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Ryan Murphy may have first garnered widespread attention with the creation of Nip/Tuck, later solidifying his place in TV history with the runaway success of Glee, but before either of shows—before American Horror Story, before Pose, before all the controversial hits yet to come—he cut his teeth on another series.
Anyone who grew up watching teen TV on the WB is bound to remember a fascinatingly chaotic show by the name of Popular. Starring Carly Pope and Leslie Bibb as antagonistic soon-to-be step-siblings from very different social cliques whose circles are forced to mesh, the series had all the zest and quick-witted humor Glee displayed when it was at the top of its game.
Murphy co-created the series with producer Gina Matthews, and it ran for two positively outrageous seasons before ending on one of the most frustrating cliffhangers a show could end on. Despite that, if you’re a fan of Glee, what Glee could have been had it not been bogged down by its attempts at being earnest, or even just want to get the backstory on why Murphy going on to cast Gwyneth Paltrow in his projects has a hidden layer of hilarity to it, Popular is very much worth tracking down.
And if you already know how ahead of its time it was because you diligently watched every episode, right about now, you’re probably wondering what everyone always wants to know about any talented cast of an excellent show—where are they now?
Leslie Bibb (Brooke McQueen)
Brooke McQueen was the popular blonde cheerleader with a heart of (mostly) gold. This show’s strengths were partly in how hard it leaned into the overt high school stereotypes at the time, and Brooke embodied that all-American vibe—on the outside of course.
She was portrayed by Leslie Bibb, who went on to appear in two Iron Man movies, a number of comedies, and had a guest spot on Murphy’s Nip/Tuck several years after Popular’s untimely end.
Carly Pope (Sam McPherson)
Sam McPherson was, of course, Brooke’s polar opposite by high school standards. Decidedly unpopular, she started out the show focused on editing the school newspaper and trying to break up her mom and Brooke’s dad, while predictably pushing people away thanks to the chip on her shoulder.
It’s hard to imagine Carly Pope actually being unpopular—but this was the same era in which She’s All That convinced the world Rachel Leigh Cook was only hot without glasses, so take everything with a grain of salt. Pope did a run through world of gay cinema with Itty Bitty Titty Committee and Concrete Blondes before later appearing in Arrow and Suits, and most recently can be seen in Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin.
By the way...
It's worth pointing out that people absolutely shipped Brooke and Sam together at the time, and as Bibb and Pope have stayed good friends over the years, they've happily indulged fans who miss the show time and time again. You have to stan.
Christopher Gorham (Harrison John)
Christopher Gorham’s Harrison was Sam’s best friend, and a polarizing character at different points in the series. He was, of course, in love with both girls at different times, and was at the center of one of the show’s weirdest plot lines—a take on It’s a Wonderful Life where his guardian angel was played by Mike Damus, who had just ended his own starring role…as a guardian angel in the series Teen Angel.
Gorham recently appeared in The Lincoln Lawyer, and might be most recognizable for his roles in Ugly Betty and Covert Affairs, but real ones will immediately pin him as Henry Dunn from another sadly short-lived series, summer murder mystery Harper’s Island.
Sara Rue (Carmen Ferrara)
Another one of Sam’s friends, Carmen was presented as the frumpy unpopular girl whose greatest desire was to become a cheerleader—which was kind of wild, considering actress Sara Rue went on to lead her own series (Less Than Perfect) for four seasons almost immediately after Popular was canceled. Rue already had a number of shows under her belt by the time Popular came knocking, and has most recently been seen popping in and out of The Rookie on ABC.
Leslie Grossman (Mary Cherry)
Leslie Grossman played Mary Cherry, undoubtedly one of the most memorable characters Popular had to offer. Part of the popular crowd, Mary Cherry (always both names) constantly pushed the limits of what was believable in the already larger-than-life series.
If you’ve kept up with Murphy’s work, you undoubtedly recognize Grossman from the last several seasons of American Horror Story. She's also guest starred in far too many shows to name over the years, including Faking It, Modern Family, and The Good Place.
Tamara Mello (Lily Esposito)
Rounding out the unpopulars, Lily Esposito took on the role of high school activist, a common trope—or at least temporary plot point—in many teen shows of the late 90s/early 00s, used to immediately convey to the audience that a character was kind of weird. Caring about social causes and the environment? What’s up with that?? Tamara Mello hasn’t done very much acting in recent years, with her last listed credit popping up in 2017 for a guest role in School of Rock. But millennials who missed out on Popular will likely recognize her from She’s All That, Tom and Huck, and the episode of Boy Meets World where Shawn joins a cult.
Tammy Lynn Michaels (Nicole Julian)
Before Tammy Lynn Michaels got together with (and split from) Melissa Etheridge, she played one of the most deliciously horrible characters to ever grace teen TV, Nicole Julian. Brooke’s best friend—when it suited her, that is—Nicole embodied the idea of a manipulative, scheming teen girl and cranked it up to an 11. Her sweet moments always managed to surprise us, but within moments she would revert back to the diabolically power-hungry Glamazon we all loved and hated in equal measure.
Popular was Michaels’ first role, and she went on to have a brief stint in the early days of The L Word as Shane’s obsessive stalker and also appeared in the short film version of queer classic D.E.B.S. Her last acting credit is from Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings in 2019, and she appears to now sell art and jewelry on her personal website.
Bryce Johnson (Josh Ford)
In every stereotypical high school, there must be a stereotypical jock who rules the school. At Jacqueline Kennedy High School, that honor belonged to Josh Ford. Josh feels like the test run of Glee’s Finn, in a lot ways—he’s a good-natured, kind of stupid football player who ends up involved in the school’s theater program and shifts his attentions from dating Brooke to dating one…or two…girls from the unpopular crowd instead.
Bryce Johnson went back to the realm of high school TV a decade later, appearing as Rosewood PD’s Darren Wilden on Pretty Little Liars throughout the run of the show. He’s also toyed around in Murphy-land here and there, doing a guest spot on Nip/Tuck, an episode of American Horror Story: Double Feature, and even a quick appearance on Glee.
Ron Lester (Sugar Daddy)
Josh’s best friend was an affable fellow member of the football team by the name of Sugar Daddy who constantly struggled in his pursuit of love. Ron Lester appeared in millennial favorites Varsity Blues, Good Burger, and Not Another Teen Movie, but sadly passed away of liver and kidney failure in 2016.