From children who are basically props to 25-year-old high schoolers with wardrobes by Marc Jacobs, there’s a noticeable lack of realistic kid characters on TV these days. But, in the past few seasons, we’ve noticed that the vogue for Gossip Girl-style perfection has begun to give way to an influx of young people who actually seem real (and, um, young). In celebration of this development, we’ve collected 10 of the most distinctive and best-developed characters from the 18-and-under set that are on TV right now. Meet a sweet, precocious tween, a high-school girl struggling with her father’s suicide, and more, after the jump.
Manny Delgado, Modern Family
Let’s face it: Precocious kids can be annoying as hell, both on TV and in real life. But Rico Rodriguez is so charming as Manny, Gloria Pritchett’s son from her first marriage, that we find him both completely believable and totally endearing as an old soul trapped in the body of a tween. What makes Manny so lovable is that he’s multi-dimensional; sure, he’s smart, but he’s also a compassionate listener and a bona fide romantic who, despite his maturity, wants to believe the best about his biological father, no matter how many times Javier lets him down.
Sally Draper, Mad Men
She may not have started out as a fantastic character — like her little brother, Bobby, Season 1’s eight-year-old Sally Draper was basically window dressing — but as she grows up, and her perfect family splits at the seams, Sally has become a real and relatable character. The constant butt of her mother’s criticism, she’s been starved for positive attention ever since her beloved Grandpa Gene died in Season 3. So it makes a lot of sense that Sally has been doing a lot of acting out lately, from her forbidden friendship with creepy Glen Bishop (another fantastic, if disturbing, young character) to her unscheduled visit to Don in New York to that, er, bizarre self-pleasure incident. Of course, instead of trying to put herself in poor Sally’s shoes, Betty brings her daughter to a psychiatrist — who rightly discerns that Mom could also benefit from some professional help.
Shane Botwin, Weeds
As of this season, Shane Botwin isn’t officially a kid anymore — he’s in college (and running some kind of student-loan Ponzi scheme). But Weeds viewers have known Shane since he was just a strange tween in suburban Agrestic, California, and his character development has been one of the most consistently engaging aspects of the show. In the past few years, he’s shown that he’s truly his mother’s son by committing murder to save his family and sticking by Nancy even after his older brother, Silas, has given up on her. The question of whether he’s just screwed up or actually amoral remains an open one, and we hope to get more insight into it should the series be renewed for an eighth season.
Sofia Bernette, Treme
We didn’t know much about India Ennenga before she stepped into the role of Sofia Bernette, but in two seasons on the show, she has us convinced that she’s one of the most talented teenage actors around. The daughter of writer and college professor Creighton and civil rights lawyer Toni, she becomes just as fired up about the wrongs New Orleans has to endure post-Hurricane Katrina as her parents. But her life grows dark after her father kills himself at the end of Season 1; Toni isn’t entirely honest with Sofia, but she begins to figure things out on her own, and channels her anger by sneaking into bars and creating the kind of exasperated YouTube videos Creighton once made. What’s fantastic about Sofia is that she’s a smart, regular kid blindsided by tragedy. It’s impossible not to feel for her.
Violet Harmon, American Horror Story
While Treme‘s Sofia is a regular kid whose life is plunged into darkness, Violet Harmon is already pretty dark by the time she moves into a haunted house on this new FX series. She smokes, she gets into fights, she cuts herself, she hates her parents. But it seems like even jaded misery-chick Violet may be getting in over her head when she strikes up a friendship with her psychologist dad’s homicidal, Kurt Cobain-worshipping patient. If you’re imagining a slightly older, flesh-and-blood version of Beetlejuice‘s Lydia Deetz, then you’ve just about got it.
Kurt Hummel, Glee
There are plenty of atypical kids on Fox’s glee-club comedy, but most of them don’t end up being much more than a clever twist on a tired stereotype. The exception is Kurt Hummel, played with sensitivity and poise by Chris Colfer. Neither a mincing cliché nor a “straight-acting” crypto-gay, Kurt is a queer teenager trying to make a place for himself in a school where bullying is the norm and hetero dudes are pretty much all he has to crush on. Over the course of two seasons, we’ve seen him build an inspiring relationship with his dad, find true love, and turn a Carrie-esque prom nightmare into a platform for his newfound self-confidence.
Franky Fitzgerald, Skins
She’s been described as a lesbian or, perhaps, genderqueer, but neither of those descriptors seems to encompass what a truly wonderful and unusual character Franky Fitzgerald is. At the beginning of the current, third British Skins casting cycle, we learn that Franky is the new kid in town. After being bullied at past schools, this awkward, boyish girl has retreated into herself, creating elaborate stop-motion films in her bedroom, under the concerned care of her adoptive gay dads. Throughout the first season she appears on, we see Franky come out of her loner shell and embrace some very unexpected friendships. The best thing about this character is the Skins writers’ refusal to label or reduce her to anything other than the unique person she is.
Jenna Hamilton, Awkward.
In most shows about high school, everyone’s either a jock or a mean girl or a hopeless dweeb. But Jenna Hamilton, the protagonist of MTV’s surprise hit Awkward., is — like so many actual teenagers — just, in her own words, “invisible.” When an unfortunate accident prompts classmates to assume that she tried to kill herself, all eyes are on Jenna for the first time in her life. The show is the story of a girl growing into herself, and her titular awkwardness speaks much more to the typical high-school experiences than any over-styled Upper East Sider’s tale ever could.
Bart and Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons
The show may be years past its prime, but Bart and Lisa Simpson are still two of the best kid TV characters of all time. Bart is your classic elementary-school troublemaker, with a streak of genuine, anti-establishment rebelliousness that makes him about equal parts punk rocker and class clown. Matt Groening’s true masterpiece, though, is little-sister Lisa — by far the smartest person in her family, an accomplished musician, and a crusader for social justice. Taken together, they’re a secretly subversive pair who have been challenging notions of what childhood should be for over two decades.