The 1990s are known for many things. Dunkaroos, Smashmouth, Salute Your Shorts and the rise of Michael Bay, just to name a few. But looking back, it was a decade ruled by teen comedies. Maybe not as fondly remembered as the John Hughes era, but still one of the best we’ve ever seen. From the satirical bent of Clueless and Election to the sheer earnestness of Can’t Hardly Wait, it was a booming decade for hormonal angst. But instead of waning, the decade could not have possibly ended on a higher note, with so many of the absolute best teen comedies of the ‘90s seeing release within a 12-month period. We had the blockbuster success of She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You, not to mention the cult, gleefully nihilistic attitude of Jawbreaker. And, of course, we had American Pie.

    Arguably, American Pie went on to become the biggest success out of any of those movies, and that’s interesting because it was—in many ways—kind of a step backward. On the most basic level, American Pie is a sex comedy, which is an entirely different breed from what the other major high school comedies were doing at the time. It stands out when compared against She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You. This film is far less Pretty in Pink and much more Porky’s. Just in terms of its plot, it’s a pretty sexist concept in principle. A group of high school friends make a pact with one another to lose their virginity before the prom. This concept was actually given a great, fresh perspective in last year’s extremely underrated Blockers. But in American Pie, the plot is kind of skeezy and that feeling never really goes away.

    Each of the friends has a girl that they are trying to sleep with and by definition, the pact that they made kind of means that they’re lying to them at virtually every turn. Luckily, nothing works out the way any of them anticipated and they do essentially realize that what they’re doing is not great, with one couple just confronting things in an open and honest way, and another couple already together and hoping to build toward sex while simultaneously questioning the future of their relationship. It’s not a shock to say that the idea and most of the gags have a serious male gaze issue, but that is never more clear than in the film’s most notorious sequence, which is not nearly as enjoyable as an adult and is—in fact—pretty creepy.

    Jim is infatuated with exchange student Nadia and invites her over to his house to study when in fact his friends have talked him into filming her with a webcam. The gag is that things keep getting in front of the webcam and the video accidentally leaks wide, so that the entire town becomes a stand in for the audience, waiting with baited breath to see how much they can actually see. What’s actually happening, of course, is that a young woman is being filmed undressing without her permission as that video leaks out to strangers. Our protagonists could have gone to prison for what is mostly interpreted as a wacky misunderstanding.

    American pieThis scene highlights the major issues with the original American Pie, mostly related to its POV. The saving grace of the film, though, is that it is unexpectedly full of heart. There are important teenage themes being tackled here. In an age of people being swept of their feet, American Pie examines a couple (Kevin and Vicky) who are coming to the bittersweet realization that they’re going off to college and their relationship, though it meant something deep to both of them, is not going to last. Oz and Heather have the more traditional ‘90s rom-com romance. He’s a jock who joins the show choir for this girl and is ridiculed by his friends and teammates for it, ultimately coming to the realization that what they think doesn’t matter.

    Finch goes through the movie crafting lies about himself to make him sound like an experienced man of the world, partially because he wants to impress girls but mostly because he wants to believe himself to be more interesting and educated and, ultimately, older than he actually is. So it’s no surprise that he winds up pulling a The Graduate and hooking up with Stifler’s Mom.

    Jim, though, has the best turnaround of all. Because when things don’t work out with Nadia, he takes a band geek named Michelle to the prom instead. She’s much more sexually adventurous and curious than he anticipated, they get it on and she’s gone in the morning when he wakes up. All of these arcs plant seeds that blossom throughout the sequels, ultimately turning the series as a whole into something more genuine and shockingly adult than anyone watching the original when it was released probably expected.

    American PieAmerican Pie 2, possibly the best of the franchise, starts off with the friends now in college and planning to reunite for the summer. There’s no more unifying hook, there’s no more “let’s make a pact to have sex before graduation,” all of that is immediately dispelled because we’ve come to care about these characters and we don’t need it anymore. We know them, and we’re picking back up with them a couple of years later, and we’re picking up plot threads that were mostly resolved in the previous film. Which makes sense, because American Pie 2 is very much about being in college and suddenly looking back on high school with a nostalgic gaze, realizing how much easier things actually were.

    For the first half of the movie, almost all of the characters are looking backward. Stifler wants to be the party guy he was in high school without any consequences. Even Kevin is reconnected with Vicky and thinks about getting back together with her, when he knows that’s not an actual possibility. Finch, of course, is haunted by fond memories of Stifler’s Mom. Jim, once again forming the basic outline of the plot, realizes he might have a second chance not to blow it with Nadia, even though he’d kind of made his peace with the fact that that didn’t work out. When he sees Michelle again, it’s just friendly and awkward because they had sex and it’s a strong memory. Everything starts platonic as he obliviously tries to use Michelle’s expansive knowledge of sex to help him woo Nadia, as Michelle is both a friend and the only sexual partner he’s ever had.

