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The evolution and appeal of teen TV

Michelle Fordice | Tuesday, September 2, 2008

This week 90210 will try to once again become synonymous with teen drama. But did it ever really leave? “Beverly Hills, 90210” led the pack of shows, along with the likes of “21 Jump Street” and “Saved by the Bell,” that would develop into their own genre: that of teen TV. Few of these shows would be great works of entertainment. The networks they fueled, whether it was the UPN or the WB offered some successes but mostly hemorrhaged the profits of their umbrella companies, and the current version, the CW, is facing similar difficulties. Yet, the shows of this genre are some of the most memorable. When we gather for our high school reunions these are the shows over which we’ll reminisce with longing. There is a clear path from the “Beverly Hills, 90210” of 1990 to the “90210” of today. The early teen shows laid the foundations for hits such as “Party of Five,” and more cult classics like “My So Called Life,” of the mid-90s. Then came the bread and butter of teen drama in the late-90’s as “Dawson’s Creek,” “Felicity,” and “7th Heaven,” hit the airways. These shows proved that is was possible for a TV show aimed at teenagers to carry a network, as “Dawson’s Creek” did for the WB, and when combined with the flood of movies being aimed at the PG-13 crowd, fashioned an industry preoccupied with courting teens. This era of teen drama was strong enough to make headway into other genres, dipping into the supernatural with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” testing the water with more off the wall shows such as “That 70s Show” and “Freaks and Geeks,” and even teen-ifying Superman with “Smallville.” Finally we reach the current age of teen TV, with shows such as “Gilmore Girls,” “The O.C.,” and “Gossip Girl,” that, while shiny and new, hold to the same teen formulas.What unifies teen TV? Foremost there is the drama. Oh the drama. The handful of teenagers in each of these shows will face more crises (real and imagined) in a single season than most of us will even brush by in our entire adult lives. That will of course be interspersed with needed comic relief. Next, with few exceptions, the cast will be gorgeous and well dressed. And often, in good 90210 fashion, the actors will all be significantly older than the high school students they play. Sadly, these shows will almost certainly take place in white-America and minorities will be of the token variety. That has slowly begun to change in the more recent renditions of teen TV as they begin to attempt a true representation of US demographics, but a quick glance at the cast photo of “90210” or “Gossip Girl” will emphasize the lethargy. But for some reason all this unites to create shows that, no matter the absurdity, make you come back for more every week. There could be an argument that we had no taste when we were in high school, but really there is something delicious about all that teen angst and excitement. Teen TV is about being on the cusp of growing up and still being shocked by the hurdles life sends us. It’s a state of being that we’d never want to live through again, but are eager to visit once a week.