You don’t have to of the teenybopper demographic to enjoy teenage drama, humor and angst. Just look at films that have pierced the cultural zeitgeist as classics across the age spectrum—from “Mean Girls” (2004) to “The Breakfast Club” (1985). The same goes for television: “90210,” “Gossip Girl,” “Gilmore Girls,” and even “Clueless,” whose film warranted a TV spin-off.
There’s just something undeniably universal about the complicated crushes, off-beat humor, family problems, friendship tensions and general teen awkwardness that often defines this niche programming. And as clichéd as plot lines may be, there a handful of shows ripe with promise. Shows that explored the hard truths of the adolescent experience even in the face of the improbable and unbelievable.
Unfortunately, some of these great shows were cut down in their prime before they ever had a chance to really take off. Here are five of the good ones:
“The Carrie Diaries” (2013-2014)
Developed by Amy B. Harris
AnnaSophia Robb stars in “The Carrie Diaries” as a younger, more likable version of the the infamous Carrie Bradshaw. A prequel (in spirit—continuity between shows was shot to hell) to the HBO series “Sex and the City,” “The Carrie Diaries” follows the life of Carrie before sex, shoes and neurotic ruminating of her adulthood set in. So what happens when one takes all of the aforementioned out of the equation? You get one terribly endearing series.
Robb still emulates Carrie’s her quirky (in this case, 80s-era) fashion sense and predisposition to overthink; a suburban Connecticut girl, Carrie eventually lands an internship with Interview magazine in New York City, thus propelling her stumbling start into adulthood with her adventurous boss Larissa (Freema Agyeman) — all while trying to hold the fort down back home with her widowed father Tom (Matt Letscher), rebellious younger sister Dorrit (Stefania LaVie Owen) and friends. Her biggest romance (pun intended) is with the golden-hearted bad boy Sebastian Kydd—and you couldn’t help but want to be on #TeamKyddshaw.
Aired on the CW as a replacement after the conclusion of the “Gossip Girl,” series, “The Carrie Diaries” was canceled after two seasons due to low ratings. Which is a pity, considering that the second season introduced Lindsey Gort as Samantha Jones—a scarily perfect and praised casting choice. Gort nailed everything about a younger Samantha—right down to her counterpart Kim Cattrall’s witty, purring delivery.
The show also featured a romance between Carrie’s male friends, the closeted Walt (Brendan Dooling) and Bennett (Jake Robinson) and a biracial one between the fiercely academic Mouse (Ellen Wong) and smart jock Thomas (RJ Brown). For all its light-hearted fun, the show touched on heavy topics ranging from handling the death of a parent (Carrie’s mother) to the 1980s AIDS crisis.
The series ends with Carrie deciding to stay in New York and weather through the storm she created for herself—but all of our most pressing questions, such as how she comes to meet Charlotte and Miranda, are fated to never be answered.
“The L.A. Complex” (January 2012 – December 2012)
Created by Martin Gero
“Degrassi” alumni Cassie Steele leads the Canadian production “The L.A. Complex,” which hit U.S. airwaves on the CW as an under-the-radar and (frankly) underrated show about a group of young twenty-somethings who happen to end up in the same sweet apartment complex in Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming famous.
Steele is the plucky (but broke) Abby Vargas, an aspiring actress from Toronto who becomes the moral compass of the show, guided by her innocence toward the ins and outs of showbiz. That isn’t to say that she’s without fault, which could be presented as the running theme for the show as the varied cast struggled with very personal and very dark inner demons.
There was the self-destructive Australian actor Connor Lake (Jonathan Patrick Moore) who burns himself with hot water (and purposely burns his home to the ground to the most intense jarring of the series). Alicia Lowe (Chelan Simmons) wants to become a proper dancer—but strips to makes ends meet, which spirals into her making a sex tape that jeopardizes her budding career. Plus the season one attraction between rap world-embedded Tariq Muhammad (Benjamin Charles Watson) and Kaldrick King (Andra Fuller). Both black men, this plot line in particular brilliantly showcased the fear, homophobia and brutality evident not only rap music, but in the black community.
