A note on our selection process: Teens are not a monolith. Middle school-aged teens are interested in different kinds of stories than are high school-aged teens, who are in turn interested in different kinds of stories than are college-aged teens, who in turn become the twentysomething young adults whose newly won freedom high schoolers can’t wait to seize for themselves. For our purposes, we’ve chosen to focus on shows about and for older teens—high school shows, college shows, and a couple animated series especially beloved by teens of all ages. Mostly, this meant copying over what feels like a full half of Freeform’s historically teen-forward slate, which Hulu (as a vertically integrated member of the linear network’s parent company Disney) has rights to, but there are plenty of surprises—both classic and contemporary—mixed in throughout. Enjoy!
Adults reading this might not be ready to think of ABC Family’s melodramatic teen pregnancy drama, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, as a modern Teen TV classic, but its first season features honest-to-goodness landline phones. When we weren’t looking, Millennial friends, the American Teenager got old. This, for better or worse (mostly worse), goes for the series’ principal themes and character arcs, which felt maudlin at the time, but which ring especially sketchy now. (Not to mention, egregiously heteronormative—this is a series that features a truly irresponsible number of teen marriages.) That said, the big and audacious Freeform we have today could never have existed if there hadn’t been an ABC Family bold enough to greenlight Pretty Little Liars before it, and there wouldn’t have been an ABC Family willing to greenlight something as wild as Pretty Little Liars if something like The Secret Life hadn’t come before that. So, hats off to Shailene Woodley, Megan Park, Francia Raisa, and all the dudes willing to marry (and unmarry) them over and over again—we’re where we are today because you went all the way (pun, er, intended?) way back then. —Alexis Gunderson
The original 10 Things I Hate About You is so devastatingly iconic (the Seattle bridge troll! Letters to Cleo! Heath Ledger singing Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons from the empty bleachers!) that re-adapting it for television felt like sacrilege. But despite sharing some obvious DNA in the form of Larry Miller as Kat and Bianca’s over-cautious OB-GYN dad, the single-season ABC Family comedy managed to set itself apart fairly early in its run, earning its own cadre of passionate fans along the way. Some of this is thanks to the narrative details the series changes to make its own, but even more is due to the fact that the show’s lead quintet—Pretty Little Liars’s Lindsay Shaw and Star Trek: Discovery’s Ethan Peck as Bianca and Patrick, Camp Rock’s Meaghan Martin and Succession’s Nicholas Braun as Kat and Cameron, and Franklin & Bash’s Dana Davis as Chastity Church—mostly avoid leaning into the film versions of their characters, giving them a whole new life on the small screen. As with many cult teen favorites, 10 Things was axed before it got a chance to really prove what it could do with some runway, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy what did make it to air now. —Alexis Gunderson
While it’s true that, given enough renewals, all teen shows will eventually be backed into sending their characters to college, it is the rare teen show that starts there. This is less rare in the waning days of Peak TV, of course—today’s teens have grown-ish (see below), Dear White People, The Order and Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, just to name a few—but back in 2007, five years after Felicity went off the air and 30 after A Different World took its first bow, ABC Family’s Greek was pretty much without peer. Sure, watching from the marginally more “woke” vantage of 2020 can be jarring (the pilot, for example, plays a lot looser with fat jokes and Confederate flag gags than should have been appropriate even then), but the fizzing chemistry the ensemble cast has with one another from the start remains undeniable, as does the happy-go-lucky charm of fan favorite Scott Michael Foster as Kappa Tau Gamma President, Cappie. If college-skewed teen shows are your jam, and a generally pro-Greek system lens is something you can abide, Greek is worth adding to your watch list. —Alexis Gunderson
