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The existence of the American Teen Drama series is something that most teenagers today take for granted. Afterall, on any given night, a kid can turn on the TV and find some show set in a high school or college that involves teenagers and young-adults battling a myriad of dramatic issues. This was not always the case though. Only in the last twenty years or so have networks begun to recognize the huge teen demographic in this country that are craving TV shows they can relate to. Aaron Spelling’s ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ was one of the first truly successful teen drama series. After ‘90210’ aired, an onslaught of teen drama shows followed in its wake, hoping for the same success.
It would be an understatement to say that while '90210' may have paved the way for future high-schooly type shows, it was by no means, the best of it's genre. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of '90210' (One of my guiltiest pleasures is the collection of '90210' reruns on my Tivo) but show's like 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' and 'Veronica Mars' outstrip '90210' by miles. And while shows like 'The OC' carry the torch for one-dimensional teen drama shows like '90210', writers such as Joss Whedon ('Buffy') and Rob Thomas ('Veronica Mars') are catering to the teens and young adults who don't mind thinking and feeling while watching TV.
So here's my breakdown of some of the more popular teen dramas.
’Beverly Hills, 90210’ (1990 - 2000) - In its 10-year run, '90210' captured an audience ranging from about 13 to 25. It started out centering on a family from Minnesota who moved to Beverly Hills and attempted to adjust to the ritzy LA lifestyle. In their high school years, twins Brenda and Brandon Walsh and their gang of over-privileged pals battled the usual issues (sex, mild drug abuse, cheating on exams, etc) but by the end of the series the group's issues had expanded greatly. In fact, if you added up all of the crazy things that have happened to the '90210' friends, you'd realize just how ridiculous it all was.
Sure there has to be an element of suspension of disbelief but the writers of '90210' took the show to the level of soap-opera-fakeness. If the '90210' gang could make a list of all of their misfortunes, it would include: rape, murder, unplanned pregnancy, alcohol abuse, dozens of infidelities (many of which included members of their tight group of friends), drug abuse, gambling addiction, theft, wrongful accusations and abusive boyfriends among other things.
In essence, the show relied on dramatic circumstances to keep viewers interested. While that's all fine and good because afterall, this is a teen-drama series, other shows that came later proved it wasn't necessary to over-dramatize the lives of regular people in order to produce a watchable show. 'Party of Five' was not one of these exceptions.
'Party of Five' (1994 - 2000) - Like '90210', 'Party of Five' was supposed to center around an "average" American family, however, the Salingers were by no means, average. After losing their parents in a car accident, the Salingers have to raise themselves. Charlie (the oldest of the siblings) as the reluctant father-figure, Bailey, Julia, Claudia and Owen (the baby) attempt to make it on their own so they wont get split up. The premise of the show was good and lasted about half a season before the real drama set in.
Writers apparently ran out of normal, realistic circumstances to put the Salingers through and decided to throw the not-so-typical problems into the mix. Alcoholism, abuse and date rape, among other things became part of the daily Salinger life. Once I realized nothing good ever happened to the Salingers, I stopped watching. I don't mind a bit of drama but who wants to watch a show where the characters are always miserable? 'Dawson’s Creek' fans, maybe.
'My So Called Life' (1994 - 1995) - 'My So Called Life' was a short-lived drama series that managed to capture the truth of a generation. If I wanted to show my kids what it was like to be a teenager in "my day", I would hand them the DVD set of 'My So Called Life'. Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes) was just your average American teenager. Going through the usual teen identity crisis, she abandons her childhood friends in favor of the outcast-crowd. The show essentially centers on Angela, her old friends, her new friends and her family, all of which are intertwined. In the eyes of many teens that watched the show, she was a real girl.
The show's demise was said to be a combination of poor ratings and Claire Danes' desire to pursue a film career. It ended prematurely, leaving viewers to wonder if Angela would end up with dreamy but somewhat mentally vacant Jordan Catalano (Mmmm Jared Leto) or nerdy but sweet Brian Krakow? Chances are if the show continued, she wouldn't have ended up with either of them. In the end, the show stayed as true to real-life as it got and how often does high school romance last, anyway? Either way, viewers were devastated when the show was cancelled. MTV reran the episodes on and off for a year or two afterwards and die-hard fans managed to get the show distributed on DVD for a brief time. I like to think 'My So Called Life' was a bit to ahead of its time in terms of writing.
