13 coming-of-age tv shows to get you through your teens
From 'Freaks and Geeks' and 'Stranger Things' to 'The O.C.' and '13 Reasons Why', these series perfectly capture adolescence.
This article originally appeared on i-D France.
The charm of teen television shows is that they capture a very specific time in life. At their best, they tackle the teen experience by bringing viewers along on the journey to adulthood. And at the very least, they comfort us, with all their drama and youthful extravagance.
Since the late 80s, there have been countless teen series in this tradition, rich in their emotions and adventures. Some are lighthearted, while others take a deep-dive into the troubles we face in this rich, messy stage of life. Ultimately, Stranger Things, The O.C., Skins, 13 Reason Why, and Sex Education can’t be regarded as merely TV shows. They’re so much more than that. Their stories help us navigate adolescence. They show us isolation, desire, immaturity, and the dreams of young characters in the throes of first experiences. Whether the characters in question are rich, crazy, helpless, proud, fearful, you name it -- they embody the collective teen experience.
Because sex is A) complicated B) weird and C) great: Sex Education
Honestly, everything you need to know is right there in the title. The series centres on Otis Milburn, an insecure young virgin who’s unable to orgasm (even from masturbating). As we follow Otis’ adventures, we realise how much sex haunts the high school years of every human being on Earth. Same goes for their parents, as in the case of Otis’ mother, a sex therapist (played by the impeccable Gillian Anderson). The sex here is frequent, but rarely satisfying. Nor is it heterocentric (at last)!
Sex Education is about failure. It’s about moments of doubt, shameful thoughts, first heartaches, ulterior motives (such as when Jackson starts to read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to seduce Maeve, a young feminist), and all the times teens have to face their fears so they can keep moving forward. Perhaps Otis’ monologue sums it up best: “You know, sometimes the love we feel doesn’t get returned, and it’s painful, but you can’t do anything about it. I know what it’s like when someone doesn’t have the same feelings for you, someone you think about all the time -- it’s torture. But you can’t force people to be interested. Love isn’t about romantic gestures or the moon and the stars; it’s just a fluke. So, sometimes you meet someone who feels the same thing, and other times, you’re not so lucky. But one day you’ll meet someone who’ll like you for who you are. There are seven billion of us on this planet; I’m sure there’s someone who’ll climb up to the moon for you.”
Because we’re all clueless (truly, all of us): Misfits
All you need to understand Misfits is this quote by Nathan, possibly one of the most interesting characters ever created:
"We're young! We're supposed to drink too much, we're supposed to have bad attitudes and shag each others brains out. We are designed to party! This is it! Yeah, so a few of us will overdose, or go mental. But Charles Darwin said, 'You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.' And that's what it's all about, breaking eggs. And by eggs, I do mean, getting twatted on a cocktail of class As! If you could just see yourselves. It breaks my heart; you're wearing cardigans! We had it all. We fucked up, bigger, and better than any generation that came before us! WE WERE SO BEAUTIFUL! We're screw ups. I'm a screw up. And I plan to be a screw up until my late twenties, maybe even my early thirties. And I will shag my own mother, before I let her, or anyone else, take that away from me!"
To shut your school bully up (for good): 13 Reasons Why
On paper, you’d be hard-pressed to find a gloomier setup: a young high-schooler, Hannah Baker, has committed suicide for an unknown reason, leaving behind a grieving entourage (devastated by family secrets, abuses of power, sexism, survival of the fittest, etc.) -- and a will, consisting of thirteen audiocassettes found by handsome Clay Jensen. These cassettes serve as the thread that ties together a series of scripts perfectly in tune with our times (the Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo movement, and more).
But 13 Reasons Why never (or rarely) veers toward moralising. Instead, it very accurately captures the existential crises of adolescence, showing us high school not from the point of view of the jocks, but of those who walk the halls with knots in their stomachs. It tells us, “it takes courage to be a nerd”. It points out that “everyone is so nice until they push you to kill yourself”. In short, there’s nothing joyful here; it plumbs the dark depths of apparently squeaky-clean American high schools, and intriguingly so. It also spotlights the cruelty of teens, whose apparent eccentricities often belie silent discomfort and deep sadness.
To send everything to hell (your future included): The End Of The F***ing World
The End Of The F***ing World is, first and foremost, the story of James and Alyssa. James is a teen who self-mutilates, dreams of assaulting his father and killing pets as well as “something bigger, preferably a human being -- and ideally, his girlfriend. Alyssa, meanwhile, is sick of her stepfather with roaming hands, her mother’s depression, and just about everything else.