Roswell is one of those shows that died before its time, likely a victim of network tinkering. I know it’s a running gag to blame “the suits,” but more often than not it is their fault. With Roswell, they took a perfectly good high school drama about aliens and the Earthlings who love them and ratcheted up the science fiction elements to extreme, often absurd levels. Season One was by far the best ,and actually did a great job of capturing high school on a number of levels. There’s the love triangle between Liz (Shiri Appleby), Max and Kyle (Nick Wechsler) and there’s Michael (Brendan Fehr), the bad boy with the (deeply hidden) heart of gold, and of course Alex (Colin Hanks), the nerd who’s in love with Isabel (Katherine Heigl) the (literal, it turns out) princess. And really, who doesn’t feel like an alien at least a few times during high school? The show also had some nice touches, like the aliens’ addiction to Tabasco and the casting of John Doe, bassist of the seminal LA punk band X, playing Liz’s father. At least the series was allowed to end with a real finale, rather than being canceled mid-story. But the silliness and muddled plotlines mean that the ending came as more of a relief than a disappointment—it’s the perfect example of a good show being murdered by tinkering network execs.—Mark Rabinowitz
Hulu’s teen star-studded comedy miniseries All Night might not have crossed your radar before this, but if you know To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, you know the team behind it. Now a ViacomCBS subsidiary, AwesomenessTV began as part of the YouTube Original Channel Initiative in 2013, and has been slowly building itself a teen media empire ever since. (Case in point: The studio’s upcoming feature film, Spontaneous, which stars teen faves Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer and looks poised to be the next major hit in the Teen Movie space.) Set at the Class of 2018’s all-night graduation lock-in and styling itself as a whole-ass bottle season, AwesomenessTV’s All Night stars (among many others) Suburgatory’s Allie Grant, Stargirl’s Brec Bessinger, Everybody Hates Chrisaste a bit about the show here), no small degree of late 2010s YouTuber clout, and a unicorn-rare romance between two black women (Tetona Jackson and Teala Dunn). It’s a bit of a gimmick, sure, but that’s precisely what some of the best teen fare is. And as anyone who attended a grad night lock-in of their own might be able to attest, that’s absolutely the kind of event that can prove itself an emotional crucible ready to forge recent grads (and maybe a few adults) into more honest versions of themselves. So, yeah—bring on the gimmick! —Alexis Gunderson
Shadowhunters, Freeform’s adaptation of The Mortal Instruments book series, follows Clary Fray, a young woman who discovers she’s part of an elite race of half-angel, half-human warriors. The books address “racial” discrimination through figurative metaphor, but one thing the the series isn’t given enough credit for it is its able to tackle it literally due to its racebending of several main and supporting characters. This includes shadowhunter Isabelle Lightwood, who goes from white in the books, to Latino in the show, and spends the entirety of Season 1 turning the “spicy Latina” trope on its head. While Isabelle’s portrayal came under fire early on for playing her as a temptress, the series used all of its episodes to develop a confident and adept shadowhunter whose unquestionable loyalty, compassion, ferocity and intelligence (she is the best forensic pathologist in New York) made her one of the show’s most multifaceted characters.
Shadowhunters delivers its most interesting subversion, however, in its handling of racism between shadowhunters and their half-demon, half-human downworlder counterparts. Illustrations of racial tension are scattered throughout the series, from prejudiced language and perceptions, to segregated spaces and laws. Where most young adult fantasy whitewashes the metaphor (see: The Hunger Games), Shadowhunters used its established and racebent non-white downworlders to strengthen those narrative connections about the damaging notion of racial supremacy. All the while, the series continued portraying a realistic racial makeup of one of TV’s most whitewashed cities and avoiding several white savior situations by putting its lead downworlders of color in powerful positions. —Abbey White
A handful of juvenile delinquents experience a strange universal shift during an electrical storm that causes each of them to gain various super powers. Thus, they become “superhoodies.” On the surface, it seemed like the plot of a science fiction show and that’s not incorrect. The early episodes of Misfits were some of the most underrated and low-key sci-fi episodes on television—it was sci-fi for people who weren’t sure they liked sci-fi. Admittedly, Misfits often doesn’t get a fair shake, thanks to the cast turnover and lack of satisfying story follow-through in later seasons. That said, the one thing Misfits got exceedingly right was their look at the lives of working class, high school-aged kids who are often shrugged off or labeled “trouble.” While you’d never see the likes of Simon (Iwan Rheon), Kelly (Lauren Socha) or Nathan (Robert Sheehan) sitting in a history class, viewers still witnessed their struggle with every day teenage life.