'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' (1997-2003) - I just heard all the Whedon-haters sigh. Hear me out, though! I myself was anti-Buffy until very recently!
'Buffy' was a phenomenal show that I regret having missed the boat on. In fact, I didn’t watch the series until two years after the final season aired. It was one of those shows that annoyed me even though I'd never caught more than a few minutes of it. It wasn't until after I watched the series that I realized it was/is the fandom surrounding the show and not the series itself, which tends to irritate non-'Buffy' fans.
Joss Whedon put the 'Buffy' series together a year or two after the film version of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' came out. The show was nothing like the movie and perhaps that was what drew some viewers in and drove other viewers away. Set in the fictional town of Sunnydale, California, 'Buffy' is the "chosen one". There's one Slayer in every generation and Buffy's it. She and her mother move to Sunnydale, which Buffy quickly learns is set on the mouth of hell. Sunnydale being all hell-mouthy means its basically a magnet for demons. As fate would have it, Buffy shows up in time to repeatedly ward off the forces of evil while maintaining a decent GPA.
Demons aside, 'Buffy' was one of the best teen drama series in television history. Definitely in the top three. Joss Whedon managed to capture the minds and hearts of viewers with characters who are not only good looking (a necessary factor in any successful teen-drama show) but also smart, funny and emotionally realistic.
It could be said that 'Buffy' was one of the first teen drama shows that recognized the ability of teen and young-adult viewers' to think and watch tv at the same time. The formula for the show defied the usual "OMG! Bailey's an alcoholic! Dylan cheated on Brenda!" junk that other teen shows force-fed their viewers. Instead of the melodramatic '90210' route, Whedon addressed the hardships of adolescence indirectly through the supernatural stuff. In that way he was able to make a quality teen/young-adult drama series that didn’t recycle storylines from other shows.
Each season had the overall "Big Bad" that Buffy and her "scoobies" had to battle but there were also many stand-alone episodes. It's in these episodes (usually when there's a new demon in town who wont make it to the end of the episode) that the characters in the show are developed. Whedon's characters are multi-dimensional. Not only do they have realistic attributes (including flaws!) but they also have memories. When I say memories, I mean they actually remember things that happened in previous seasons and reference them from time to time. Unlike shows like '90210' where its ok to date your friend because chances are, one year later it will be as though the relationship never existed, 'Buffy' characters are actually affected by their interactions for more than just a few episodes.
It's almost as though Whedon made a list of all the teen-drama clichés and said "How can I make a show that doesn't have any of this and maybe even on occasion, pokes fun at these clichés". 'Buffy' raised the bar when it comes to drama in a TV series and not just among teens and young adults. As a 28-year-old, I can honestly say that few shows (adult and young adult alike) measure up to the quality of writing in the 'Buffy' series.
'Freaks and Geeks' (1999 - 2000) - Another teen series that was squashed well before its time was 'Freaks and Geeks'. Set in the early 80s, this show would technically be defined as a "dramedy" because though it was quite a dramatic series, there was definitely an element of humor mixed in.
‘Freaks and Geeks’ centered on Lindsey Weir and her younger brother. While Lindsey attempts to abandon her group of mathlete-band-geek friends in favor of the grungier crowd (you know, the ones who barely go to class and can often be found smoking under the bleachers), her younger brother Sam struggles with the realization that he is in fact, a geek. Like any significantly dorky kid in the 80s, Sam and his friends spend their time playing D&D, returning to the theaters repeatedly to watch Star Wars for the billionth time and of course, getting their butts kicked at Dodgeball. While Sam is busy getting pantsed, Lindsey wants desperately to shed her goody-goody reputation and manages to gain the friendship of some of the "freaks" in the school. Once in with them, she finds that the grass really is always greener on the other side of the cafeteria. The show got cancelled right around the time when it seemed Lindsey was finding a balance between who she was and who she thought she wanted to be.
Like 'My So Called Life', viewers felt they could relate to the Weirs and the other characters in the show (both the freaks and the geeks). The show didn't last to the end of its first season but was re-aired on Fox Family after its cancellation. The humor of the show centered mainly on the 80's-ness. Common references to 80's pop-culture were made throughout the series, which made the show all the more enjoyable. I blame the failure of the show on NBC for moving it around too much. The show's inability to anchor itself to a timeslot no doubt affected its ratings. Afterall, it was aired in the pre-Tivo years. How can we watch a show when we don’t know when its going to be on? What a waste. Buy the DVD set. You wont be disappointed.
