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[OPINION] - The Evolution of the Teen Drama

Please note that the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpoilerTV.

Origin of the Teen Drama

What is a teen drama? A teen drama is classified as a television show with dramatized elements as they pertain to adolescents. Beverly Hills, 90210 popularized the term and became one of the first to air in prime time. It's status is iconic and it has cemented a long-lasting legacy, even spawning a reboot that launched on The CW in 2008.  Prior to BH 90210, depictions of teenagers and their lifestyles were left to established stereotypes in situational comedies and sitcoms. Aaron Spelling was one of the first to create a show that actually centered around teen drama in soap operatic fashion.

Post-90210, the genre split into two distinct directions: shows centering around small town life and more realistic depictions of teenagers growing up in middle-class america where wealth is an anomaly and teen dramas where wealth and glamor was a fixture. Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill occupied the grounded stories while The OC and Gossip Girl followed in 90210's footsteps and took us on a tour through the Upper East Side and Orange County. The OC actually had the unique approach of taking elements from each of these sub-genres. While the show took place in Orange County the audience often saw the rich teenage lifestyle through the eyes of the show's protagonist, Ryan Atwood, a kid from Chino with nary a cent to his name. The OC was considered essential viewing while it aired, critically praised for its sharp writing and musical acuity. After The OC's run was cut short, the showrunners tried their hand at the genre again with Gossip Girl, a show that built its legacy off of the phrase “guilty pleasure.”

Amidst the behemoths there were smaller, yet still notable, shows who now boast large cult followings. My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks were critical darlings but failed to find an audience when they debuted. Far more gritty in nature, they strived for more realism than their oft-melodramatic counterparts.

Another popular teen drama worth mentioning is Canadian giant, Degrassi. Degrassi tackled every hot-button topic you could think of its adaptability through the years has allowed it to chug along for over twenty years in different iterations. Not only did the show master the art of telling imperative stories surrounding social issues in a way that was accessible and not preachy, but the show has always had lovable characters and lots of heart that translated well to international audiences. Its longevity can certainly be attributed to its ability to evolve with every generation, adapting relevant and conscientious storylines for every new crop of teens.

New Era of Teen Drama

Over the past few years we’ve seen a real definitive shift from grounded, realistic teen dramas to genre-heavy or just plain dark teen shows. Pretty Little LiarsRiverdale13 Reasons WhyTeen Wolf, while all still dealing with teenage drama like love triangles and things of that nature, also tackle more serious plotlines often involving murder, torture, and sometimes outright horror. Of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer predates all of them. Whedon took the monster-of-the-week formula established by The X-Files and hybridized it to create a much beloved instant classic. Buffy’s impact has trickled down into almost every modern day sci-fi or horror show on television. It’s effect is far-reaching, even beyond the genre itself. Those musical episodes we all love so much? We probably wouldn’t have gotten them if Buffy hadn’t done it so well first.

The Vampire Diaries is one of the most significant spiritual successors of Buffy. TVD featured a struggling male werewolf, a broody vampire and a bad boy vampire with centuries of history between them, an action girl heroine with a witchy best friend and a morally grey/sometimes evil female counterpart to our main protagonist. Of course, The Vampire Diaries went on to establish a legacy of its own (a second spin-off of the show will premiere this fall) but it is worth discussing its roots and the interesting ways in which television shows build off one another.

I will say I do sometimes miss just a good old-fashioned high school drama, I’m hoping that All American will fill that void for me and maybe open the door for more shows akin to One Tree Hill or Friday Night Lights. It seems like television trends come and go and it’s been a while since the CW picked up this many teen dramas that weren’t in the superhero universe. Which itself, is another interesting take on teenage dramas if you think about it. In recent years films like Easy A, Mean Girls, She's the ManFreaky Friday, are far and few between but we have seen more diverse and dramatized coming-of-age stories, movies like Moonlight, Lady Bird, and The Florida Project prove how impactful and important these stories can be. We're finally moving in a direction where films are more diverse. It's also worth noting that many coming-of-age stories come from superhero shows and movies now. Caped crusaders are clearly hear to stay if Marvel and DC's box office price tag is any indication. You look at shows like Marvel's Runaways, Freeform's Cloak and Dagger or even the film Spiderman: Homecoming and start to see a pattern take shape.

There is a clear migration within the genre to create more adult-oriented stories and themes and intertwine them with teenage lives. I think this can be a good thing, it can make hard topics more palatable for younger audiences, but there are criticisms to make too. How much darkness do we need to see young people on-screen going through to get a point across? A question I'll be discussing in the next section.