So, together, James and Alyssa decide to leave their quiet suburb to wander the English countryside in a stolen car and try their best to survive, whether by squatting in a nice house or robbing a gas station. And that commands respect. Because it’s an enticing balance between black humour and romantic truth. Because somewhere deep down, we wish we had experienced this kind of extreme, lovely escape with someone. And because we can imagine how much it must resonate with young people who dream of having their own such experiences, living off the beaten path -- living dangerously.
Because she saved a lot of 90s girls’ lives: Daria
Daria is a cult series, for sure. For its corrosive humour, its reverence of outsiders and the ease with which it tackled so many topics that are usually troublesome in the superficial world of teen TV shows: bullying at school, isolation, depression, being a misfit in society (“I don’t want to wake up when I’m 40 and realise I’ve spent all my time at a job I hated”). Still more strikingly, Daria was one of the first animated series to talk about equality between the sexes, and to feature an intellectual -- one who’s nothing like the archetype of the rigid, frustrated, isolated girl who goes around quoting Kant and hating cheerleaders.
In other words, Daria herself is the quintessential anti-heroine, a world-weary young woman and slacker-culture enthusiast who lives her femininity just the way she wants, fearing nothing and no one -- and especially not men in power. In episode 6 of season 1, she wastes no time telling off a recruiter from a modelling agency who asks her to take off her glasses: “I can't take my glasses off. I need them to see scam artists.” In your face, patriarchy!
To band together and battle monsters: Stranger Things
In one scene from 13 Reasons Why, Jessica Davis says, “We weren’t friends. Friends tell the truth. They don’t turn against each other.” This statement is a perfect fit for the kids of Stranger Things, who live life guided by a mantra they never stop repeating: “Friends don’t lie.” This kind of sentiment is pretty typical for teen series, even teen movies like The Goonies, but Stranger Things’ creators the Duffer brothers have a special knack for capturing them perfectly onscreen in episodes that deftly mix straight-up comedy, teen romance and special effects -- in the style of Amblin Entertainment (E.T., Gremlins, etc.).
Stranger Things isn’t just a sci-fi series that’s a bit too obsessed with the 1980s (although we clearly see that decade’s influence on everything from the credits to the soundtrack). Above all, it’s a series about friendship, the lives of kids in sleepy suburbs who are suddenly confronted with eruptions of the extraordinary -- the arrival of Eleven and the discovery of the Demogorgon, namely. And everything is focused on having a sense of community -- something that makes adolescence nicer, richer and more everlasting.
For an impeccable indie-pop education (even though your friends might think you’re a loser): The O.C.
The O.C. is a series that respects, like no other, the codes and customs of the teen TV show: there must be graduation days, crazy parties, skinny dipping, love, and plenty of s-e-x. Without ever hitting us over the head, The O.C. offers up all this and then some. It also features all your favourite indie groups from the early 2000s, including a tonne of essential hits that enhanced the young characters' stories with their tunes. Death Cab for Cutie, Syd Matters, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, The Killers and Imogen Heap all make appearances in one or more episodes of The O.C.
For all the trolls in training: Gossip Girl
It’s a testament to the spirit of youth: whereas the characters from Friends and Seinfeld, confident thirty-somethings, are fairly homebound, the characters in Josh Schwartz’s Gossip Girl spend their days strolling the streets of New York. Of course, they have the means to do so: most are rich kids, who are students at the best private schools and travel around by limo and only go to the trendiest bars. So why, you might ask, inflict these 121 episodes on yourself?
Precisely because it allows you to see New York, city of fantasies, in a different light. The Upper East Side, the buildings (Vanderbilt, Astor, Rockefeller), and Tiffany’s are characters in and of themselves, part of the story just as the people are. Sometimes we get the sense we’re looking at a New York from another era -- from Edith Wharton’s books, perhaps -- which may be the writers’ intention, since it serves to illustrate the duality in which Serena, Blair, and Dan are growing up, always torn between an old-fashioned education (inherited from a high society which cares only about preserving its legacy) and their desire to be in tune with their times, and to live their teen years to the fullest. It’s a story about a period of innocence, when we don’t give a shit about social conventions, when our desire for the forbidden transcends class boundaries.
For sensible use of psychoactive substances (and other laughs): Skins
Throughout its seven seasons, Skins was fairly consistent, always exploring the sense of freedom that youth allows us, generation after generation. Sex, love, drugs, drama, rivalries -- all are addressed here with the particular intensity around the teen years. You won’t find any rich American teens with plastic bodies here. Instead, you'll meet real teens, with acne, neon clothes bought for cheap at H&M and an overwhelming need to drown their spleen in alcohol and recreational drugs.
