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As my co-host Anna explains in the intro to our podcast, Double Love explores the strange and terrifying world of Sweet Valley High, book by book. For the uninitiated, Sweet Valley High was a young adult series that ran from 1983 to 1997 and centred on the lives of blonde identical twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in the fictional California town of Sweet Valley.
It was essentially a teen soap opera in the form of short novels with pastel-coloured covers, complete with dramatic and emotional storylines (the first ten books alone involve a motorbike crash, a coma, a personality swap and a college guy with an ill-advised moustache) and was written by a team of ghostwriters, presided over by creator Francine Pascal.
The sixteen year old Wakefield twins have blue-green eyes the colour of the Pacific ocean, they’re beautiful, popular, and the absolute worst. Elizabeth is the sensitive, kind and studious twin, while Jessica is a carefree party girl with a different love interest in almost every book, but rereading the series as an adult, it’s clear that Elizabeth is actually a judgemental pushover and Jessica is a terrifying sociopath who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
Much like The Babysitter’s Club or the work of Judy Blume, Sweet Valley High was a childhood staple for many girls in the 80s and 90s, and the sheer volume of spin-offs (Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley Senior Year, Sweet Valley University, etc) meant that there was always some iteration of the twins’ adventures being published. Our podcast focuses on the original series, set when the twins are juniors in high school and we discuss each book in order (there are 181 in total) with an occasional Super Edition or Super Thriller thrown in as a seasonal special.
The storylines range from being hilariously ridiculous (the twins and their mother Alice are lured to a spa where the owner plots to steal Alice’s face) to deeply worrying (Jessica bullies a girl who wants to join the cheerleading squad to the point that she almost overdoses on pills, but all is forgiven because Jessica in particular never faces any major consequences for her terrible actions) and we spend each episode dissecting the plots, affectionately slagging off the characters and trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this town. We also enlist the help of our American listeners as we try to understand the intricacies of 80s American high school culture, including finding out what Homecoming is and whether high school sororities were really a thing. More often than not, there are extremely interesting outfit descriptions, we keep a running tally of how many times the twins’ hair or eye colour are mentioned per book and sometimes, although increasingly rarely, a character will suddenly start talking like a 1930s gangster for no reason.
The twins and their friends breeze from one crisis to the next without any lasting damage to their psyches and their problems can vary from being kidnapped and held hostage to needing to come up with a scheme to earn enough money to buy a new outfit for one of the school’s very frequent formal dances. The messages are often terrible (there’s a lot of badly-handled weight and diet content) but there’s also enough to enjoy so that our show stays light and funny, and we’re very much at the fluffier end of the scale when it comes to podcasts about books.
Sweet Valley High was popular enough to be adapted into a television show in 1994, falling somewhere between Saved by The Bell and Beverly Hills 90210 in tone, without quite managing to be as good as either show. When HeadStuff+ was announced, we had initially considered recapping the pilot episode as bonus content, but when we discovered that all four seasons were on YouTube, it seemed like the obvious choice was to recap the whole thing as regular bonus content. Now it’s become a sister series to our usual podcast, released in the gaps between Double Love episodes, so that subscribers have a weekly dose of Sweet Valley shenanigans.
We named it Pi Beta Alpha, after the implausible sorority that Jessica and Elizabeth belong to in the books, and as all the episodes of the tv show are currently available online, we invite our listeners to watch along and then in each bonus episode we discuss what happened and often compare plot lines and characters to the books. Neither of us watched the show with any regularity when it first aired, (although the theme tune remains an eternal bop) so it’s all new territory for us to cover.
There are a lot of changes from the books, some necessary, like bringing tertiary characters of colour to the forefront, as the town of Sweet Valley in the books is suspiciously white, while some changes some make no sense at all, such as the complete absence of everyone’s parents. It seems to dip into the book series every so often for plot lines, character names or to use unrelated book titles as episode titles but we’ve found that it is best enjoyed as its own entity. We’ve started to look at it as a sort of unhinged fan fiction loosely based on the series that has plenty of entertaining moments of its own. Just as we enjoy detailing the tropes from the book series, the tv show has provided us with plenty on that front too, with montages in every episode so far whether they’re necessary or not, Jessica having her own musical cue to signal that she’s about to do something devious and establishing that Liz’s boyfriend’s catchphrase is “I’m gonna kill that guy!” Not to mention the aggressively early 90s flavour to the character outfits, as it’s a veritable treasure trove of babydoll dresses, skinny rib-knit tops and plaid shirts.
It’s been surprisingly enjoyable to watch our way through the series, as it does provide actual laughs, either through baffling production design choices or genuinely comedic moments and we have a great time pulling it all apart and keeping watch for any deep cut references to the books in our Pi Beta Alpha episodes.
Knowing your way around the halls of Sweet Valley High isn’t a prerequisite for listening to our show. In fact, some of our listeners never even read the books but still enjoy the bonkers storylines and extremely questionable behaviour shown by the town’s inhabitants as we recap each book. As for the bonus series, anyone who enjoyed cheesy teen television from the early Nineties will most likely get a kick out of the tv show and our accompanying episodes. So dust off your best stone-washed jeans and we’ll meet you in homeroom. No wait, we’re still not 100% sure what homeroom is, so let’s say the cafeteria instead. We’ve saved you a seat!