Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is your favorite teen show of all time? Why?
I presume like many others, my favorite teen show is heavily swayed by when I saw it — so while “Friday Night Lights” is inarguably a better series, my favorite is “The O.C.” While Ryan Atwood was fighting his way into Orange County’s good graces, I was wading through the awkward social structures of a small Midwestern high school, and despite the incredible disparity in wealth, each crush, dance, and trip around the ferris wheel rang all the truer. The setting made for impossibly high melodrama, as parents lost millions and teens took trips to Hollywood to do shots with Paris Hilton, but the smaller, intimate moments between friends resonated just as they were intended to: universally. Plus, what angry teen doesn’t want to be live out their cage-fighting fantasies through the safe escape of TV? What? Just me?
“The Wire” or “America to Me.” From the block kids through the first few seasons to the middle schoolers who serve as the heart (and brain and spine and several other organs and whatnot) in the fourth season, “The Wire” was always 50 different remarkable TV shows at once and at least one of those shows was a sensitive and thoughtful show about teens. On the non-fiction side, Starz’s criminally underwatched “America to Me” was like the “14 Up” installment of Michael Apted’s seminal “Up” documentary series extended to 10 provocative hours that, like “The Wire,” are about almost every imaginable teenage experience.
My all-time favorite teen show? MTV’s “Daria.” I still reference it, was formatively shaped by it, and occasionally get that gnarly “You’re Standing on My Neck” rift stuck in my head. “Daria” so perfectly captured high school ennui in smart, wry ways; it was a kind of anthem for my fellow Gen Y-ers whose favorite phrase as young adults was an unironic “whatever.” The show understood cliques better than most series, leaning into stereotypes and occasionally subverting them. And Daria and Jane’s sardonic, cynical approach towards school and their peers was always tempered by the sunny disposition of gentle suburban life in Lawndale. Though we lived then, as now, in a “Sick, Sad World,” the show’s perspective stayed close to the individual experiences of the characters. The episodes were unfortunately stripped of their original incredible soundtrack for copyright reasons, but even the generic replacement score still captures a late 90s-early 2000s vibe. There are aspects of Daria’s day to day life that probably won’t hold up for Gen Z-ers, but certain things about it remain part of a universal teen experience.
Has it really been 20 years since “Freaks and Geeks” debuted? (Which means it’s been 25 since my runner-up choice, “My So-Called Life,” which means my gray hairs are growing exponentially as I type this.) Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s chronicle about high school outcasts in 1980 Michigan is so smart and funny and empathetic and sad that it’s the first TV boxed set I’ve opened in years, just so my high school age child could enjoy it before we started hitting some of the other series like “MSCL” or “Friday Night Lights” or “Buffy” that I’m sure will be coming up throughout this article. High school is a time for trying on new identities, whether they stick or not, and no show has captured that better more consistently than this one. Whether it’s good girl Lindsay Weir having an existential crisis and joining the freaks, or king burnout Daniel Desario discovering that he likes Dungeons and Dragons, or poor Sam Weir strutting down the school hallway in his ridiculous “Parisian night suit,” “Freaks and Geeks” tackled the abundant humiliations and occasional triumphs of adolescence with grace and flair and a lot of humor. And two decades later (sigh), it holds up beautifully.
I love teen shows. Even the teen shows I hate are teen shows I like. But there’s a caveat: They have to have an essential core of earnestness, which is why most teen soaps have fallen flat for me. (Try though I might, the appeal of “Gossip Girl” eluded me.) I think this stems from the teen show I first fell in love with, whose initial airing slightly predated my own teenage years but which I still was able to see within the early window of its existence: “My So-Called Life.” The thing I love about this show is how it captures not just the eternal struggle of the adolescent mind but the way that teenagers slowly but surely start to see the others on their periphery as real people. The ways that Angela Chase (a marvelous Claire Danes) comes to think about her parents and her friends (old and new) as actual people and not just extensions of herself – it’s all so marvelous. I wish I had gotten 500 more seasons. I wish Danes would deign to do a revival season for Hulu or something, where she’s the mom to a teen. I wish that in this revival, Rayanne would be revealed to have become actual royalty, like the actress who played her did. But since we won’t get that– and the odds of it being bad are very high! – I’m so happy to have the episodes we do have.