Skins is a plainspoken ode to clandestine parties, first ecstasies, and checkered Vans. It’s worth noting that Skins was the first program to incorporate dubstep into its soundtrack. What’s more, six years after the series’ end, thousands of teens continue to be captivated by these characters and their particular brand of freedom.
Because freaks and geeks embody cool, after all: the one and only... Freaks and Geeks
In an interview in Emannuel Burdeau's book Comédie, mode d’emploi, Judd Apatow talks about the figure of the geek as “existentially helpless”. Freaks and Geeks was about the meeting of two populations (that would be the freaks and the geeks) deprived of all social life and, at first glance, incompatible with the customs of their classmates. Here, the characters don’t favour alcohol-soaked parties but homemade burgers, preferably to be consumed in front of a comedy show or while listening to The Who’s I'm One.
One notable scene involves Bill Haverchuck, a geek with big glasses and neglected hair. It’s one of the most striking scenes in Apatow’s series, since, unknowingly, it announces the dawn of the nerd -- who, since the early 2000s, has become a veritable hero of our times. Enough so, that Pharrell was moved to name one of his groups accordingly (N.E.R.D.), and Hollywood producers chose to finance series that were completely nerd-centric (most notably The Big Bang Theory).
To learn to control your impulses: Vampire Diaries
“He’s your first love -- I’ll wait to be your last. I don’t care how long it takes.” This statement, from Klaus to Caroline, does a lot to sum up the themes at the heart of of Vampire Diaries: the emergence of sexuality in a high school context where humans and vampires meet. For sure, it’s not the most original writing out there (Twilight has tread this path), and the series is not awfully daring. However, Vampire Diaries allows us to revisit the figure of the vampire as a sex symbol, an object of desire for young people as they try to manage their hormonal flux.
Here we also find -- as in Dawson’s Creek, Beverly Hills 90210 and even Glee -- all the ups and downs that the world’s teens must one day confront: persecution, gossip, relationship disappointments, desire and its impediments. Only here, all of these have a deadly undertone, and the series’ transposition of desire into a foreign, almost hostile territory registers as a metaphor for the constraints of the teen body, which, being trapped in adolescence, doesn’t know how to go about touching another person. Some antiquated aspects make the series even more interesting: in the age of Instagram and Snapchat, seeing teens wax poetic in their private diaries is kind of touching.
Because as long as there are teens, there’ll be punk: This Is England
The world that Shane Meadows depicts in his three-part miniseries collectively entitled This Is England (86, 88 and 90) is noticeably the same one from his 2006 film of the same name. In each utterance, scene and shot, we experience the England of the 80s, the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s brutal and repressive politics and the popular classes’ accompanying despair. Musical culture, however, is no longer the same: the skinheads in Fred Perry polos and Doc Martens have given way to a new generation, fans of The Cure, Culture Club and New Order, more beloved by institutions than ever -- to the point of composing England’s official anthem for the 1986 World Cup.
That being said, over the course of the series, Shane and company don’t become fervent optimists. Violence remains prevalent, no one has faith in the future, everyone seems extremely tense, and the most impoverished struggle for better living conditions. A far cry from Beverly Hills 90210 -- or, more recently, Riverdale -- and their well-off heroes, This Is England offers up a punk vision of adolescence, of time spent trying to channel your fury in badly lit alleyways. It’s the kind of adolescence one tries to drown in shitty bars where the regulars are legends and the drunks, poets.
Because we’re all our little brother’s worst nightmare (second only to our mother, that is): Malcolm in the Middle
Throughout the nine seasons of Linwood Boomer’s series, let’s face it, everything is a hot mess: dad Hal’s freakouts, mum Lois’ rage, the youngest brother’s caprices, Malcolm and Reese’s stitch-ups, and so on and so on… But Malcolm is also about Francis, a “stupid guy with incredible luck” who, more than any other character in the series, personifies the teenager in all his beauty, dreams and contradictions. He’s not simply a comic tool for the writers: he’s the ultimate rebel, one who seems condemned to face off with a dominating mother even more clever (and devious) than himself. It’s also worth noting that he’s the most politically aware teen on TV.
Take this statement, in which he considers how some professions destroy human beings: “Do you have any idea of the effect this kind of activity has on your brain? This destroys your soul, it turns your intelligence to porridge and it grinds your heart to dust.” Then there’s this reference to “flower power” in episode 9 of Season 2: “You don’t get it -- it all goes way beyond this plant. I’m fighting against tyranny, fascism and oppression. The day Spangler sees this flower, he’ll know he can’t break us. Not now, and not ever.”