For the love of teen TV: How the genre has evolved and why it's so powerful
There's nothing more powerful than a teen emotion. You'll never feel fear like you did when you walked into a new classroom and weren't sure where to sit. You'll never feel love like you did the first time your crush kissed you. You'll never feel despair like you did when that same person broke your heart. Teenagers are nothing if not raw nerves walking around in outfits they'll inevitably regret. (I'm looking at you, low-rise jeans.)
Those adolescent years exist in the high highs and the low lows. "When you're that age, everything feels like life and death," says All American showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll. "You want to talk about organic high stakes, like, your boyfriend that you've had for all of three weeks breaking up with you and starting to date another girl in the class feels like your life is over. The hormones and the emotions and high stake-ness of teen years, that's gold. You can't manufacture that stuff." That's precisely why those years make for such great television.
You ask a handful of writers what's special about that emotionally charged time in life and each one will give you a different answer: It's the power of firsts, the universality of the teen experience, or perhaps it's just that, as The O.C. executive producer Stephanie Savage says, "You haven't screwed anything up yet." It's that incredible naïveté that makes someone brave enough to kiss the boy across the creek or stand on a coffee cart and declare their love for the girl of their dreams. "When we're young, we are unspoiled by the idea of epic romance," says Vampire Diaries co-creator Julie Plec. "We've had no cynical breakups, we've had no therapists telling us that that's not achievable, that love doesn't exist in that way. It is all just pure wish fulfillment."
But despite its naturally rich material — and the endless dramatic possibilities of the school dance — the teen show hasn't always been a staple in the television landscape. There have been plenty of shows with teen storylines, but even something like Gidget, the oldest entry on EW's list of the 50 best teen shows of all time, was canceled after one season. It would take networks a while to figure out the value of those pubescent hormones.
Shows centered around middle and high school started showing up more in the late '80s and early '90s with the likes of Saved by the Bell, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Boy Meets World, and others. But even in the 90's, My So-Called Life was canceled after one season, and Party of Five lived on the bubble. "When we did My So-Called Life, there was no such thing as a teen show," Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims recalls. "There was us and Party of Five at the time, and neither of those shows were considered that valuable by networks, even though people loved the shows. The whole genre was basically non-existent."
A show like Moesha was passed over by ABC and CBS before finding a home at a new network called UPN. "When we were growing up, we never had a girl like Moesha to watch on television," co-creator Vida Spears says, with co-creator Sara Finney-Johnson adding, "Specifically I really wanted us to do a show about a Black teenage girl and have the show be relatable to everybody. One of my favorite shows ever was The Wonder Years. I was never a white 12-year-old kid but I understood everything Kevin went through."
While teen shows struggled to prove their worth in the '90s, there was one show that thrived in all its beachside glory. On Oct. 4, 1990, Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered on Fox, introducing viewers to Brenda and Brandon Walsh (Shannen Doherty and Jason Priestley), twins from Minnesota who relocate to California, where things are prettier but not necessarily easier. The series tackled everything from date rape to drunk driving, becoming the first real teen soap phenomenon as fans declared themselves Team Dylan or Team Brandon and posters of Luke Perry and Jason Priestley adorned the walls of bedrooms everywhere. "I knew the fans were there," creator Darren Star told EW in 1991. "Teenagers really respond to what they like. And they like to see something that says, 'I'm not alone.' Look, on our show, the dysfunctional family is the norm."
To say the fans were "there" is a massive understatement. The fans were, more accurately, everywhere, and they were rabid. Perry once had a run-in with an estimated 10,000 fans at a Florida mall that stampeded at the sight of him, injuring 21 people. But somehow, even stampeding teens weren't able to convince all networks of the value of the teen show. Thankfully, the WB saw what others couldn't.
Four years into 90210's run, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on the WB, the story of destined slayer Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) serving as an allegory for the demons teens face in high school. "Prior to that, with the exception of 90210, teen shows got canceled," Plec says. But Buffy kicked down the door for the golden era of the WB, which would eventually give us Everwood, Felicity, Gilmore Girls, and, among others, a game-changing story about the teens of Capeside.
On Jan. 20, 1998, Dawson's Creek brought us the story of movie-obsessed teen Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek), his best friends Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) and Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), and new girl in town Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams). Together, they represented a new kind of high schooler: The kind that spoke like college-educated adults all the while behaving like angsty teens. "[Dawson's creator] Kevin Williamson's writing style defined for a decade how people wrote," Everwood creator Greg Berlanti says.