    The movie then becomes about casting aside high school dreams of what you think you want and realizing the great opportunities that are actually happening right in front of you. By pairing Jim and Michelle together, American Pie 2 not only sets the course for the future of the franchise, but makes the first movie better by laying out what this series is actually about: meeting the love of your life under the most unexpected circumstances.

    There’s something so much more charming about watching the original American Pie knowing that the seemingly random sex between these two very awkward people leads to an actual relationship and eventual marriage. He’s going to be her husband. She’s going to be his wife. American Pie 2 is all about leading the characters away from who they were in the first movie—while retaining all of the things that made them hilarious to watch—and leading them to actually confront what they really want and the person they want to become. Jim’s declaration of “I am a band geek, I just never joined the band” not only leads him to be honest with his own quirks, but completely shifts the tone and direction of the series toward his relationship with Michelle.

    American Pie 2Even though we’ve only seen the two of them together for maybe minutes by the end of the second movie, American Wedding feels like the completely right next step for the series because that chemistry is so strong and despite being an afterthought in the first, the fact that these two are meant to be together somehow feels obvious by the end of American Pie 2. While American Wedding also shines a little more light on Stifler than the first two, it somehow still manages to convey the fact that this is a franchise that grows with its audience. As adults now, Stifler isn’t even invited to the wedding at first because they’ve outgrown him. In front of friends and family and co-workers, he’s too much of a liability. It starts the first small thread of introspection for a character who didn’t really seem capable of it at first.

    American Pie 2 and American Wedding also help grow Stifler up from the way he was conveyed in the first, as a ‘90s jock who referred to just about anything in “gay.” At the end of American Pie 2 he makes it clear how comfortable he is with his sexuality and the things he’d be willing to do while still being perfectly comfortable with himself, and in the third he has a dance off in a gay bar simply because he’s offended by the fact that anyone wouldn’t find him attractive. There were a couple great opportunities to make the character himself gay, but the franchise eventually settles for the next best thing by making him at least a non-bigoted idiot.

    Jim and Michelle only cement what a great couple they are in this film, as they are anything but boring and stale by this point. Michelle has a strong sexual appetite, to say the least, and their sex positive relationship is funny but not forced and actually makes them even more endearing as characters. They have a healthy sex life which they take pride in, as well as sharing a mutual respect for one another that never really wavers, even when they might argue. In a series full of ridiculous gags, even though they began as horny teenage caricatures, Jim and Michelle actually feel real.

    American WeddingThey have doubts, but those doubts are quelled by their faith in one another. American Wedding might be the weakest of the core series, but the main relationship never wavers. If anything, the couple only grows more and more interesting as time goes on. Because it’s not just a sex comedy that turned into a series about falling in love, it’s also about staying in love. Few comedies, let alone ones of this nature, actually depict a healthy adult couple who stay together throughout the duration of the film, but the American Pie series never turns its back on this relationship. It never becomes boring.

    That leads to American Reunion, easily the most underrated and in some ways the most heartfelt of the entire franchise. It’s an incredibly rare thing: a sex comedy with a central focus on a married couple. These movies, be them PG-13 rom-coms or R-rated sex romps, almost always depict the falling in love as the most—if not only—interesting part. Couples staying married in these kinds of movies, especially when they’re the main characters, are almost unheard of.

    But like the two films before it, American Reunion depicts a very different time in these characters’ lives. They’ve made it. They’ve grown up, at least as much as they can grow up. There aren’t that many franchises that do this, that don’t stay juvenile because they know the people who fell in love with it as kids and teens have been growing up along the way. The characters are older, so they’re written older, and they’re allowed to change and even to ultimately be happy.

    American ReunionJim and Michelle have a very realistic plot that kind of cracks the code on how to make a sex comedy where the main couple are happily married by pointing out how little time there genuinely is for sex between two working people with a young kid. It’s a nice balance because it’s a completely sensible plot point that still allows for Jim to get up to his old masturbatory hijinx.

    While there’s been talk of a new American Pie for some time, I’m honestly not sure we need it as American Reunion brought everything full circle. It took us back to high school to finally highlight just how much these characters have grown since then. Even Stifler finds what he wants to do with his life in being a party planner, while the rest of the group come back to high school to only make it clear to themselves how comfortable they are with who they’ve become. Jim and Michelle’s relationship never wavers in sex positivity and if anything only feels more authentic as they have to struggle to find the time for it. And Stifler sleeping with Finch’s mom is such a perfectly obvious joke that it feels like it was created for American Pie 2 and sat on until the moment was right.

    The American Pie franchise is silly and gross and juvenile, that should go without saying. But it’s also deeply heartfelt and is about those gross teens growing into only mildly gross adults. It’s a series that didn’t crank out one film right after the other, but instead chose to pick up with its characters at different—but defining—points in their lives. It’s about growing up, it’s about finding in love where you least expect it, it’s about learning that the person you were in high school doesn’t have to be the person you are for the rest of your life. And that’s pretty incredible for a franchise that began with a dude humping a pie.

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