons. Created by James Griffin and Rachel Lang. TV3. New Zealand. 2011-2013. Television.

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Torrie, Bronwyn. "One Child in Four in Single-Parent Home." The Dominion Post. 30/4/2011 Web. 10 September 2016. http://www.stuff.co.nz/ dominion-post/4944357/One-child-in-four-in-single-parent-home

Wright, Sharri. "Crossing the Borders between Young Adult, New Adult and Adult Books." February 3, 2014 5:46 PM) Web. 10 September 2016. http://www.bookbrowse.com/blogs/editor/index.cfm/2014/2/3/Crossing -the-Borders-Between-Young-Adult-New-Adult-and-Adult-Books

KARIN BEELER

University of Northern British Columbia

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A478140582