What this Evolution Means for the Future

One way that teen dramas have definitely evolved for the better is in terms of diversity. Most of the older shows were made up of predominantly white casts and centered around wealthy teenagers and lacked positive LGBTQ+ representation (though Dawson's Creek did feature the first on-screen romantic kiss between two men, instances such as that one were rare). Modern teen shows integrate more diverse casts and generally feature teenagers from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes, although we still have a long way to go both on screen and particularly behind the scenes as well. Netflix has show’s like On my Block, Degrassi: Next Class, and Everything Sucks, Hulu has East Los High, and the CW has this fall’s upcoming All American and Charmed, both featuring predominantly non-white characters in leading roles. These are small steps in the right direction, as there is still a lot of growth that needs to occur where diversity is concerned (particularly when it comes to directors and writing teams) but it is miles ahead of where teen dramas were in the late 90s/early 2000s. 

The OC, Gossip GirlOne Tree Hill, BH 90210, etc., while iconic in their own right, were not accessible or relatable to a vast majority due to the very small pool of teenagers they actually represented. Many teens had a hard time relating to some of the older shows which often only represented a small portion of the population in an unattainable lifestyle. Everyone should be able to see themselves represented positively on television in meaningful storylines and it is my hope that television continues to diversify (on-screen and off) so that we may see a much wider range of stories not only depicted, but also handled with the gravity they should be.

These shows have an obligation to be pragmatic and diligent in the messages they’re sending to younger audiences. 13 Reasons Why drew quite a bit of ire for its glamorization of suicide and its second season featured a shockingly graphic sexual assault scene. I would never say that teen dramas shouldn’t tackle difficult topics but I do think they have an obligation to handle them with more sophistication and grace. There is rarely a reason for rape scenes to be depicted in such explicit and graphic nature, particularly when involving young characters and aimed towards a younger skewing demographic. Alluding to it is just as powerful and sometimes even more impactful. Sexual assault is always a tricky topic to tackle on television and I think it is imperative that teen dramas, in particular, learn the best way to handle it. We live in the era of the #MeToo movement and long overdue scrutinization of our society's rape culture, particularly in Hollywood. Sometimes these scenes can be tactless and at its worse, debasing or used as a troubling audience titillation tactic.

In this era of peak tv there is a drive to be darker, grittier, and edgier. Compare the shows I mentioned in beginning of this article with modern teen shows like Riverdale. There is a clear difference in how these stories are being told. It's great to see teen dramas taking risks and incorporating other genres like fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and the like, however, sometimes it gets exhausting to watch yet another show where the marketing revolves around impending character deaths. Shock value deaths do not necessarily equate to amazing storytelling and are often more indicative of lazy writing. Personally, I blame the effects of shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones (both shows I enjoy but that have changed the game in terms of how character deaths are treated - particularly for major characters), for this current craze of core character deaths where writers seem to think a show is only as good as its most shocking death or twist. As someone who loves YA and teen dramas, I don’t need to see my favorite characters tortured week after week, especially when it is often teenage girls who bear the brunt of the damage. It was writing tactics such as these that created the tired “bury your gays” trope and often culminate in the brutal deaths of non-white characters. Look at The 100 for examples of both. That’s not to say these shows aren’t good or enjoyable, all of them were successful in their own right, but they are indicative of a strange urgency to see which showrunner can devastate and break their fan's hearts the most. Obviously I don't mean that deaths should never occur on television but I do feel as if many of them are done to actually create meaningful storylines or just to create easy, sloppy surprises and "twists."

All I'm saying is when I watched shows like Gossip Girl I wasn't holding my breath every week hoping Blair Waldorf didn't get brutally stabbed by a vampire or murdered by the town's weekly serial killer. A little agony goes a long way.

Of course, none of this means I dislike our current age of teen dramas, some of them are actually some of my all-time favorites and I quite like horror and supernatural television. The genre is evolving and changing to adapt to the zeitgeist as most television trends do. Monitoring these trends is an important aspect of studying the medium. Television is a constantly evolving creature, it’s fascinating to watch it grow. Which direction will teen dramas go in next, will the grounded shows of yesteryear make their comeback? Maybe we’ll go even further into genre-fare into surrealism a la Twin Peaks. Riverdale certainly takes some inspiration from there and has developed into a bonkers, campy, sometimes dream-like show of its own.

This fall we’ve got a full slate of new teen-centered dramas with Charmed, All American, Legacies, and mid-season’s Roswell reboot. Also The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which promises to be chock full of magical mayhem and horror and possibly one of the darkest teen dramas we’ve seen yet. I know that I, for one, will be watching all of them, eager to see what comes next.

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