The perils and plights of adolescence have always been a source of fascination for television audiences, and right now that’s more true than ever, as Netflix dominates the zeitgeist with teen-focused dramas like “Stranger Things” and “13 Reasons Why.” And as narratives have gotten more sophisticated overall across the TV landscape, the ways in which we look at stories about young people have evolved.
Because life as a teenager is equal parts happy and sad, hilarious and tragic, we chose not to limit the below selections by genre, which means these picks range from animation to sitcoms to murder mysteries to horror. But there are also a fair number of picks that are entirely focused on the dramatic ups and downs of this turbulent time in peoples’ lives. Sometimes that’s all the drama we need.
20. “American Vandal” (2017), Netflix
19. “Andi Mack” (2017–present), Disney Channel
Disney Channel/Fred Hayes
“Lizzie McGuire” creator Terri Minskey turned her Midas touch to this Disney Channel series that blends socially progressive messaging with the silliness that comes with being a young teen. The adorable Peyton Elizabeth Lee plays the title character Andi Mack, a girl who learns that the person she thought was her older sister is actually her mother (and that her mother is actually her grandmother). It’s heartening to see such a storyline exist, in addition to the fact that Andi and her mother are also part Chinese, but this racial makeup doesn’t define them. Instead, the family-friendly series explores time-honored teenage issues – such as crushes and dating – as well as issues that haven’t ever been addressed on a Disney Channel sitcom before, such as one character’s coming-out story, being the child of a military parent, and youth anxiety. Fortunately, the series exhibits a deft hand at being able to handle these issues sensitively and beautifully without ever losing its sense of humor. There may be hope for the future yet.
18. “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (1996–2003), ABC/The WB
Many shows about teens center around people trying to be something that they’re not, but few shows took that setup as literally as “Sabrina.” Anchored by a couple of iconic performances — Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina, Nick Bakay as the eternally funny Salem, and Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick as Aunts Hilda and Zelda — “Sabrina” followed wherever the zaniness of its magical misadventures took it. Blending all the pitfalls of high school life with the occasional dip-in from the spirit world, Sabrina broke free from a certain kind of multi-camera restriction to offer up a comedy that was timeless for more reasons than the immortality of its characters.
17. “Gilmore Girls” (2000–2007), The WB/The CW
While Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) wasn’t the typical teenager (see: her love of heavy tomes and hanging out with adults), her mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham), who gave birth to her when she was a teen, never seemed to stop smelling like teen spirit herself. Well, you catch our drift. Equipped with a sugar-filled ability to never stop speaking at breakneck speeds and see the pop-culture absurdity in any situation, Lorelai ushered her daughter into the world off the page. Filled with first loves, major mistakes, silly hijinks, and big dreams, “Gilmore Girls” was anchored by the relationships Rory had with her family and occasionally her friends, when they weren’t being the worst. The series existed in a strange plane that welcomed all quirks (and Kirks, including Cat Kirk), and in a way, that’s the most nurturing environment of all for teens. The series was so beloved, it inspired a four-part limited series sequel on Netflix.
16. “Suburgatory” (2011–2014), ABC
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This short-lived ABC comedy remains memorable for its distinct quirks. While it technically began as a father-daughter story about life in the suburbs, the show quickly built out its unique perspective on the world of the affluent and accordingly strange. As depicted by the show, “Suburgatory” allowed us to embrace the shallow nature of Chatswin as a town, while also finding the underlying humanity with all of its characters. Most importantly, while Jane Levy was an engaging lead as the jaded Tessa, Carly Chaikin regularly stole the show as (theoretically) air-headed Dalia, who often offered the show’s most profound insights on teen life in her amazing time on screen.
15. “Red Oaks” (2015–2017), Amazon Video
“Red Oaks” doesn’t skip over the jump from high school to college, nor does it treat everything as a buildup to graduation and departure. For three seasons, the sweet Amazon series looked at that moment of transition as an opportunity; a defining point in time where boys and girls in school became men and women of the world. Its stories about an amateur tennis pro from a low-to-middle class family and his relationship with an artist looking to rebel against her family’s upper-class attitudes took advantage of their youthful vision to tell more stories about their parents’ lack of ambition. Things changed for everyone on “Red Oaks,” even as it revolved around a temporary oasis — a country club where adults came to relax and kids worked toward their future. Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi’s series was about moving past stasis and seizing chances as they come your way. It’s a distinctly teenage feeling, but one that the wise try to grasp again and again as they get older. “Red Oaks” captured that vibe and made it contagious. Watch, be inspired, and don’t forget your friends.
14. “Bunheads” (2012–2013), ABC Family
ABC Family/Dorothy Parker Drank Here Prods./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Like a teenager, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s short-lived follow-up to “Gilmore Girls” showed such early potential and was on the brink of blooming. Unfortunately, it was canceled after one brief season. Starring the incomparable Sutton Foster as a Vegas showgirl who gets married on a whim and winds up teaching alongside her new mother-in-law (Kelly Bishop from “Gilmore Girls”) at her ballet school, the ABC Family series also created compelling storylines for its young and very flawed ballet students. Funny, sweet, and touching, this was the rare series that never lost its footing even early on. Although there are exponentially more shows on right now, “Bunheads” may have survived today because it was ahead of its time. It’s the small show that never wanted to be bigger than itself, but deserved a larger stage for its charms.
13. “Everybody Hates Chris” (2005-2009), UPN
Isabella Vosmikova/Paramount TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Inspired by the teenage years of Chris Rock, who narrated the show, “Everybody Hates Chris” highlighted what it’s like to be somewhere that you feel you don’t belong. The young Chris (Tyler James Williams) is a runt who winds up switching to a predominantly white school in order to receive a better education. But he’s bullied at that school, and even at home, things rarely go his way. (Hence the show’s title.) But even as Chris copes with growing up, his parents (Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold) also struggle with how to provide for their kids. These are Chris’ formative years, and although they’re played for laughs, there’s also poignancy to them.
12. “Gossip Girl” (2007–2012), The CW
For as fun as the core mystery of “Gossip Girl” could be, Josh Schwartz’s Big Apple-based “O.C.” follow-up worked best when it wasn’t worried about revealing the secret identity behind the titular gossip site host (which was evident most of all when the series finally did). It had an explosive cast of characters ready to stir up some high-class trouble at the drop of a top hat; there were passionate romances and young, innocent crushes galore; money was no object, which made these wealthy Manhattanites the perfect fantasy delivery system for every teen who dreams of looking fabulous in their dress, hair, makeup, clothes, and cars — at all cost. Plus, Blair (Leighton Meester) was all-around dynamite, and her forbidden romance with Chuck (Ed Westwick) lit those early episodes on fire. XOXO forever.
11. “Skins” (2007-2013), E4 (UK)
This raw, rough-and-tumble UK drama featured a fantastic cast of up-and-coming young actors, including Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, and Daniel Kaluuya — and more importantly, the writing staff was deliberately quite young in its make-up, with a reported average age of 21. The result is a truly audacious series that makes even recent Netflix programming like “13 Reasons Why” look tame — brazenly tackling controversial topics with no shortage of explicit moments, there’s a beauty to this show’s chaos, as it follows each of its characters for just two seasons and no more. An attempt to bring the series to America via MTV in 2011 didn’t work, but the original lives on Netflix, ready to be discovered by new fans.