The closest you’d find to a stereotypical goody two shoes on Misfits was Simon. Rheon’s portrayal of the shy and often overlooked group member was one of the most captivating parts of the show. When Simon, faced with Alisha’s super sexual appeal, would mutter his darkest fantasies, you saw a completely different, but very real side of the average boy. The things that came out of his mouth could only come from a porn-obsessed teen. His foil came in the form of Nathan, a goofy, loud-mouthed jokester who seemed to think his greatest gift was his ability to have a smart answer for absolutely any topic … that is until he discovered his super power. The superhoodies of Misfits were without a doubt to sort of kids you’d roll your eyes at on the street. Yet, creator Howard Overman (Atlantis, Dirk Gently) turned the miscreants into humans who, though they were flawed, were absolutely worth rooting for. —Deirdre Kaye
Melissa Joan Hart’s other television show, Clarissa Explains It All, began with her character in junior high. The long-running Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, on the other hand, saw Sabrina (Hart) heading to college in the fifth season. Before that, it was the tale of a young woman dealing with teenaged issues—but as a witch. Obviously, there was a bit of metaphor at play here. Sabrina learning how to be a witch and dealing with the issues of being a witch ran parallel to the issues that teenagers face. Hart was also a dynamic and entertaining presence, making her a great choice to serve as the center of this show. Sure the series was silly and frothy. It began life as a TGIF show after all. But its delightful silliness was the show’s strong suit. However, it must be said that the real highlight of Sabrina was not Sabrina herself, but her cat Salem (voiced by Nick Bakay). Salem was a supremely, wonderfully goofy presence. Whenever they trotted out the incredibly fake puppets designed to allow Salem to talk and do crazy things, it was usually terribly funny—and not always intentionally is. To this day, there’s something so delightful about those moments, as the litany of Salem GIFs online can attest to. This is not to say that Hart was upstaged on her own show by a talking cat puppet … but it was close. —Chris Morgan
The definitive high school sitcom of the early 1990s, Saved by the Bell reflects the day-glo colors of the era perfectly. As a central character, Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is like a slightly preppier version of Ferris Bueller, a schemer and philanderer with no shortage of friends. Everyone on the show perfectly falls into their tropes of the era, whether it’s “perfect girl” Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen), brainiac Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley), jock A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) or weirdo geek Screech Powers (Dustin Diamond)—one of the ’90s more instantly recognizable characters. A mainstay of our Saturday mornings growing up, the series now has an almost ubiquitous place in our memory. Sing it with me now: it’ s all right, because I’m saved by the bell. —Jim Vorel and Amy Amatangelo
You never forget your first TV love. A picture of Dylan McKay still hangs on my refrigerator. Sigh. Sixteen years after the Peach Pit gang left the airwaves, it’s easy to forget how utterly influential this Aaron Spelling drama was. Now you may remember the sideburns, the catchphrases and the mall stampedes. But 90210 was a pioneer. Without it, we would have no Dawson’s Creek, The O.C., Gossip Girl or countless other teen soaps. Today we take for granted that producers will want to create dramas about high school life. But that wasn’t always the case. Spelling tapped into something—that high school is a soap opera, and everything about it seems larger than life at the time. Who you’ll go to prom with, having sex for the first time, fighting with your best friend—these are all huge deals. The show was couched in the glamour of Beverly Hills, but the series tackled every single issue adolescents face regardless of their backgrounds. Eating disorders, drug use, abusive boyfriends, suicide, pregnancy scares—you name it, Spelling and showrunner Darren Star shied away from nothing, pushing the network executives and censors to new levels. My love for this show is endless. 90210 (and no, I don’t acknowledge the 2008 remake) ended after a decade-long run, but I would have watched those kids right into the Golden Girls years. —Amy Amatangelo
There is a world where the Adventure Time creative team is content with rehashing its brand of surreal, candy-infused tomfoolery ad nauseam. Luckily, this is not the world we live in. Indeed, Pendleton Ward and Co. have spent the latter half of this magnificent and groundbreaking series’ run not only stretching the bounds of the show’s weirdass sandbox, but actively working to push the characters forward. More than anything, Adventure Time realizes that to avoid change is to become tired and stagnant. Thus, rather than adhering to the typical “floating timeline” structure of most animated programs, the show has allowed its characters (be it a human child, a stretchy dog, a peppermint butler, or a bubblegum princess) to grow and develop, often in ways that are more heartbreaking and dramatically potent than anything a prestige cable drama could throw out. Never was this sensibility more apparent than in Stakes, the eight-part miniseries that went a long way towards exploring the backstory of vampire Marceline, one of Adventure Time’s most beloved, mysterious and tragic characters. Throughout its run, Adventure Time remains the strange, yet endlessly innovative little gem that fans know and love. —Mark Rozeman and Allison Keene
