The Top 10 Teen TV Shows Of All Time
Degrassi doesn't even make the cut.
5. Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003)
Premise: Dawson is a fairly self-absorbed teenager who makes home movies and sits around talking about his feelings with his wise-cracking best friend Pacey, his childhood pal/soul mate Joey and his worldly once-girlfriend Jen. This show was pivotal not only because it was a pop culture phenomenon (Joshua Jackson and Katie Holmes in particular dominated teen films in the late ’90s) but because it didn’t trivialise teenagers or their problems. It was also one of the first teen TV shows with a successful tie-in soundtrack.
MVP: Pacey Witter. He was the most quotable character on a show full of very verbose speeches and was pretty much the only one who you would want to hang out with IRL. Through his relationship with Joey, Pacey became one of the most popular teen TV crushes of the decade.
Teen TV canon moment: Although it kind of happened by accident, the pairing of Joey and Pacey revived the show and continued to have ramifications until its very last episode. Joey being pulled between between Pacey and Dawson remains one of the best teen TV love triangles of all time.
4. My So-Called Life (1994-1995)
Premise: Angela Chase is a melancholy 15-year-old who is struggling to forge a new identity. She becomes friends with rebel girl Rayanne Graff and her sidekick Rickie Vasquez, who expose her to a different and more rebellious scene. Angela’s old friends Sharon and Brian hate this change in her but she doesn’t care because all she can think about is kissing Jordan Catalano (like, same). My So-Called Life wasn’t ashamed of its own relentless emo-ness which is key, because it means that it wasn’t too embarrassed to let its characters wallow (flopping on a bed and listen to The Cranberries really loud, contemplating killing their own mother at the dinner table, et al.). This may seem trite to grown-ups, but to moody teenagers it’s more relatable than anything that ever happened on Saved By The Bell.
MVP: Rayanne Graff. Rayanne was the wild and cool girl that everyone wants to be in high school; she’s fearless but also generous and this is the basis of her and Angela’s obsessive friendship. There aren’t many TV shows that are able to capture the intensity of these kinds of teen relationships, but My So-Called Life depicted this platonic romance perfectly.
Teen TV canon moment: My So-Called Life only ran for one season, but there literally isn’t a bad episode in the bunch. One of the most heartbreaking and poignant moments came in the ‘Life of Brian’ episode, in which Rickie thinks that a boy named Cory had been flirting with him, only to find out that he really wanted Rayanne. Brian, who is perpetually in love with an unaware Angela, breaks a date with Delia in the hopes that Angela will ask him to the dance. Everyone is alone and miserable, and then Rickie asks Delia to dance, ARGH, MY HEART.
3. Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
Premise: Another show that was gone too soon (or just soon enough to make it iconic?) Freaks and Geeks was the brainchild of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig and was responsible for launching the careers of Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley. At the time it was under-appreciated enough that it was cancelled, but now it’s seen as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. At a time when Dawson’s Creek was still the most popular teen show on TV, Freaks and Geeks took a less glamorous look at adolescence focusing on the humiliation and injustice inherent to life in high school. None of the characters (even the rebellious ‘freaks’) felt comfortable in their own skin, and that was the point.
MVP: Sam Weir. Sam is almost a cartoon character of an early high school student; constantly gobsmacked and alarmed by everything around him, resentful of his classmates who have a head start on puberty and desperately, hopelessly wishing to someday be cool. Sam’s high school experience is almost too real.
Teen TV canon moment: Fearful that his sister Lindsay might die from alcohol poisoning, Sam switches the keg at her party to one of non-alcoholic beer (note: Sam is too earnest to play tricks on anyone, he genuinely thinks that she might die). All the teenagers think they are drunk anyway and start crying/feeling each other up. The best inversion of the teen movie party scene ever.
2. Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
Premise: Eric Taylor has just started coaching the Dillon Panthers — one of the most successful high school football teams in Texas. After tragedy strikes, Coach Taylor has to figure out how to rebuild the team (which is made up of clashing personalities like brooding/drunk Tim Riggins, loudmouth Smash Williams and constantly petrified Matt Saracen) and deal with the expectations of the football-crazy small town. One of the remarkable things about Friday Night Lights was that it didn’t suffer from the dreaded ‘college curse’ like other shows. When the first lot of high school kids graduated, they just moved on to a new crop of teenagers who were just as good as the first. It helped that the second cast was led by a baby-faced Michael B. Jordan.
MVP: Tami Taylor. The ultimate teen TV mum, Tami was the kind of character who makes you care about the parent’s storyline as much as the kids. She is the only one who can put Coach Taylor in his place and seeing her try to care for her often bratty daughter, Julie, is kind of heartbreaking. She will make you feel bad for the way you talk to your mum.
Teen TV canon moment: Even though Friday Night Lights was definitely a teen show, it didn’t look like it. One of the reasons it’s still considered prestige television is because each episode looked and felt like a mini-movie. Its focus on the parents and the minutia of small town life was great, but it was the reluctant quarterback Matt Saracen who was the real heart of the show. Matt’s dad was in Iraq which made him the sole custody of his dementia-affected grandmother. Coupled with the pressure of the team, Matt was a ticking time bomb of anxiety ready to explode. After Julie Taylor dumps him and Coach Taylor leaves the team, Matt finally starts to show the cracks.
1. The O.C. (2003-2007)
Premise: It seems almost redundant to explain what this show is about, because y’all know. For the kids: Ryan is a poor kid from the rough neighbourhood of Chino who somehow ends up living with the wealthy Cohen family in Orange County. There, he makes friends with emo-geek Seth, falls in love with the troubled It Girl Marissa, gets beat up by her jock boyfriend Luke, and doesn’t really have much to do with ditzy Summer.
The first season of The O.C. was some of the most exciting teen television ever written (shout out, Josh Schwartz!). It was funny (like, properly funny) and its characters made the same pop culture references that real teenagers made and actually listened to music that real teenagers listened to (except Rooney, obviously). It was self aware, but still knew that glamorous escapism is one of the best things about the genre. The O.C.‘s first season crammed so much melodrama into its 27 (!!) episodes, that the rest of the series was never as good in comparison. However it continued to be sharp, quotable (“Yogalates!”) and warm until the end, capturing the mid-200os zeitgeist in the most perfect way — with a cameo from Paris Hilton to boot. It also took the piss out of itself constantly (The Valley, anyone?). It was the smart, quippy show that teenagers had been waiting for.
MVP: Seth Cohen. This character became so ubiquitous that you may remember him as more annoying than he actually was (unless you had a crush on him, then you probably remember him very fondly). Seth was kind of a rarity on TV back then: the funny, awkward loner kid who really thought he was cooler than everybody, but didn’t have any actual friends to confirm that fact. Really, he was a skateboarding dreamboat (who had some entitlement issues, but we won’t get into that now). This character came at a perfect time (did he kickstart the commercialisation of the hipster?) and to be honest, hearing someone identify as an emo on TV was about as relevant as TV got in 2003.
Teen TV canon moment: It may not be as critically acclaimed as some of the shows on this list, but for anyone who was a teenager in the 2000s, The O.C. is iconic. It took every teen TV trope (the outsider, the beauty queen, the quirky offsider), looked at it under a magnifying glass and then turned it on its head. What if the rebellious outsider turned out to be the smartest kid in school? What if the beauty queen was a disastrous alcoholic? What if the nerdy best friend was in a love triangle with two of the most beautiful and coolest girls in the school? One of the earliest moments, Ryan saving Marissa from a drug overdose in Tijuana, set the tone for the rest of the series and for every teen TV show that has come since.