At its launch in 1977, ABC Family was a Christian network (CBN Satellite Service, then CBN Cable Network) primarily focused on religious programming. In 1988, it switched its emphasis to “family” programming — still vaguely religious, but now also decidedly family-oriented — by rebranding multiple times: The CBN Family Channel (1998), The Family Channel (1990), Fox Family (1998), and finally ABC Family (2001). ABC Family as we currently know it wouldn’t really exist until 2006, with the addition of the slogan “A New Kind of Family,” which really hammers home the network’s core mission: A dedication to original programming about families, even if the particular families in question aren’t what we’re used to.
There are plenty of programs to watch on ABC Family with your family, though they are mostly syndicated: Boy Meets World, Reba, 8 Simple Rules, and Gilmore Girls are just a few. But ABC Family is most interesting when it comes to its original programming, both past and present, airing shows that seem to be specifically targeted to teenage girls. The programs are universal (plenty of my guy friends are obsessed with Pretty Little Liars and Greek), but there is a definite gendered slant to the network. It’s not a bad thing — in fact, it’s actually pretty wonderful — but it does mean that ABC Family doesn’t get the respect it deserves. And that’s a shame, because the network has been doing great things in recent years, and so many of its programs deserve viewers. Here’s a look at the ABC Family shows that you should be watching.
Switched at Birth
I was not expecting Switched at Birth to be anything more than a silly show with an unintentionally hilarious title, but it quickly became one of the most emotional teen dramas currently on television. It goes deeper than its “two teen girls discover they were switched at birth” logline and explores the complicated relationship between two sudden-sisters from completely different backgrounds. There is the occasional quiet resentment that arises from realizing you could have had a much different (and maybe better) life — Daphne was born to wealthy parents but ended up living with a single mother in a low-income neighborhood and, as a child, contracted meningitis that resulted in her loss of hearing.
Daphne’s deafness is integral to the show and is dealt with carefully and compassionately. Switched at Birth also makes some interesting stylistic choices; scenes with two deaf characters signing are often completely free of sound. In Season 2, the show aired an episode told almost entirely in American Sign Language.
Switched at Birth includes the requisite love triangles, some silly high school drama, and side plots involving the parents. It’s become one of those shows that rises above its original premise but never forgets it.
Pretty Little Liars
If you’re looking for camp, look no further than Pretty Little Liars. It’s a teen drama with a mystery-thriller aspect, one that has become a beloved phenomenon and spawned everything from last year’s short-lived spinoff Ravenswood to an Aeropostale clothing line. It would be easy to write off this show as a cheap TV version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, but it manages to parody the genre while embracing it. It gleefully revels in both teen drama and mystery clichés in a way that makes it fun to watch.
Pretty Little Liars has sustained what would normally be an open-and-shut narrative — the murder of the a clique’s “queen bee,” followed by an unknown tormenter sending the girls creepy messages — for multiple seasons (the fifth premiered last night) by continuing to find twisty ways to keep viewers interested. What started off rough, with mixed reviews, has now become something bigger, with everyone from TV critics to GLAAD paying close attention to the show. It’s the biggest hit for ABC Family, and the networks knows it; Pretty Little Liars was renewed for both a sixth and a seventh season, ensuring that it goes until at least 2016.
ABC Family doesn’t have the biggest lineup of original programming, but that just means you should check out some of its previous shows, too. Greek ended in 2011, but it’s still a show that I think about on a near-daily basis, and that I firmly believe everyone should watch (hey, it’s available on Netflix). Shows set in college rarely work (or when they do, like Undeclared, they are immediately canceled), but Greek was the exception to the rule.
It wasn’t just a show about the Greek life on a campus, despite the promos depicting red plastic cups and the disturbing amount of Plain White T’s songs that littered the episodes; it was a show about friendship, self-identity, and growing up. The key to Greek is that the characters were people instead of college stereotypes. They talked the way 19-year-olds talked, not the way aging TV writers believed 19-year-olds talked. They behaved like people behave in college — they drank, smoked, and had sex — but it wasn’t glorified in an MTV-like, “look at how controversial this is!” way. It was in the background of the bigger stories.