I’m not going to lie, sometimes it can be exhausting trying to keep up with all that Good Trouble is trying to tackle. Like its predecessor The Fosters, the Freeform drama (which I must confessed is probably aimed at viewers much younger than I) leaves no social justice stone unturned. This season alone has tackled gender pay scale inequities, trans rights, coming out as non-binary, the Black Lives Matter movement, loyalty to the Republican party in the Trump era, depression, suicide and body image struggles. But somehow the show manages to never be preachy or pedantic. Amid all the issues of the day though are the storylines that make a young adult drama tick: navigating romantic relationships, career struggles, sibling fights, and parties where someone makes a fool of themselves. In its second season, the series remains a weekly delight and one well worth the trouble.—Amy Amatangelo
If there’s one thing a certain sector of today’s teens love, it’s stories about feelings. If there are two things, it’s stories about feelings, and John Green. Movie fans got their fill of both when the feature length adaptation of Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars made its big screen debut in 2014, but readers who have dying (ahem) to see Green’s debut novel, Looking for Alaska, hit a screen of any size had to wait until Hulu finally adapted it as an original series in the fall of 2019. Deeply naturalistic and textured so expertly with details specific to 2005 that anyone who was a teenager back then is likely to have a visceral reaction to every last needle drop, Hulu’s Looking for Alaska is a tender—if haunting—feelings-filled love letter to the novel that made Green a household YA name. Will you find yourself playing The Killers and Modest Mouse on repeat once you’re done watching? Possibly. Will you have some insight into the bookish teens in your life? Also possibly! But you’ll have watched a lovely show either way. —Alexis Gunderson
A bit of a cheat to lump these two series together—not least because Marvel’s Runaways is a Hulu Original and Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger aired originally on Freeform—but as the two big serial storytelling swings that aimed to bring the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the Teen TV space (before, at least, Disney+ swooped in to change up the Marvel TV game), they are more rewarding to watch in concert than they are to watch separately. Playing more with the cartoon-ish elements of the Marvelverse, Runaways is an ensemble drama that features a magical scepter, a telepathic T. Rex, and a Scientology-adjacent cult of celestial immortality—oh, and the main teens’ parents (James Marsters among them) forming a villainous cabal willing to kill their own kids in pursuit of some mysterious Grand Plan. Cloak & Dagger, meanwhile—set with care in New Orleans by showrunner Joe Pokaski and featuring a black teen boy (Aubrey Joseph) and white teen girl (Olivia Holt) whose emotionally entwined powers work best when working together—traffics more in more serious issues like trauma, addiction, and racial injustice. (Watch on Hulu here.) One may speak to you more than the other, but whatever your preference, both absolutely prove the demo-spanning potential of the MCU—especially in an era where Teen TV has more latitude than ever to take on deeply weird, deeply complex, deeply radical themes. —Alexis Gunderson
Steven Universe was the best show on Cartoon Network for quite some time. Like Pixar’s great films, it transcends its “target” audience of children by distilling nuanced, powerful emotions into a universally comprehensible form without losing any of its intellect.
Here’s an incomplete list of the themes the show traded in: abusive love, Marxism, unmitigated bereavement, depression, self-hatred, PTSD, matricide. Such a cheerful show, right? Actually, yes: The core of Steven Universe, despite its unbelievably heavy subject material, is love—not only of every creature on Earth, good or bad, but of life itself, regardless of the terrible circumstances it hurls your way. Sure, that’s an aspirational message, but Steven is essentially the Chance the Rapper of animated television: He’ll make you believe in his infectious, hard-nosed optimism. —Zach Blumenfeld
It’s not an earth-shattering statement to announce that teen dramas on TV have remained predominately white and predominantly heterosexual. Love, Victor, Hulu’s new 10-episode series, finally makes a gay teen and his origin story the main storyline. Victor (Michael Cimino) isn’t the sidekick, he’s the hero. Love, Victor pays homage to all its predecessors, sharing much in common with teen dramas of yesteryear with unrequited romances, love triangles, quirky best friends, parental drama, winter carnivals with Ferris wheels, and momentous school dances. Victor is a 16-year-old boy who thinks he might be gay and is figuring out how to navigate his feelings, his conservative family, and societal pressure. The result is a series that’s poignant, funny, smart, full of fun pop-culture references (from The Breakfast Club and Billy Joel to Billie Eilish and the Ann Taylor Outlet, there’s something for everyone) and clever, believable dialogue.
