The teen drama is a staple of American television, and perhaps it is the universality of our experiences as adolescents that makes this genre so enduringly popular. Being a teenager is inherently melodramatic—it’s a time in our lives characterized by anxiety, misunderstanding, identity crises, and every manner of internal and external turmoil necessary to build a captivating world filled with interesting characters. Why, then, does it seem that so many popular American teen shows are entirely implausible, pumped up with every manner of dramatic—and sometimes life threatening—entanglements we could never imagine finding ourselves in?
Shows like Pretty Little Liars and, more recently, Riverdale, are at their core extremely convoluted crime dramas. In the picturesque sleepy towns where these dramas are set, the ordinary justice system is seemingly too incompetent or ignorant to protect the teenaged main characters from the oftentimes life–threatening binds in which they find themselves. Narratives of ordinary teenage life—family complications, academic success or failure, romance, and friendship—come second to the murder and mystery, and are sometimes even instrumental in driving the main thread of crime as teenaged characters fumble through their idiosyncratic youth.
Riverdale embraces the ridiculousness of its plot so far as it almost makes fun of itself, reinterpreting its comic book inspiration with unfathomable tales of organized crime, gang violence, and, yes, a drug lord who kills his own son after the latter discovered his father wasn’t just a maple syrup tycoon. There is something quite intriguing about the near–fantastical mess that is Riverdale, but its borderline satirical approach to the teen drama is incredibly difficult to connect to, in spite of its high entertainment value.
If there is any television show in recent memory that paints a gritty, realistic picture of adolescent life, it’s the British series Skins, which ran for six seasons between 2007 and 2010. Within each of its three “generations”, the show follows a group of teenage friends as they navigate the struggles they experience as they settle into adulthood. Even in its narrative format, which devotes each episode to the experiences of a single character within the show’s main ensemble, Skins took advantage of what teenage life really feels like: dizzying and isolating. It’s a world divided between the individual and the group, and Skins does a phenomenal job portraying that in a thoughtfully constructed way.
The grittiness of Skins, whether conveyed through the production design, snappy dialog, or the way the show is shot, is another point of contrast with the typical American teen drama. There is something extremely artificial about the glossiness of shows like Riverdale or Gossip Girl, which—given the themes of affluence that are central to their main storylines—is not necessarily a bug, but a feature.
The fabrication of the teenaged experience, as displayed by these brighter series, yields some frustration for a viewer who wants to connect to the distinctly uncomfortable feeling of late adolescence and the hesitancy one feels as they face the inevitability of growing up. The sugar–coated glamour of a hokey teen crime drama is as artificial as the impeccable hair and makeup that is so uncomfortably ubiquitous within these shows. The disregard for the reality of academic pressure—except for, or course, that one nerd character—is an unrealistic device used to make room for all the after school snooping. By contrast, Skins ended its first generation with the main ensemble of characters reacting to their A–Level scores: quite a heavy note to land on, considering how important they are to the future of these young people soon to enter their university years.
Perhaps the teen drama isn’t as uniform a genre as we tend to believe it to be—evidently not every series devoted to following the lives of teenagers provides insight into the realities of this turbulent time in our lives. However, the depth and honesty of shows like Skins proves that the care with which we handle difficult subject matter—the kind of thing we associate with high quality television today—can be extended to exploring the experiences of young people, and what is both unique and universal to those years.