From nostalgia series to reboots, what's next for teen TV?
The masterminds behind some of television's greatest fictional teenagers reflect on the genre's evolution — and where it goes from here.
In 1990, Beverly Hills, 90210 invited us to the Peach Pit and it changed everything. Building an entire hour around the lives of teenagers was an uncommon choice at the time, but the fledgling Fox network decided to gamble. And the end result was somehow more popular than Brandon Walsh walking down a hallway at West Beverly Hills High School. So popular, in fact, that the series helped cement the value of a new genre: "It used to be kid TV, or adult TV with teenage elements to it," says Julie Plec, co-creator of The Vampire Diaries. "My first memory of teen TV was seeing a commercial for Beverly Hills, 90210." Nowadays, she continues, "teen TV is important because it's new."
New in the grand scheme of things, at least. And maintaining that newness is a big challenge for a television genre that relies on capturing the attention of a constantly changing class of viewers. In the '90s we watched Angela Chase (Claire Danes) dye her hair red and Felicity Porter (Keri Russell) choose between hot guy Ben Covington (Scott Speedman) and other hot guy Noel Crane (Scott Foley). In the early 2000s, we tuned in to see Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) study for Harvard and Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) create his own comic. As networks began to understand the power of adolescent stories (and audiences), more teen-centric shows started to appear — and evolve.
With the launches of Gossip Girl in 2007 and Pretty Little Liars in 2010, suddenly teen shows weren't just about Peach Pit hangs and love triangles. They needed more — a mystery, a murder, or both. That upping of the stakes still exists today, with shows like Riverdale and Elite putting high schoolers in the middle of unpredictable scenarios. (As if being a teenager wasn't hard enough.) Often, the higher concept for a series would be supernatural — a trend that can be traced back through The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among others. Today, that theme is bigger than ever thanks to fantasy epics like Netflix's Shadow and Bone. In other words, we've come a long way since Joey (Katie Holmes) climbed a ladder into Dawson's (James Van Der Beek) room for movie night.
Which raises the question: Could a show like Dawson's Creek even succeed today? The closest thing on the air right now feels like the CW's All American, which certainly has its share of twists, but is centered around a classic high school story. "It's the only show that we have that when I watch it, it reminds me of sitting down to watch the old WB cuts," All American executive producer Greg Berlanti says.
But is All American the last of its kind? Are classic high school stories just not as exciting anymore? "The real tragedy of streamers right now is they're chasing lofty, extensive YA and they're not living as much in the nostalgia YA or the WB stuff as they could," says Plec, who is adapting the popular YA book series Vampire Academy for Peacock. Plec thinks there's a place where some of those throwback stories could thrive: In the half-hour realm, on shows like Netflix's Never Have I Ever. "When I saw the Saved by the Bell reboot, I thought, 'Here is a space to tell teen stories through a half hour format where you could have both ridiculous situational comedy and deep feelings,' " Plec says. "You could really look at that space for those nostalgia shows, the simple stories, the Everwoods."
Then again, it's possible that today's viewers are less interested in those simpler stories. One of the biggest teen shows currently in the zeitgeist is Euphoria, which delivers an unfiltered, sometimes difficult-to-watch portrayal of the life of a teen drug addict. "Once HBO's putting their hat in the ring, the content changes," says O.C. creator Josh Schwartz. "One thing that has changed is just the kinds of issues that you can now actually talk about on a show, versus wink at or allude to."
But maybe going darker isn't the next wave at all. Perhaps reboots are. In addition to Peacock's Saved by the Bell, a new Gossip Girl has arrived on HBO Max — the same streamer that announced a new version of Pretty Little Liars just three short years after the original concluded. Even The Wonder Years is getting re-imagined for ABC this fall (that's right, we're officially at the point where we're getting nostalgic for shows about nostalgia). To date, the biggest — and most welcome — change with this latest batch of reboots is their on-camera diversity. "The issue of representation continues to be very important, and everyone is committed to doing better and going further," says Stephanie Savage, an executive producer on both the original and new Gossip Girl.
So what does the future hold for teen TV? More representation, edgier stories, a return to those WB days? Whatever comes next, "authenticity is always the key," says Berlanti. "They have to be truthful." And wherever there is an authentic teen story, there's one thing that we can guarantee will come with it: hormones. Lots of hormones.
Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.