After two seasons the show wasn’t picked up for a third one in both Canada and the United States. It was unsurprising, considering the show broke the record for the lowest-ever ratings for a broadcast drama debut, but undeserved in light of its refreshing, raw take on the nitty gritty of the entertainment world. A true diamond in the rough.
The Best Years (2007-2009)
Created by Aaron Martin
Forget high school, college is where the best years of life play out—or that’s the presumption going into “The Best Years,” titled after its main character Samantha Best (Charity Shea).
Samantha grows up in poverty within the foster care system, but nabs a scholarship that allows her to attend a fictional, elite Ivy league university in Boston. From there, Samantha’s story explores what it’s like being the fringe kid in a new environment, where nothing is quite what it seems.
The very first episode of the series ends with a death via fatal plunge from a rooftop and grows more harrowing from there as heavy issues relating to drug addiction and suicide offer social commentary on how difficult is can be to survive these “best years.” Samantha also walks on eggshells—one wrong move having the capability for her to lose her scholarship and her shot at a stable future.
“The Best Years,” a Canadian drama that also aired on The N (since renamed “TeenNick”) is an interesting case, as its first season starts out strong but tappers off into quiet death by the end of its second and final year, again due to low ratings (despite a solid fan base). But who knows where the series would have gone if renewed for at least one more season.
“South of Nowhere” (2005-2008)
Created by Thomas W. Lynch
“South of Nowhere” is the type of show we rightly deserve but no longer have. Why? Because it chronicled the journey of the female lead character’s descent into exploring and questioning her sexuality in a manner that felt as uncertain, tender and honest as Gabrielle Christian’s portrayal as Spencer Carlin, a teenage girl adjusting to life in California after moving from Ohio with her family.
It’s in L.A. that Spencer meets Ashley Davies (Mandy Musgave), who isn’t into labeling herself and falls for Spencer. From there, Spencer struggles with trying to figure out what she wants in life and coming out to her parents (especially reconciling with her mother, who has a hard time accepting her daughter’s shift in sexual orientation).
Ashley is just as troubled, but for different reasons relating to family issues and past relationships. The peak of the series occurs in the second season, with the sudden and unexpected death of an important family member in Spencer’s life that sets up the final arc for the third and final season, where Spencer and Ashely both separate but come together in the end to reconcile.
An original series developed for TeenNick, “South of Nowhere” was cancelled after its third season. Woefully, there aren’t many prominent TV series this invested in a lesbian romance or as critically acclaimed (“Orange is the New Black” and “The L Word” are two that come to mind). Still, #Spashley lives on in our hearts forever.
“Instant Star” (2004-2008)
Created by Linda Schuyler
Another Canadian import, what “Instant Star” had going for it the most was its multi-talented singer-actress Alexz Johnson, who starred as Jude Harrison (her name a nod to The Beatles), the winner of a competition that launches her music career. For the show, Johnson recorded new tracks for each episode, producing memorable hits such as “24 Hours,” “2 A.M.,” and “Waste My Time.”
“Instant Star” is a fun mix of music and romance, as Jude juggles between her career and her whirlwind of a romance with Tommy Quincy (Tim Rozon). In addition, the show doesn’t shy away from aspects of fame and record labels that musicians deal with. Jude goes on to competing against other winners of the “Instant Star” competition, low album sales, getting caught in scandals, becoming tabloid fodder and the rocky relationship she shares with her older sister Sadie (Laura Vandervoor).
Out of all the shows listed here, “Instant Star” survived the longest with four seasons under its belt. While five seasons were planned, funding for the show was pulled after the fourth season, producers having no choice but to make it the last.
So while not exactly cancelled, “Instant Star” still didn’t rally enough support behind it (much to the disdain of fans who launched several petitions to save the series) to enable its continuation.
Hey Jude, we really miss you. On the bright side, Alexz Johnson still has a music career.