Pretty Little Liars
To be entirely honest, in our experience, it never gets less embarrassing to tell someone you can’t meet them for a drink because you’re going home to watch Pretty Little Liars. But watch it in secret if you need to, because this ABC Family series is a whole lot more fun to watch than that other multi-season basic cable murder mystery, The Killing — not to mention more consistent and faster-paced. At the center of the show are four teenage girls who begin to receive strange and increasingly threatening text messages a year after their friend, the group’s manipulative, precocious leader, is killed. Each episode is full of the kinds of twists and turns and horror movie-worthy sequences that great TV addictions are made of, along with the crushes and relationship drama and frenemies and cute dresses that come standard with the genre.
Freaks and Geeks
It may have only lasted one season, but this show by Judd Apatow and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig left a huge footprint on the TV landscape. A teen drama that offered just as many uproariously funny moments as serious ones, Freaks and Geeks centered on Lindsay Weir, a smart former nerd making the transition to a more exciting burnout clique (the “freaks) at the dawn of the ’80s. Populated by many of the same actors who followed Apatow to the Hollywood A list (including, of course, a young James Franco), the show may have been set in the past, but it captured the awkward yet exciting mood of high school better than most teen fare set in the present. We still dream about Netflix, or maybe a Kickstarter campaign, funding another season of Freaks and Geeks, even if the fact that most of the show’s actors are now in their 30s makes the idea entirely unfeasible.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Confession: Even though Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted just as we entered high school, we didn’t start watching it until a few years ago. At the time, it wasn’t that we thought we were too good for teen dramas — it’s that we figured shows about vampires and witches and werewolves were just for nerds. Well, if that’s true, then hand us a pocket protector, because Buffy has become one of our favorite shows of all time. From the epic storylines to the witty dialogue to likable characters whose development is a (frequently nerve-wracking) pleasure to watch, Joss Whedon’s signature series has as much to do with the epic emotional scale of teenage life as it does with making vampires go poof.
Before The Real Housewives of Orange County or Laguna Beach, there was The O.C., a smart teen drama that turned both its 26-year-old creator (Josh Schwartz) and luxurious setting (Newport Beach) into household names. I was already well out of high school by the time the show premiered on Fox nearly a decade ago, but that didn’t stop me and every other 20-something I knew from indulging in a little soapy escapism. The premise itself was a little hokey — a doe-eyed delinquent from the wrong side of the tracks is taken in by a do-good public defender and moves into the wealthy family’s pool house. Then he goes and falls in love with the rich beautiful girl next door. But what made this show different from predecessors like 90210 and Dawson’s Creek was the emphasis the writers put on its adults; not only were the parents fleshed out in a way that’s rarely seen on teen shows, their storylines received just as much as attention. Yes, things went downhill a bit after the first season, but I kept tuning in because, like most viewers, I wished that I could be pseudo adopted by Sandy and Kiki too. – Caroline Stanley
My So-Called Life
The first show to nail teenage angst, not to mention capture the flannel-and-alt-rock aesthetic of the period, My So-Called Life gave us Angela Chase, one of the best characters in television history. An intelligent girl just starting to break away from her family and figure out what she wants out of the world, Angela is an obvious forerunner to Lindsay Weir, making the kinds of exhilarating mistakes that a newly minted free spirit makes. Even for those of us who finished that fun, messy chapter of our lives a decade or more ago, her musings on what it means to grow up, be in love, and express yourself perfectly encapsulate the drama of adolescence. Also, her friends are awesome and — almost two decades later — Jordan Catalano is still dreamy.
If My So-Called Life is powered by one girl’s somewhat tortured rebellion, the UK series Skins (let us never speak of the short-lived American version again) takes that wild teenage energy to its logical extreme. Switching up its cast every two years, the show introduces us to a clique of 16-year-olds who tackle family problems, screwed-up relationships, identity crises, and other pressures with the help of recreational drugs, surreal dance parties, casual sex, and starry-eyed romanticism. Skins has elicited more than its share of criticism for its depiction of high-school debauchery, but that’s missing the point. What we love about it is the quasi-magical ambiance it imparts, actually simulating the heady (some might even say drug-like) experience of being a teenager — which might be even more attractive to nostalgic adults than kids.
In the past year or two, Skins has fallen out of favor a bit in the UK. The show will end next year, following a seventh season that is slated to include all three previous casts — but its influence on British TV can’t be overstated. It basically ushered in a teen-drama renaissance across the pond, resulting in a slew of imaginative programming. Our favorite of this new wave is Misfits, a sci-fi series about juvenile delinquents in a community service program whose first day on the job includes an electrical storm that leaves each of them with superpowers. With a premise like that, it’s hard to imagine how a show could go wrong, and in three short seasons, it hasn’t disappointed us yet.
Of course, the UK isn’t the only other English-speaking country with teen programming so great it has appeal beyond its target audience. Canada has its beloved Degrassi franchise, which has had roughly as many spin-offs as Saved by the Bell; beginning in 1979 with The Kids of Degrassi Street, it followed much of its cast to Degrassi Junior High and then Degrassi High. The 21st century kicked off with Degrassi: The Next Generation, which, among other things, famously launched the career of Drake. But this is all beside the point, which is that Degrassi has broken all kinds of barriers, tackling such issues as drugs, sexuality, and abortion in a way that didn’t preach at a time when kids in America were watching, well, Saved by the Bell. In fact, the themes of this show are so universal and the multi-episode storylines so engrossing that anyone who enjoys serial drama should consider giving Degrassi a shot.
Like Pretty Little Liars, Veronica Mars is a teen mystery series that’s far more satisfying than its grown-up counterparts. Unlike Pretty Little Liars, whose appeal is due almost entirely to the addictive plot twists, it’s also full of great, complex characters and witty dialogue, much of which comes courtesy of Kristen Bell’s titular brilliant, ice-cold high-school detective. It’s the relationships between the characters that made us fall in love with this show, including both Veronica’s rapport with her single PI dad and a certain on-again-off-again romance that gave us one of our favorite couples in TV history.
Before you rush to the comments section to point out that Felicity is technically a college drama, we’d like to suggest that it belongs on this list because 1) there simply aren’t enough college dramas for that to be its own genre and 2) it aired on the WB. When the show begins, Felicity Porter is at her high school graduation with plans to head off to Stanford in the fall as a pre-med major. But as those of you who have watched this series from JJ Abrams’ early years know, she ends up moving across the country to attend the University of New York because of a single conversation with her crush. It doesn’t get more adolescent than that. Like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, this was a self-aware show that was filled with complicated and flawed characters who were struggling to find themselves; yes, Felicity agonizes over the whole Ben vs. Noel love triangle, but she spends just as much time trying to decide if she should follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor or pursue her true passion, art. If you’re looking to wax nostalgic over the melodrama of early adulthood — particularly that rare time when a message on your whiteboard felt like it could like, literally change your life — then you’ll enjoy this show immensely. And for the record, it didn’t go down the tubes once Keri Russell cut her hair off — even if said haircut has its own section on Wikipedia. – Caroline Stanley