While the show’s message is a great, life affirming one, Love, Victor never feels like work or a pedantic “very special episode.” The message of the show never takes over the entertainment value. It’s just a consistent hum throughout. Be yourself. Love who you are. Stand up for what you believe in. Although groundbreaking in and of itself in many way, Victor’s story is most special because of how normally the show treats it and its charismatic and adorable title character. There’s just so much here to love. Honestly what more could you want in a half-hour series? —Amy Amatangelo
A giant of the late-aughts WB/CW teen drama era, One Tree Hill is one of those deeply beloved, increasingly bizarro shows that managed to not only launch nearly as many Hollywood B-team careers as it had characters (look no further than Hallmark and Lifetime anytime a holiday-themed movie season rolls around for proof), but also to survive such wild storytelling decisions as—and this is not a joke—having a dog eat a main character’s heart. (A DOG. EATING A HEART. The most fun teen shows always just go there, don’t they?) Even if you weren’t in the target demo when this series originally aired, its shadow over pop culture loomed so large that you at least knew that even mentioning the idea of half-brothers playing basketball in a small town in North Carolina would be enough to tip fans into an avalanche of feelings. Maybe now is the time to catch up and see what all the fuss was about. —Alexis Gunderson
From the moment in the pilot when Pacey (Joshua Jackson) told his teacher “I’m the best sex you’ll never have,” we knew Dawson’s Creek would be different. Originally centered on four teens—Dawson (James Van der Beek), Pacey, Joey (Katie Holmes), Jen (Michelle Williams) and Pacey—the series took young love triangles to a whole new level. These eloquent teens probably didn’t talk like any adolescents you knew, but the angst they brought to their everyday lives was palpably relatable. The show was groundbreaking. Season 2 introduced Jack (Kerr Smith), the first gay teen who was a series regular, as opposed to just a guest on a very special episode. The show became even more groundbreaking when Jack and his boyfriend shared an onscreen kiss at the end of Season 3. (Credit creator Kevin Williamson and executive producer Greg Berlanti for handling Jack’s storyline so authentically.) To this day, talk of Team Dawson or Team Pacey will elicit passionate, well-considered responses. As for me, I’m #TeamPacey forever. He remains the best sex … I never had. —Amy Amatangelo
In the grand tradition of so many teen dramas that came before, Hulu’s own East Los High, whose original run on the streamer lasted four seasons before it was cancelled in 2017, is pure soap. That said, having set itself up as one of Teen TV’s most notable groundbreakers of the last decade both by being one of Hulu’s first original series (only the miniseries The Confession preceded it) and by being the first to feature an all-Latinx cast and crew (a rarity across the greater television landscape as a whole), it’s at least soap of an elite vintage. Featuring a plethora of Very Attractive Teens, a raft of storylines developed in collaboration with public health organizations with the goal of encouraging Latinx teens to make healthy choices, and a lot of dancing, it’s a genuine 2010s teen classic. —Alexis Gunderson
There are so many reasons why everyone needs to watch the U.K.’s excellent My Mad Fat Diary. Rae Earl (Sharon Rooney in her first role) is the fat teenage protagonist of our dreams. She weighs 16 stone (224 pounds) and has a dirty mouth, which she uses to describe all the things she would like to do to her crushes. It’s hilarious and riveting, raw and honest. But the emotional tone of the show (set between 1996 and 1998) is defined by the knowledge that Rae’s attempted suicide landed her in a mental hospital for four months. Much to her dismay (and luck), she is then reacquainted with her oldest friend, Chloe (Jodie Comer). In the first season, Rae has to straddle between her two worlds: the mental hospital and a new group of friends. The characters deal with abortions, parental abandonment, sex, body issues, and the difficulties of friendships and relationships with an imperfect protagonist who continuously hits rock bottom. But, somehow, hope is felt throughout. Teenagers and their mental health issues are rarely shown, especially with this much realness. But the dark comedy and our desire for Rae to win consistently provide relief. Oh, 90s Brit-pop, we love you so! —Iris Barreto
Equal parts witty and riveting, Veronica Mars follows the title character, who is an ostracized high-school student moonlighting as a private eye for her classmates. Kristen Bell uncannily portrays someone who is simultaneously smart, vulnerable, tough and injured. The series, which received a fan-funded movie revival in 2014 and a recent Hulu revival, is thematically compelling, stylistically coherent, and fully realized TV show (despite the controversy of the revival’s conclusion). The first season followed Veronica as she solved the murder of her best friend Lilly (Amanda Seyfried) and uncover who assaulted her at a party. The eventual reveal of the murderer was shocking but the show proved it was much more than a one-trick pony. Subsequent seasons introduced new mysteries and corruption all while delivering some of the most fantastic dialogue on television (“Love stinks. You can dress it up in sequins and shoulder pads, but one way or another, you’re just gonna end up alone at the spring dance strapped in uncomfortable underwear.”) For UPN, the series represented a foray into critically acclaimed television. The show was then and remains one of the best TV series of all time. And marshmallows, we pause here to give a special shout out to Jason Dohring, who brought a nuanced combination of cockiness and hurt to bad boy Logan Echolls. (But you might want to just stick with the original series and avoid the movie and revival). —James South and Shaina Pearlman
