Did any teen TV show really survive graduation?
Short answer: No. Long answer: Only by changing everything.
High school doesn't last forever. This is a regular fact of human existence, and a fundamental tragedy for any semi-longrunning TV show about American teenagers. The setting is a world that has to end. Dramas, sitcoms, supernatural adventures, and reality docusoaps all share the same YA rituals: Senior proms, diplomas, farewells to parents and teachers, couples going different directions, childhood friends choosing divergent futures.
In real life, kids go to college, or get jobs, or generally just stop being kids. For TV producers, that's a tense evolution — and maybe a breaking point. When you scan through the titles on EW's list of the 50 best teen TV shows, you find some of the greatest series in history — and almost all of them failed to solve the Graduation Problem. How do you keep a show running smoothly when basic narrative logic demands everything has to change? The stakes are high. Veronica Mars only managed one college year, and Saved by the Bell: The College Years barely lasted a semester. Nothing about Gossip Girl made sense after season 2, and the nonsense stopped being fun after season 3. High school is a perfect TV location, forcing all the characters together in the same space at the same time to experience the same situations together. What happens when young adulthood pushes them apart?
The most common answers are also the most ridiculous. Beverly Hills, 90210 sent everyone to "California University," not to be confused with the "California University" from Saved by the Bell. Buffy the Vampire Slayer conjured its own UC campus just down the road from Sunnydale High. Pennbrook University welcomed the entire cast of Boy Meets World.
It's an obvious fix — everyone at the same high school goes to the same college! — with less obvious problems. There are barely any good college TV shows. Dear White People, Undeclared, A Different World, Felicity, a couple seasons of Greek, Grown-ish, maybe Normal People; that's an arguable seven in three decades, and Undeclared died quickly, and Normal People takes place in an alternate reality of afternoon wine parlors. If graduation is a moment of radical transformation, college requires constant transformation. It's tricky to dramatize, even trickier now with Generation Student Loan Debt, for whom the entire idea of higher education is a much-disputed hot topic.
There are few species of fandom more passionate than the love-mobs who adore teen TV. But does any teen TV fan, like, get excited about their favorite characters going to college? It's telling, I think, that Buffy gets discussed as a high school show: That remains the Platonic Ideal of Buffy-ness, even if it found a new gear in its middle years.
There are narrative alternatives for TV producers looking to maintain their show's dramatic layout. You can pretend no one is aging: That '70s Show stretched a couple high school years across five seasons. You can send your characters away to college and then invent some drama to bring them back. (See: James Van Der Beek's Dawson leaving USC, Rachel Bilson's Summer getting exiled from Brown.) You can jump forward to a new chronological normal: The One Tree Hill move, recently modeled by Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale.
Time jumps are never a bad idea. That's especially true for a teen show, where most actors tend to be seven years older than their characters. And at this point, One Tree Hill is probably more discussed for the adult years' killer-nanny-in-the-cornfield excess. You hit a big pitfall, though, if your goal is anything but insanity. Characters move forward in time, but wind up frozen in the same dynamic. The people they hung out with in high school become the people they hang with through their 20s. RAMPANT GENERALIZATION ALERT: This almost never happens, and when it does, it's not the way these shows imagine, everyone filling the precise same slot-in-the-squad role as when they were 15. There's a natural urge to keep a central ensemble of 5-11 characters together. But when people get older, they have to grow at least a little apart.
The best solution is also the most impossible. It is very hard to make a good TV show, with vivid characters that function well together through exciting storylines. It is even harder to make that great TV show into an entirely different TV show, with the same setting welcoming a new cast of characters. But Degrassi famously moved forward through teen generations. Glee split half the cast to New York at its midpoint — not always successfully, but certainly better than three more seasons exclusively about Regionals. And I don't think any teen TV show staged a better evolution than Friday Night Lights. An incoming teen cast led by Michael B. Jordan gave the later seasons a new vibrant pulse, even as the show tracked the outgoing players into troubled adulthood. Some older characters returned occasionally for very casual hellos; most of them, believably, did not. Almost all the high school sweethearts broke up, immediately.
And even FNL struggled! Mostly with Aimee Teegarden's Julie, who left college after a faculty affair to marry to her first love. Her arc helpfully incarnates every wrong turn a teen TV show can make in one single person. Television has evolved in many ways, but I worry the Graduation Problem will only get worse. Streamers and premium cable networks air their 10-episode seasons sparingly. If Never Have I Ever maintains its current calendar, it'll produce maybe 40 episodes in four years. That's less than half the comparable output of a Buffy or a Gossip Girl (and some 70 episodes less than the summer-vacationing 90210). Quantity isn't quality, I know, but one of the central pleasures of teen TV is the simple fascination of time passing. The characters change physically because the actors are still growing up — an unfakeable slow-mo-Boyhood special effect that works best with maximum camera coverage. (I worry for Euphoria, which will wind up with more than two years between proper seasons.)
There is a grand exception. The O.C. was a phenomenon in its first season and then a well-soundtracked mess for two ludicrous (and lately controversial) years. Season 3's vengeful-surfer killing of Marissa (Mischa Barton) could have ended the show — or pushed into outright melodrama. Instead, season 4 took an unexpected left turn into lighthearted comedy. Summer went to college just long enough to visit home constantly and then get expelled. All the other teens just kinda became twenty-somethings ahead of schedule. Seth (Adam Brody) got a job at a comic book store, and Ryan (Ben McKenzie) worked at a Mexican cantina. Taylor (Autumn Reeser) was briefly married to a French novelist who wrote her into a bestselling erotic novel. Everything became much goofier; even an apocalyptic earthquake was an opportunity for mother-daughter karaoke. The sweet sensibility matched a renewed focus on sizzling romcom antics and outright farce (see: the Yuletide-themed alternate-reality dream). It was basically a primetime soap where nobody hated each other, and I maintain it could've lasted another decade. Instead, The O.C. got cancelled. Nobody escapes graduation.
Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.