Audiences fell hard for the WB shows, contributing to their long lives. Buffy and Gilmore both ran for seven seasons, and Dawson's ended after six. But the teen show still hadn't quite infiltrated other networks the same way. Until The O.C. once again proved its influence. "After the WB era, there was a dip, and there was not as much as you wished in terms of the YA space," Plec says. "And then out of the blue comes The O.C." Originally thought of as a WB show, it was Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth who suggested it for Fox, which was actively looking for its next 90210, so much so that Fox would ask O.C. executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage questions like, "Who's the Brandon?"
But the story of troubled teen Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) arriving in Orange County and rescuing nerdy Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) from a life of insecurity and paralyzing self-doubt carved its own path. "We talked a lot about our trojan horse when we were developing it, this idea of: Let's give Fox everything that they're looking for when they say they want their new 90210 — parties and bonfires and fashion shows and fist fights and bikinis — but then lets also bring in characters you wouldn't have found on 90210, like the Seth Cohen types or even Ryan for that matter," Schwartz says. "It was like, 'Hey, I'm a nerdy Jewish kid, could there be a nerdy Jewish kid in this show?"
As Plec puts it, "The O.C. blows up that genre in all the best ways, has a perfect season of television, and then everyone's open to the idea again."
The early 2000s then delivered some of the best teen shows to date, including Veronica Mars and our pick for the best teen show of all time: Friday Night Lights. Taking lessons he learned from writing on My So-Called Life and Roswell, Katims says of FNL, "The main thing on writing about adolescence is giving these characters the respect and dignity they deserve. We never approached it as doing a teen show. I think that's one of the things that made the show good is that it didn't condescend."
As teen shows slowly became more prominent, different twists on the genre started to emerge. With Gossip Girl in 2007, Pretty Little Liars in 2010, all the way through to Riverdale, Elite, and many other series on today, the idea of a teen show with a hook became a favorite. Suddenly the stories weren't just about being young, they were about young people solving a mystery or surviving a murderer. "Along came the more hooky kind of shows," Berlanti says. "It needed a high concept package around it."
And now, with just about every network and streaming service creating teen shows, the stories continue to evolve. "They've gotten a lot darker and that's not necessarily a bad thing," Finney-Johnson says, specifically referencing HBO's Euphoria. "They go places we were not allowed to go. There were a lot of restrictions. Now there's this freedom because of cable, you can really hit any subject you want to and go deep and explore it and I think that's a big difference."
As shows tackle more serious issues within their fictional worlds, there's also been a push for more diversity and representation in the real world. As tends to happen with any genre, we've entered into the time of teen reboots: Roswell, New Mexico premiered in 2019, a Saved by the Bell revival premiered in 2020, HBO Max's Gossip Girl remake will premiere in July, a Pretty Little Liars reboot is in the works, as is a Wonder Years reboot. And that's not even everything. But thus far, each reboot has featured a more diverse cast than its predecessor, with Wonder Years even shifting to focus on a Black family. "Speaking to the new Gossip Girl, representation is so critical and making sure that shows continue to reflect the audience," Schwartz, who co-created the original Gossip Girl with Savage, says. "Once HBO's putting their hat in the ring, the content changes. The number of issues that you can now talk about really honestly has evolved greatly and I think that's to the benefit of everybody because it means that there's a lot more of the audience who can see themselves in these shows now because there's more representation at the front and center of the screen."
But whether it's a reboot, a classic, or a new show altogether, the timeless elements of the teen series still exist: First loves, first friends, the core ideas of fitting in and acceptance. "Everybody's searching for their place in their own social universe, so you see that journey reflected in a show and it makes you feel good about the journey that you're on," Plec says. "Or you haven't found your squad and you feel a little bit displaced and watching a found family on television gives you an aspirational warmth to say, 'That's what I want. I want to be part of the Peach Pit kids. I want to be friends with Seth Cohen. I want to live on the Creek and row my boat to Dawson's house.'"
No matter how the genre changes, those will be the things that keep fans coming back. And the fans will come back, because the superpower of any teen show is its fandom. "There's nothing like a teen fan of a teen show," says Berlanti. "I can't think of a genre where a fan matches the power of that. TV is the art form where people get even closer to the actors, because they're in their homes, and they feel really connected with them emotionally. Then the teen genre within that is the one where it seems to go straight into their veins." It's the kind of fandom Berlanti has witnessed many times in his life. "I once watched a girl who had nothing for Josh Jackson to sign shove her driver's license in his face," he says with a laugh.
It's that kind of intense obsession that helps these stories stand the test of time. "People may not be talking about a show that won 12 Emmys in 10, 15 years, but we'll still be referencing when this thing happened to this character, or this character lost their virginity, or whatever it is," Berlanti says. Because, as Schwartz puts it, "If you are a show that means something to somebody when they're a teenager, they're going to love that show forever."
Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.