'Veronica Mars' (2004 - present) - Like 'Buffy', I was late in the game with 'Veronica Mars'. Its on UPN and as I barely watch that channel, it never occurred to me to give this show a chance. Season 2 finished up this year and after hearing that the writing was comparable to 'Buffy', I decided to give it a chance. I netflixed the first disc of Season 1 and after four episodes, I bought the season on DVD. I'd seen enough in the first four episodes of the show to know that this was one of those rare quality teen-drama shows that comes around once every five years or so. I was not about to miss the boat this time around.
Veronica Mars is a high school student whose father is a private detective. As the apple to her father's tree, Veronica takes after her old man by moonlighting as a private detective. In season one, we're introduced to the cute and perky Veronica, a high school student who, after the death of her best friend Lily, has been cast out of the "cool crowd" (The '09ers). Along with doing side-job detective work for her fellow classmates, she does her best to find out who really killed her best friend.
What makes 'Veronica Mars' one of the best series on TV today? Good writing, plain and simple. While the show's reality definitely leans towards the make-believe existence in which many teen-drama shows reside (by season 2, four of the main characters were living on their own without parental supervision despite the fact that they're all still in high school), the characters in 'VM' are well developed and more human than most of the plastic characters you see in teen dramas. Their behavior has a reason as well as a purpose. Throughout the first two seasons, getting to understand what motivates the characters has been part of what draws viewers back.
The hook of 'VM' is the detective work. A common theme between the first two seasons is the big mystery. In season one it was "Who Killed Lily?" and in season two it was "Who caused the bus to crash?". But it’s the little mysteries that keep 'VM' fresh. Whether she's finding a lost dog or proving a friend's innocence, Veronica is almost always willing and able to take on a new mystery. She's loyal and well intentioned (unless you get on her bad side, in which case, watch out!).
Veronica's personal relationships with her father, her friends and boyfriends (especially the on-again/off-again relationship with Logan) have definitely played a part in the growing number of viewers (mostly teens and young adults) who are addicted to the show. Again, I attribute this to a combination of good writing and good chemistry among the actors. Never once in the 10 years that '90210' was I ever so caught up in the relationships of the characters the way I am with the ones in 'Veronica Mars'. Granted these teenagers barely act like real teenagers but the intensity of their relationships and the way they're portrayed on screen have put the show very high up on my list of best tv shows ever (I'll write it in pencil though, as the show is only in onto its third season). The show can deliver a simple moment like two characters having their first kiss, in such a way that viewers will find themselves holding their breaths through the scene and then clawing for their DVR remote to roll it back and see it again (ok maybe I'm just speaking for myself here but there you are).
The right lighting, the right music, well written lines (thank you Rob Thomas!) and phenomenal acting all contribute to the success of these moments and its these moments that make the show as good as it is. In this way, 'Veronica Mars' makes shows like '90210' look like cheesy teen soap operas with corny story lines and absolutely no suspense or plot-momentum. Then again, that is pretty much what '90210' was.
Much like 'Buffy', 'Veronica Mars' seems to have developed a pretty intense fan base. When UPN and WB were deliberating over which shows to keep and which shows to dump once the networks officially merged into the CW Network, fans launched internet campaigns to make sure season 3 of Veronica Mars would happen. Some fans even went so far as to have a banner flown over CW headquarters just to make sure execs knew the show was wanted. Their voices were heard and the show is set to air on the CW Network this fall.
So there you have it. I know there are a number of other teen-drama shows out there that went unmentioned ('Popular', 'Felicity', 'Degrassi High' etc) but it was my intention to touch on the ones that I think had the biggest impact on the genre (for better or for worse) or served as the best example of its kind.
Many people look down their noses at this type of show but I consider my tastes in television programs to be pretty eclectic. Teen Dramas seem to be evolving from what they once were (soapy fluff) and finally giving teenagers and young adults a genre they can latch onto and realistic characters that they can idolize or demonize to their liking. While there will always be ‘OC’ type shows out there catering to the future soap-opera addicts of America, its comforting to know that shows like ‘Buffy’ and ‘Veronica Mars’ are raising the standard for teen drama series’.