Like many currently in their 30s, I grew up on The WB, and no show was as formative for me as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The show left such a mark on me that for years after it ended, “Buffy” remained my favorite show of all time. It still probably ranks in my top three. But for some reason it feels boring or cliché to say that “Buffy” is still my favorite teen show of all time too. So many shows have captured both the horrors and the excitement of coming of age in different but still excellent ways since Buffy Summers left high school behind, but a lot of those same shows owe a lot of themselves to the lessons of “Buffy.” And that goes for the only other show I might seriously consider for this answer: “Veronica Mars.” There are many similarities between the two shows, but in the end it all comes down to the ways in which Buffy and Veronica acted and reacted to the high school experience, what I learned from them as a teen, and what I continue to learn from them even now. I know television has a lot to offer these days and that there are a lot of coming-of-age series worthy of our attention (“On My Block” is one of my favorite shows at the moment), but even though I said goodbye to my teen years long ago, there’s still something about both “Buffy” and “Veronica Mars” that makes them somewhat timeless.
Since the prompt asks for our “favorite” teen show of all time, not the “best” teen show of all time, I’m gonna put on my manchild hat and stan hard for the “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.” Sure, it’s a cheap, cornball action show made halfway from repurposed Japanese Super Sentai footage, but it absolutely defined my childhood (and some probably embarrassing chapters of my adulthood). In no way are the teenagers of “Power Rangers” a reasonable barometer for the teen experience: most of them were goody-two-shoes kids who somehow had time to get good grades, volunteer at the youth center, and slip into Spandex costumes to fight rubber monsters with giant robots. And yet there’s an earnestness to their toothy grins and PSAs about bullying (sandwiched, of course, between frenetic martial arts action sequences that involved millions of dollars in presumed property damage and hundreds dead) that I found infectious as a kid. I knew I could never be a Power Ranger, but part of me wanted to be like the Power Rangers.
You can keep your layered teen dramas about infidelity, murder, and betrayal; give me a Megazord and Bulk and Skull flinging themselves into a trash can any day.
Around the same time period, critical darling “Freaks and Geeks” and “That ’70s Show” aired, which were both excellent teen-centric shows. However, “Freaks and Geeks” was whacked in its freshman knees by NBC, cutting it off at 12 episodes though there were 18 finished ones. Paul Feig with Judd Apatow were the showrunners as the story centered on a whiz kid (Linda Cardellini) trying desperately to be considered less a brainiac, and more one of the edgy cool kids. She was drawn to dreamy drifter-ne’er do well James Franco. Also in the cast were Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, and Martin Starr. Starr is one of my all-time favorite actors gifted with brilliant comedic flair, and gut-punching dramatic acting chops too.
And…”That ’70s Show” first appeared on Fox back in 1998, it was a slice of Wisconsin everyday life starring Topher Grace, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Laura Prepon, and Wilmer Valderrama. The non-teen cast was my favorite part of it, Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith who killed it as Topher’s parents. What I said about Martin Starr? Ditto for Kurtwood Smith.
My favorite teen show of all time features a protagonist who’s a teen only at heart – Jerri Blank (played by Amy Sedaris), the fortysomething high-schooler at the heart of “Strangers with Candy.” That Comedy Central series mocked the conventions of after-school specials from a decade or two before its turn-of-the-century run; references and specifics aside. It also made use of a kind of nervy, heightened mania that made it instantly legible to at least one viewer (this one) who was a young teen during its run. Jerri is a “boozer, a user, and a loser” who has decided to come back to high school to start her life over; she’s tripped up, every episode, not merely by her baroque appetites for substance and her polymorphous and very adult sexuality but also by the petty tyranny of her teachers (most notably, ones played by Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert). The jokes on “Strangers with Candy” riffing off of Jerri’s wild past are uproarious. The ones that make use of her present – stuck in a suburban high school run on the a recognizable mix of contempt and distrust for its students – made this a resonant and strangely powerful bit of teen dramedy. Jerri is melodramatically, floridly emotional, and her changing body doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. She ends up stumbling into the role of relatable teen-drama protagonist with élan.
I will forever have a soft spot for “Beverly Hills, 90210.” I was 5 when it started and because my parents let me watch whatever I wanted, I tuned in religiously every week. If I couldn’t, I made them record it. Lots of things went way over my head, obviously, early on (including I8A4RE), but I didn’t care. I was entranced by that world and was convinced that was what high school would be like. Needless to say, it was not. I still have the series finale recorded on VHS, along with the one-hour retrospective, in which they blurred out Shannen Doherty’s face, and the “Boy Meets World” series finale. I have rewatched other teen shows more, like “Boy Meets World,” “My So-Called Life,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Freaks and Geeks,” and I didn’t even do my first complete rewatch of “90210” until March after Luke Perry died (RIP forever), but it will always be my first TV obsession.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: “Alternatino With Arturo Castro,” “Baskets,” “Dark,” “Euphoria,” “Los Espookys,” “Pose” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.