The show remarked on frustrating sibling relationships, class differences that divide friends, the inability (or decision not) to grow up because everything outside of college is too terrifying, and tons of other clever stuff you wouldn’t expect from a funny drama about fraternities. Embarrassing admission: Thanks to the finale, I can now say that an ABC Family show made me cry.
Melissa & Joey
ABC Family isn’t immune to the nostalgia obsession that’s plaguing sitcoms right now, and I am not immune to getting sucked into them. In simplistic terms, Melissa & Joey is an updated version of Who’s the Boss. Joe (’90s star Joey Lawrence) loses his money in a Ponzi scheme and moves in with Melissa (’90s star Melissa Joan Hart) to become a nanny and helps to take care of her niece and nephew after their mother ends up in jail. In more complicated terms, well, no, that’s it. That’s basically the entire show.
It’s very bright and cheesy, reminiscent of an over-the-top sitcom with zany antics revolving around bad dates, pregnancy scares, and teens blogging. It’s silly but it’s unobjectionable. It goes a little heavy on the will-they/won’t-they storyline between Melissa and Joey — it is absolutely not a spoiler to say that they do, eventually, because it is the only natural trajectory for a sitcom like this — but it has its moments. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s far better than its only current ABC Family sitcom counterpart, Baby Daddy, about three bros trying to raise a baby. (Side note: Not to imply there’s a correlation between Baby Daddy being the worst show on ABC Family and it being the only show without a female lead but, well…)
What’s left to say about Bunheads? During its 18-episode first and only season, the Internet spilled thousands and thousands of words praising the series. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), Bunheads told the story of a former Las Vegas showgirl who impulsively marries a longtime admirer and then flees to a small town in Southern California. When her new husband suddenly dies, she remains in that town to clash with her mother-in-law and teach a group of teenage ballet students.
Most people weren’t expecting much out of Bunheads, but it became a quick cult hit, wildly popular among its dedicated viewers and a surprise critical favorite, but unfortunately it never performed well in the ratings. Underneath the fish-out-of-water story, the rapid-fire pop culture-laced dialogue, and the amazing dance sequences set to songs that were definitely not classic ballet, was a show about life’s frustrating disruptions, career insecurity, feminism (and flawed feminism), and the little relationships you form that become the biggest parts of your life. It’s a cancellation that still hurts. When you watch it all (it’s on Amazon Video), you’ll understand why.
The Fosters, despite yet another silly title (they are foster parents and their last name is “Foster”), is an especially groundbreaking drama. At the center is an interracial lesbian couple raising a blended family (a mix biological, adopted, and foster children). It’s soapy but it works.
Secret Life of the American Teenager is also amazingly soapy, and often too soapy, but it’s wonderful when it veers into unintentional laughs. For five seasons, it basically kept The Soup in business; it also featured the most awkward product placement ever. Also? Shailene Woodley is the star!
The Middleman and Huge were both amazing, underrated, and original. Both featured stories revolving around strong female leads and are well-worth checking out. 10 Things I Hate About You was surprisingly clever for a TV adaptation; Jane by Design was ridiculous enough to entertain.
Thankfully, ABC Family abandoned the misguided Alice in Arabia but still has a handful of upcoming projects. Three shows are premiering this month: Chasing Life, the disappointing cancer drama; Young & Hungry, the multi-camera comedy starring Emily Osment as a food blogger; and Mystery Girls, the Tori Spelling/Jennie Garth faux-detective buddy comedy.
ABC Family also has three upcoming drama pilots for the next TV season. Recovery Road takes on the heavy-handed subject of a teenage girl dealing with her alcohol addiction while dividing her time between high school and a rehab center. Unstrung is about the “sexy” and “cutthroat” world of professional tennis co-created by Switched at Birth‘s Paul Stupin. Rounding it out is Stitchers, a procedural drama about a woman recruited into a government agency.