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The 35 Best Teen TV Shows, from ‘That ’70s Show’ to ‘Never Have I Ever’

From animation to survival epics to superheroes, teen dramas are as unique and varied as real teenagers. To honor the triumphant return of "Never Have I Ever," IndieWire considers the top of the TV class.

35 Best Teen TV Shows, from 'Daria' to 'Sex Education'

The Best Teen TV Shows.

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5. “Friday Night Lights” (2006-2011)

"Friday Night Lights"

“Friday Night Lights”

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It’s a testament to the show that, aside from the pantheon-level marriage of Coach and Mrs. Taylor, two of “Friday Night Lights'” best seasons (1 and 5) had almost entirely different casts. Like a real high school where turnover, by its nature, happens every four years, with those bookends “Friday Night Lights” proved that it could withstand the changes of time. Some students went on to bigger and better things, while others stayed close to home to figure things out for themselves. Football was part of the glue that held them all together, but “FNL” was never just about the drama on the field. For Riggins and Matt Saracen and Landry and Luke Cafferty and Vince Wilson and all the rest, the emphasis was always on the different kinds of family that you’re either stuck with or make for yourself. “Friday Night Lights” was never afraid to celebrate the present, but it always recognized which of its characters had at least one eye toward the future.

4. “Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000)

"Freaks and Geeks"

“Freaks and Geeks”

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Even though this series only ran one season — one of the best shows to do so — “Freaks and Geeks” put all the fraught and joyful emotions of high school in a blender and managed to mold the result into something that legions of teens still relate to. Looking at high school through the eyes of the Weirs, “Freaks and Geeks” did what so many of its best ancestors had done: blend a specific perspective with a group of people who all felt like they could be the stars of their own show. And indeed, part of the show’s legacy is that many of the supporting cast became some of the biggest stars working today, headlining an entire generation of actors and writers and directors that are still shaping all the film and TV that came in the wake of the show’s premature cancellation. In that way, this show might be the most perfect example of the idea that there is life after high school, even if no one notices you right away.

3. “Daria” (1997-2002)

"Daria"

“Daria”

Mtv/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The droll, deadpan delivery of Daria Morgendorffer made her iconic from the beginning of her MTV debut (prefaced by her initial introduction as a supporting character on “Beavis and Butthead”). But where “Daria” truly stood out was its interest in digging beneath the surface of Daria’s chilly exterior, letting her inner vulnerability shine through at both her best and worst moments. As she explained at one point: “I’m too smart and too sensitive to live in a world like ours, at a time like this, with a sister like mine. Maybe I do miss out on stuff, but this attitude is what works for me now.” And not only was Daria a fully realized character, but she was surrounded by a rich high school community that both played into the tropes popular in this genre and also subverted them. This was a series that was willing to take chances when it came to depicting the teenage experience, and was truly revolutionary in that respect. If you were a teenager when “Daria” was on the air, then you may remember just how well she spoke for you — because really, she spoke for us all.

2. “The O.C.” (2003-2007)

"The O.C."

“The O.C.”

Warner Bros TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“The O.C.” is a brilliant subversion of nighttime soaps wrapped in packaging so luxurious it’s hard not to gasp. Take the central character, Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie): Not only does Ryan represent the audience being invited into a wealthy world they never thought possible, but he’s a leading man in a teen drama focusing on romances, heartbreak, and melodrama. Many of the other leads on this list are women: Buffy, Veronica Mars, Daria — even Josh Schwartz’s own series, “Gossip Girl” (which is an East Coast model of “The O.C.”), focused on Blake Lively’s Serena van der Woodsen. Here, there’s a constant invitation to see events from a different perspective: the broke kid from the wrong side of the tracks who’s abandoned by his mom, or the nerdy outcast who plays video games and has a crush on the hottest girl in school.

But beyond Ryan and Seth (Adam Brody), who remain fascinating central characters for such a series, Schwartz shifted perspectives on the rest of his stars, as well. Summer (Rachel Bilson) has the most elaborate and satisfying arc of the series, beginning as a ditzy party girl and becoming a Greenpeace-supporting Brown scholar. Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser) followed a similar model, but started as an outright villain — opposition to the show’s core four — before becoming a member of it in the end. “The O.C.” asked teens to treat their drama with authenticity (whether it was death, divorce, or just a dumb crush, the stakes always felt as high as when you’re 17), but it also wanted its audience to see people from all sides. All its choices were purposeful and progressive, which is why it remains one of the most beloved teen dramas this century.

1. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

REX/Shutterstock

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon has never been subtle about the inspiration for his creation: High school is hell, particularly for the outcasts who don’t quite feel like they belong. In “Buffy,” the symbolism is clear: Sunnydale High School, where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her Scooby gang attend, is located right over a “hellmouth” — the source for evil beings. Buffy, like most teens, is thrust into a position she doesn’t ask for, and isn’t necessarily ready to accept. Of course, for most teens, that’s adulthood. For Buffy, it’s saving the world. As she and her pals mature, they learn to accept and embrace their roles — and by the time they’re seniors and about to graduate, Buffy discovers that she had been noticed and appreciated by her classmates after all. Years before the catchphrase became popular, “Buffy” gave hope to anyone struggling to embrace their internal truths: It gets better. (OK, so Buffy had to die a few times, and deny her true love Angel, but hey, it got better.)

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