There is no shame, only greatness and beautiful people. At least that’s the cover I’m hiding under. Teen Drama has a bad reputation and for good reason; the word teen conjures up an image of a thirteen year old girl painting her nails and blue tacking pictures of some floppy haired, half clothed male from Smash Hits to her wall. As someone who was once that 13 year old girl I can confirm we were that twee. Thankfully though, good teen telly despite its trapping has a little more depth than my musings over canary yellow or cherry red for my nails. Not that any award show beyond MTV Best Kiss has ever noticed. Though I’m not going to go and pretend that I never appreciate the ridiculous hotness this brand of TV celebrates. And that my friends, is the beauty of watching something so unashamedly aimed at the “younger generation”: the pure eye candy. Shallow? Yes. True? Entirely.
Now that we’ve all acknowledged that little guilty fact I feel I can actually discuss why any of these shows are actually worth watching, whether or not some pretty boy’s fronting it. Teen does not have to mean fulfilling your fluff quotient for the week. There’s some hard hitting emotion hidden amongst the angst and drama and I have no hesitation in calling you heartless if none of the shows I mention do not get you weepy, and not because Dawson and Joey breaking up rocks my world (really people, Pacey all the way).
Anyway this last year or so, one show seems to be getting considerable attention as more than teen placeholder of the week, and that is the magnificent Glee. Which I’m going to go out on a limb and say is a bit of a mess. Sorry, sorry, sorry, I know many of you consider yourselves a “Gleek” and I did initially, but as one of the most successful shows about teens and for teens I feel it doesn’t often stand up to any scrutiny. It’s a confused mix of plot devices that service the music it wants to perform, but ultimately it’s down some truly original characters that have highly inconsistent behaviour and never seem to grow and learn. From someone who grew up with Buffy, which took often risky but consistent turns with their characters this is utterly painful. I suspect my justification for watching anything is that the characters or the plot feel like they are truthful to the series, and Glee I have to say, has sacrificed itself on the altar of commercialism. It has all the teen tropes of dealing with sex, homosexuality and the future but is often too excited by its gimmick of the week to actually say anything about any of those issues with coherency. It holds itself to be something it frankly never quite achieves. Best in Class for originality but for genius dialogue and some great characters in a high school setting, check out Ryan Murphy’s earlier Popular. Far superior.
Now I’ve snuck in a Buffy reference I can tell you that I measure all television by this yard stick. This is teen television the way it’s meant to be made. Witty, pretty and seriously heartbreaking. It has all the trappings of teen telly: crushes, evil teachers and parents who don’t understand, but uses the sci-fi genre to make a more nuanced point about the drama that is being sixteen. To be fair, Vampires are optional. Just get a copy of Veronica Mars and then tell me teen drama can’t hold a candle to anything that’s aimed at adults. That’s the saddest thing about the label ‘teen’, the idea that the target audience can only be placated by hot blondes and skimpy bikinis. We heart hot blondes but only if Seth Cohen gets to mock them endlessly while they look confused. So when teen drama gets it right it’s like finding out your crush hearts you back.
So why I wonder did it take so many years for an actual living teen to get onto the writing scene? Adults have a tendency to make everything a bit shiny and glossy, so unsurprisingly when it finally happened, you got the rawness of Skins. I don’t care if no one’s life is that exciting and that all adults are irresponsible; the teens seem real in their reactions and insecurities if not the situations they find themselves in (finding a dead body and running away to NYC never happened to you?). The sex and the swearing are all set dressing and a cheap thrill while the fragility of the characters and the way they feel about each other is touching. The actual teen actors they use are phenomenal and hold the show together in a way 90210 can only be jealous of. Gah, waste of space, not mentioning that zip code again.
I will however give a quick nod to a show that has many of the trappings of that hideous show but is held to together with the great writings of Josh Schwartz (Creator of the O.C) and the magic of Leighton Meester and Ed Westwick. Yes, Gossip Girl. In this case I’m going to point at the dialogue and more often than not the great plotting that actually makes this a joy to watch. This is guilty TV at its finest. It’s a show that embraces the clichés and somehow subverts them and Gossip Girl has a deft hand and a sly wit whilst doing it.
And if this is all getting a little bit girlie for you, let me point to one of the best shows in years, the Inbetweeners. Filthy, hilarious and as awkward as any moment in The Office, teen television has some of the best quality that has been around for years. If you are willing to invest a little time and patience, there is often nothing better than good television disguised as frothy, hedonistic teen drama to entertain yourself with.