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Teen Kings and Drama Queens: The Evolution of the High School Serial

Erin McGinn | Monday, November 20, 2006

The primetime teenage drama is a staple in today’s television fare, with networks like the former WB even specializing in it. This wasn’t always the case, however, since the teen drama is a relatively young creature.

Early shows created for teenagers tended to be series like “Saved by the Bell,” which, while they dealt with teen issues, weren’t always taken seriously and were incredibly lighthearted, even when dealing with serious topics. They were also typically half-hour shows that aired in the afternoon or on Saturday mornings.

One of the first teen dramas to reach moderate success was the Canadian “Degrassi High,” which aired on PBS during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Its current incarnation is the popular “Degrassi: The Next Generation” which airs on The-N and is credited for using actual teenage actors to play the characters.

In the 1990s the teen drama truly came into being as recognized today in Aaron Spelling’s “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The show dealt with issues that teens faced in a realistic and serious manner. The show became instantly popular with young audiences and launched its actors, such as Luke Perry and Jason Priestley, to teen idol status. The show had an incredibly long 10-year run from 1990-2000.

After the success of “90210” came a slew of shows furthering the stability of the teen drama as its own legitimate genre. 1994 was a great year for the teen drama, bringing to the screen both ABC’s “My So-Called Life” and FOX’s “Party of Five.” Although the show was critically acclaimed, ABC made the mistake of pitting “My So-Called Life” against a new NBC show, “Friends.” “Friends” dominated the ratings, and “Life” was cancelled after only a season, but not before launching the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto.

“Party of Five” saw a great deal more success, lasting for six acclaimed seasons, although it was more of a drama featuring teens, as opposed to being a teen drama in the vein of “90210.”

With the rising success of the teen drama, a new network was created in 1995 – The WB – that specifically catered to the genre. Within three years of the network’s launch, shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Felicity” and “Dawson’s Creek” premiered and met with both critical and popular success. The sophistication of the shows – in writing, acting and content – helped to make the teen drama as legitimate a genre as the typical network drama.

The WB continued to grow and add excellent shows to its repertoire, such as “Everwood” and “Gilmore Girls.” Although series on the WB were meeting with high levels of success, shows airing on the major networks didn’t do as well. NBC’s 1999 critically acclaimed “Freaks and Geeks” barely lasted an entire season due to its poor ratings.

It wasn’t until 2003 that the teen drama would find its face again on one of the major networks. FOX, the same network who delivered “90210,” revamped the genre with “The O.C.” Much like “90210” a decade earlier, “The O.C.” initially followed a core group of Californian darlings through their exploits and dramas in high school. Now in its fourth season, the characters have entered their first year of college, and the focus of the narrative has shifted from its initial beginnings.

Although it is a comparatively recent creation, the teen drama has had several outstanding series that easily legitimize it as a genre. The teen drama, when done well, has the ability not only to entertain young and older audiences alike but also to tackle the serious issues faced by teenagers of any generation.