Premiering in 2013, The Fosters, about Stef (Teri Polo), her wife Lena (Sherri Saum), Stef’s biological son, Brandon, and the couple’s four adopted children—twins Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) and Jesus (Noah Centineo), Jude (Hayden Byerly) and his half-sister, Callie (Maia Mitchell)—checked all the social progressive boxes. Over the years, this show about a gay couple raising ethnically diverse teens took on took on immigration, the foster care system, adoption, abortion, eating disorders, gun control, and LGBTQ rights. (And that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head.) When Jude realized he was gay and embarked on several romances, they were treated the same as the show’s other teen romances. The series regularly featured transgender characters, one of whom (Aaron, played by Elliot Fletcher) became Callie’s boyfriend. The show did all this while always being an entertaining, well-executed family drama that educated viewers without being pedantic. —Amy Amatangelo
Even when the process is kept entirely in-house, it’s hard to know what to expect when an established series spins fan-favorite characters off to anchor something new. For the resulting spin-off to not only shift its target demographic, but move to a whole other network, like Yara Shahidi’s college-focused grown-ish did when it landed on Freeform after breaking away from ABC’s black-ish? That was more than unexpected—it was bold. Happily, it also proved to be a savvy play, the spin-off’s charming young cast, sharp writing, and fourth-wall-breaking confessional tone combining to give it real legs. As the black-ish-exported lead, Zoey, Shahidi is of course a blast to watch (even as Zoey makes bad decision after bad decision, as young adults alone at college for the first time are wont to do), but truly no more so than the rest of the ensemble cast, any one of whom could be considered a particular standout, depending on the mood you’re in. For the purposes of this list, Francia Raisa comes to mind, as her character, Ana Torres, is so diametrically opposite of the one she played for years on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager (#25, above), but pop phenoms Chloe x Halle might be who you’re most drawn to, or Luka Sabbat’s overly chill Luca, or Emily Arlook’s kinda-messy Nomi, whose most recent major arc saw her coming out to herself (and the professor she inadvisably made out with) as bisexual. There’s just so much going on on grown-ish, and while much of it is as awkward and painful as the growing pains of real young adulthood can be (especially in the age of social media), it’s never not a delight. —Alexis Gunderson
Significantly more influential than one would have expected from a Beavis and Butt-head spin-off, Daria is without a doubt the defining show of angsty teens of the late ’90s who couldn’t quite get over the death of grunge. It’s a paean to the lazy, the slackers, the cynical and the sarcastic, as Daria (Tracy Grandstaff) and her friend Jane (Wendy Hoopes) bemoaned the plight of a broken society by watching tabloid shows with titles like Sick, Sad World. Its fatalism was deep, dark and often hilarious, and one got the sense that few shows have ever actually captured the zeitgeist of their subjects more accurately. Every teen who ever shrugged their shoulders and sighed in frustration after being asked how their day at school was by Mom was clearly thinking, “My life is just like Daria.”—Jim Vorel
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had it all: Romance, drama, tragedy, suspense. The show took the teen-soap formula and elevated it to an art. It was a unique combination of tragic romance, apocalyptic fantasy and the clincher: emotional realism. It also featured the most serious and realistic depiction of human loss ever witnessed on the small screen (in “The Body” dealing with the death of Buffy’s mom by natural causes). Humor? The writers understood the campy sheen that must accompany any show named Buffy. They also knew how to use snappy dialogue and uncomfortable situations to full effect. Complex characters? You’d be hard pressed to find another program that had the same range and consistency of character development. Everyone matured (or devolved) at his or her own realistic rate. As some feminist writers have argued, TV had never before seen the complexity of relationships among women that you saw with the likes of Buffy, Willow, Joyce, and Dawn. Plot? The writers employed elaborate multi-episode, multi-season story arcs. People and events of the past always had a way of popping back up, the way they do in real life. Philosophy? Series creator Joss Whedon was all about the meta, the ideas and story behind the story. He succeeded, creating a WB/UPN show that bears closer resemblance to the works of Dostoevsky and Kafka than 90210 or Dawson’s Creek. —Tim Regan-Porter
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