The Family Guy (Fox) 9:00 pm
Deep Throats- (rerun) - ‘The Family Guy’ is mostly guy-humor but each episode is usually jam-packed with random pop-culture references which means laughter for the whole family. Though its animated, like the ‘Simpsons’ and ‘South Park’, ‘Family Guy’ does tend to have adult and young-adult oriented storylines.
’It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ (Fox) 9:30 pm
Gun Control- (rerun) – I’ll be honest, I haven’t actually seen this show yet but the commercials in which they do a spoof of the opening of ‘Friends’ (The couch and the splashing around in the fountain) makes me laugh. New episodes of this sitcom will air on FX later in the month, but in the meantime, why not try out a rerun? The show takes place in Philly (duh) and centers on 4 friends who run a bar. Hmmm… sounds like the perfect setup for a sitcom. Cheers, everyone!
’Entourage’ (HBO) 10:00 pm
One Day In The Valley- (New!) – If you have HBO and you aren’t watching ‘Entourage’, you’re seriously missing one of the best 30 minutes the channel has to offer each week. The third season started last week so it’s not too late to get caught up! In this week’s episode, Vince’s agent, Ari and manager, Eric worry that the rolling blackouts in LA will affect the opening weekend box-office sales of Vince’s new movie Aquaman.
’How I Met Your Mother’ (CBS) 9pm
‘The Duel’ – (rerun) – And they said the sitcom was dead?! ‘HIMYM’ (as I like to call it) is one of the best sitcoms on TV right now. Granted, that’s not saying much but if you’re in desperate need of a break from trashy reality shows or crime investigation dramas, ‘HIMYM’ is the way to go! The basic premise is that a bunch of 20-somethings try to figure out how to be grown ups. Watch it if only for the hilarious Neil Patrick Harris (best known for playing the title character in ‘Doogie Howser, MD’). The Duel is the episode when Ted and Marshall use their decorative swords to battle it out to decide who will get the apartment after Lily and Marshall get married. Of course, someone ended up making friends with the pointy end of one of the swords but I wont say who!
’CSI: Miami’ (CBS) 10:00 pm
Driven- (rerun) - One of the great things about the CSI shows is that you don’t have to tune in every week in order to be able to watch an episode now and then. In this episode, detectives are trying to find a man who shot up a bunch of people at a day spa then began breaking into the victim’s homes. And to think, getting a facial and a mani-pedi is supposed to be relaxing.
’House’ (Fox) 8:00 pm
Driven- (rerun) – I never get tired of ‘House’. In this episode, a college senior binge-drinks himself into a shocking overdose and when I say shocking, I mean that literally. He ends up as Dr. House’s patient because he has seizures that literally cause electric shocks to course through his body. As usual, House and his band of good-looking brainiac doctors have to figure out what’s wrong with this kid before he fries to death.
’Veronica Mars’ (UPN) 9:00 pm
Rat Saw God- (rerun) – Oh how I adore this show (see the above essay)! In this episode, Veronica tries to track down Abel Koontz’s daughter because he’s on his deathbed and wants to see her one last time. In the mean time, Logan is reunited with his dad when he’s arrested for the murder of Felix. The show’s about a quarter of the way into the season so if you’ve never seen it, you might have trouble getting into it.
’Rescue Me’ (FX) 10:00 pm
Sparks- (New!) – In this episode of ‘Rescue Me’ the guys attempt to save a bus full of children in Harlem. On the more dramatic side, Sean tells Tommy about his relationship with Maggie, Franco figures out what the deal is with sexy-older-woman Alicia (Susan Sarandon), Probie and his roomie discuss their sexuality and Janet wants Tommy to discuss their divorce settlement sans lawyers. I expect this episode to be 1 part funny and 2 parts dramatic.
’Big Brother All-Stars: America’s Choice (CBS) 8:00 pm
America’s Choice- ‘Big Brother’ has become one of my guiltiest TV-watching pleasures. This season as most BB fans know, they’re doing an All-Star season. In this week’s episode, we will get to see which 20 previous houseguests are up for another chance at the game. After the episode, America will get to decide which houseguests will return to the house for another summer of laughs, lies and PB&J. My hopefuls – Kaysar(6), Howie(6), Dr. Will (2), Janelle(6), Drew(5), Roddy(3) and James(6).
