Only in its first season now, and just recently renewed for a second, MTV’s Awkward. is one of the most unexpectedly honest series about high school we’ve seen in years. Sure, we all like to gape at the impossibly glamorous teen dramas dreamt up by Josh Schwartz, of The O.C. and Gossip Girl fame. But in real life, high school is raw and uncomfortable and histrionically mundane, and it takes an exceptionally perceptive program to get at the mood of those terrible and wonderful years. In celebration of Awkward., we’ve rounded up the TV shows we think best capture the high school experience.
One of the most believable portrayals of what’s inside a high schooler’s head, Daria understands the out-of-body experience of walking down a high school hallway. On the cusp of self-discovery but stuck in the equally foreign domains of school and her parents’ home, Daria feels like an extra in her own life story. She doesn’t care about what her mindless classmates are obsessed with this week, nor is she entirely sure what it is that she does care about. She’s figuring it out — and there’s nothing more awkward than that.
Freaks and Geeks
No, it doesn’t represent the era we currently live in, but it is high school. The issues that Lindsey and Sam Weir deal with are dramatic — panic, devastation, betrayal, loss. But Freaks and Geeks doesn’t introduce those problems with now-cliché teen pregnancy or intricate revenge plots. It evokes them in the way that most teenagers actually experience them — as dropping out of math club, watching a pornographic movie with your friends, and debating whether to listen to your parents or impress your friends. The young James Franco is quite the stud, but most of the characters aren’t all that hot or made up, and most of them have oily skin and pointy boobs.
My So-Called Life
My So-Called Life gets right at the heart of what it’s like to have your eyes stapled open when you’d rather be blindfolded. The painfully self-aware Angela, played by a young Claire Danes, realizes that her place in the social order of high school is transient but can’t help getting caught up in the romance, drama, and — most difficult and pervasive of all — boredom, of teenage life.
We mean the British version, not the short-lived, disappointing American one, of course. High school isn’t as dramatic for all pre-collegers as it is for this group of teens in Bristol, England, but Skins delves into the tough issues of eating disorders, broken homes, sex, drugs, and death, and serves them up raw. Luckily, the show isn’t all gloom and doom — its romantic worldview and debaucherous party scenes will surely remind you that the hormone-drenched rush of youth includes a healthy dose of pleasure along with all the pain.
Degrassi: The Next Generation
Degrassi’s students grapple with the entire matrix of what you could be exposed to in high school. You’ve got everything from self-mutilation, drugs, and alcohol to interracial relationships, rape, and domestic abuse. Hell, what other show co-stars a half-black, half-Jewish guy in a wheel chair (who grew up to be a famous rapper)? We’ll chalk up the high concentration of drama to what life must be like in the freezing wilds of Canada — and the fact that there are just so many characters on the show; every individual’s story line, considered separately, is sincere.
The Wonder Years
Kevin Arnold’s high school story is told by a voice-over adult version of himself, looking back, and his memories are exactly as they would be in hindsight; full of regrets, guilt, simplicity, and wonder. His complicated relationship with on-again, off-again girlfriend Winnie Cooper is everybody’s lingering childhood crush, but the most true-to-life aspect of the show is Kevin’s friendship with his best friend Paul. Their connection is one that seems to result arbitrarily from practicality, habit, and process of elimination, and somehow, that seems to describe most high school alliances perfectly.
Friday Night Lights
One of the only football shows most women we know will not only watch but also love, Friday Night Lights telescopes in on the problems of a small, Middle American town with grit and honesty. In Dillon, Texas, football is the foundation of the school’s — and the town’s — social order. The show recounts the stress this places on the coach, his family, and the players, and uses them as a springboard to address tough problems like race, class, and even abortion.
Okay, not every high school has its own go-to girl detective, but if you ignore the central conceit of this high school drama, what really makes this show — its relationships — are pretty accurate to teenage life. Rumors make and ruin people at Neptune High, and since Veronica has been involved with the kind of scandal no one wants to be a part of, nobody wants to talk to her unless they need her help. Now that her best friend is dead and her ex-boyfriend now ignores her in the hallways, she deals with her problems — which are as trivial as high school crushes and as huge as date rape and murder — all on her own.
Boy Meets World
Until Cory and his crew went to college and became caricatures of themselves, they were the model of teenage life, lust, and complication. He’s a dorky, sheltered kid whose life revolves around a quirky girl he’s been infatuated with forever, a best friend from a difficult background who culture-shocks him out of naïveté every now and then, a cool but stupid older brother whom every girl fawns over, and parents who are constantly cramping his style. Yup, sounds like high school to us.