’America’s Got Talent (NBC) 9:00 pm
New Series!- Simon Cowell’s new series in which he scours the country looking for talented American’s who will compete to win $1,000,000. The contestants will range from the typical singers and dancers to less popular talents like magicians and “bizarre novelty acts”. Sounds like another chance for Simon to use words like “dreadful” and “I’m-not-being-rude-but”.
’My Name is Earl’ (NBC) 8:00pm
Didn’t Pay My Taxes- (rerun) - If you haven’t been watching ‘My Name Is Earl’, now’s your chance to see what all the fuss is about. I jumped into the series about halfway through the season so I can confirm that this is definitely the kind of show where its ok to have missed episodes. It’s both funny and sweet in a simple kind of way. In this episode, Earl attempts to repay the government after not paying taxes for years. There’s another episode of ‘Earl’ on at 9 pm.
’The Office’ (NBC) 8:30pm
Office Olympics- (rerun) – This show never fails to make me laugh. In this episode, Michael and Dwight are out of the office today so Pam and Jim get everyone in the office together to play some made-up games for the unofficial “Office Olympics”. There’s another episode of ‘The Office’ at 9:30 pm.
’What I Like About You’ (WB) 8:00 pm
The Perfect Date - (rerun) – So this show’s been cancelled and will fall off the radar the second WB and UPN merge but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this girly sitcom while it’s still around! The episode looks like it’s a good one because OMG, Brandon and Kelly are finally reunited! Ok not really but kind of. The show stars ‘90210’s’ own Jennie Garth and this episode does happen to feature a guest appearance than Jason Priestly. Yes, you can probably bet on at least one well-placed but cheesy ‘90210’ reference so really if you’ve been writing in your diary begging the universe to put these two back on screen together, your wish has been granted. I haven’t seen this episode but I have seen this show on more than a few occasions. Its charming in a squeaky-clean kind of way.
’Twins’ (WB) 8:30 pm
Really, It’s the Thought that Counts - (rerun) – Another casualty of the big WB/UPN merge, ‘Twins’ is taking its final breaths in the rerun season which is kind of a shame because it was actually a pretty decent show. Starring Larry from ‘Perfect Strangers’ (Mark Linn-Baker), Melanie Griffith, Molly Stanton and Sara Gilbert (Darlene from ‘Roseanne’), ‘Twins’ is a show about two fraternal twins who are polar opposites in terms of personality. They take over their dad’s business and the chuckles ensue as Farrah (the girly blonde twin) acts all girly and blonde while Mitchee counters her twin’s girliness with lots of non-blonde/non-girly behaviorisms. It’s a recipe for good clean Friday night family time. Unfortunately there just weren’t enough good clean families watching TV on Friday nights because CW is replacing the timeslot with a big chunk of wrestling.
The Karate Kid (TCM) 9:45 pm
“Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight?! Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight!” – that’s right ladies and gentleman, call your friends and tell them you cant go out with them Friday night. There’s waxing to be done (of the on and off variety). Turner Classic Movies will be playing one of the greatest 80’s movies of all time. When I saw The Karate Kid was on TCM I had to do a reality check. Realizing that this movie, which premiered in 1984 is in fact, 22 years old, made me feel ridiculously old but I wont let that stop me from enjoying it in all it’s awesomeness. Who could forget Mr. Miyagi beating up a bunch of high schoolers as they were dressed in their oh-so-cool skeleton unitards or the part when you think Daniel’s out because Tommy took Kreese’s orders and swept his leg. Or that beautiful moment at the end when Johnny, bleeding profusely from his recently crane-kicked nose, passed Daniel the giant trophy. We did it Mr. Miyagi!!!
’50 Cutest Child Stars: All Grown Up’ (E!) 8:00 pm
Profiles of young TV and movie stars in all their adorableness then does a sort of “where are they now” piece. Expect lots of dimples and celebrity appearances from people like Candace Cameron (Bure). Since its on Saturday night I suggest you turn this into some kind of drinking game. Drink every time an Olsen twin shows up on screen. Drink for every dimple shown. Drink for every celeb that at one point in time, turned to drugs and/or alcohol. Drink whenever a catchphrase is used (“how rude!”, “oh, brother”, “whatcha talkin’ bout willis”, etc).