The Top 10 Teen TV Shows Of All Time
Degrassi doesn't even make the cut.
The tropes of teen television are so familiar that they’d make a very reliable drinking game. You’ve got the misunderstood outsider (check), the catastrophic school dance (check), the side-eye glances in the corridor (check) and the forbidden love triangles that always end in disaster (check check check).
This makes it seem like teen television is a tired and predictable genre, but it’s not. The reason why people fondly remember the TV from their youth is because it can offer a sparkly escapism from your boring, less-than-glamorous adolescence. Sometimes certain shows seem indistinguishable from your own teenage Salad Days. The best ones endure because they’re the perfect cocktail for great melodrama. I mean, it shouldn’t be a surprise that stories about people making adult decisions without the wisdom of adulthood is captivating viewing. (Also: great clothes.)
For your reading pleasure/extreme displeasure, here is a list of the top ten teen TV shows, ranked according to how they contribute to the teen TV canon.
10. Beverly Hills: 90210 (1990-2000)
Premise: Twins Brenda and Brandon move from Minnesota to California (cut to a lot of scenes of them saying, “Woah! We are a long way from Minnesota!”) where they attend the glamorous West Beverly Hills High School. There, they meet the spoiled Kelly, jock Steve, bad boy Dylan, nerdy Andrea and a bunch of other people who are of no real consequence (sorry, Donna). Throughout the show’s very, very long run, the gang mixed and matched romantic pairings multiple times and each took turns having a raging drug habit. Aside from Degrassi, 90210 was one of the first teen dramas actually made with a teen audience in mind (but no one looked like an actual teenager).
MVP: Brenda Walsh. 90210 was all based on the outsider gaining access to a fast-paced, glittering life that they never felt quite comfortable in (this is true of almost all the shows on this list) and while Brandon Walsh was like a deer in headlights until the bitter end of the show, Brenda wholeheartedly embraced her new life, and provided most of the drama. And again: cool clothes.
Teen TV canon moment: 90210 was very big on end-of-the-episode moral lessons, which was very typical for early ’90s TV aimed at young people. You can see its influence in teen shows that have come since (especially the ‘will they or won’t they?’ set-up of Brenda and Dylan sleeping together on prom night) but the go-to moment has to be when Brenda finds out that her best friend Kelly and boyfriend Dylan had a fling while she was in Paris. Brutal.
9. Gossip Girl (2007-2012)
Premise: Gossip Girl is an anonymous blogger who spills the secrets of an elite group of It Kids who go to private schools in New York’s Upper East Side. This includes Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, Chuck Bass, Nate Archibald and the poor ‘outsider’ kids: Dan and Jenny Humphrey. They all fall in love, become embroiled in sex scandals and have very lavish parties. Gossip Girl was probably the first teen TV show to properly deal with the advent of social media and the impact this has in dictating young people’s lives (it also kind of glamourised cyberbullying, but that’s a different story).
MVP: Blair Waldorf. Blair was the culmination of every Melrose Place-esque vengeful, bitchy character, but she was also completely driven my ambition and academic excellence. She was often jealous of her pal Serena (just like the audience) who never really had to work that hard for anything. She wore a lot of headbands and had some great one-liners.
Teen TV canon moment: Gossip Girl was well known for its outrageous “omg” moments, in fact its marketing campaign was entirely based around them. The love triangles (Chuck/Blair/Nate, Nate/Blair/Serena, Nate/Serena/Dan, Dan/Serena/Vanessa) were always saucy, but the conclusion of the first season made it clear that this wasn’t your mumma’s favourite teen TV show. The conflict? Oh, just the fact that Serena killed someone and was being blackmailed for it.
8. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Premise: Buffy Summers moves to Sunnydale after being expelled from her last high school on account of burning down the gym. This is because secretly Buffy is a slayer; the “Chosen One” who has the ability to fight demons and other forces of darkness. Buffy and her classmates Willow, Xander, Cordelia (sometimes) and Oz fight various baddies with the guidance of her Watcher/the school librarian, Giles. Sunnydale High is built on the Hellmouth, so for these teens, high school is very literally hell on earth.
MVP: Willow Rosenberg. Willow begins as Buffy’s nerdy best friend, who pines for Xander and doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention. However as the show progresses, she emerges from the sidelines to play out the power fantasy of the teen witch and is afforded supernatural autonomy. After high school she begins a relationship with fellow Wiccan Tara, one of the first lesbian relationships ever depicted on American TV.
Teen TV canon moment: Although Buffy‘s supernatural element makes it hard to place genre-wise, it embraced teen TV tropes wholeheartedly and provided not-so-subtle demonic metaphors for adolescence (at Buffy’s graduation, the students literally blow up the school to destroy the mayor who has turned into a snake monster). But the canon moment has to be Buffy deciding to sleep with her vampire boyfriend Angel, which results in him losing his soul and turning evil (a plot point that kind of works even without Angel being an 18th century vampire).
7. Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)
Premise: Although the show only spends three seasons in high school, adolescence is a huge theme in Gilmore Girls — particularly as Lorelai Gilmore’s teenage pregnancy is the defining event for everything that happens in the series. Rory lives in a small town, Stars Hollow, and attends an elite prep school called Chilton where she has to deal with academic rivals like Paris and borderline sexual harassers like Tristan. Rory was kind of a trailblazing character in teen TV: she cared deeply about school, wasn’t interested in socialising (not in a Daria way, she just had her best friend Lane in Stars Hollow and didn’t need anyone else) and gave hope to girls who were likewise content reading a depressing Russian book and listening to The Shins on their lunch break.
MVP: Lane Kim. Despite being a bit of a music snob (or because of it?) Lane is the MVP because she seems to transcend the one-dimensional ‘best friend’ caricature. She’s much cooler than Rory, calls her up on her shit and has some pretty exciting romantic storylines all on her own (helloooo, Seth Cohen!). Plus Lane was a drummer AND a cheerleader, defying the social cliches traditional in much of teen media.
Teen TV canon moment: While Rory and Paris’ continued power struggle at Chilton provided some nice relief from boys being the only point of tension among female characters on teen TV, the most schmaltzy moment had to be when Rory’s long-term boyfriend Dean broke up with her at the Stars Hollow 24-Hour Dance Marathon. This set into motion her torrid relationship with bad boy Jess (who was the best of her boyfriends in the series, fight me).
6. Skins (2007-2013)
Premise: A gritty teen drama that took a less sanitised look at drugs, sex, religion, mental illness and dysfunctional relationships, Skins was also remarkable for refreshing its cast three times (the first two generations were better than the last, but that’s still pretty good odds). Plus, these kids were actually teenagers! The first cast was led by arrogant Tony, his burn-out best friend Sid and Tony’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Michelle. The excessive drinking and drug-taking on the show apparently inspired “Skins parties” in England, which sound both exciting and disgusting.
MVP: Sid Jenkins. Even though Sid was a bit gross and never took off his beanie (was he kind of cute? Kind of?) his underdog story was the most relatable because he never really ‘won’; which is probably as realistic as it gets on teen TV. He always wanted girls who weren’t interested in him, was rarely interested in the ones who gave him attention, and had to deal with people comparing him unfavourably to Tony all the time. But, even now, he’s probably still the most popular character from the show.
Teen TV canon moment: When Sid gets together with Michelle, who he has been in love with for the whole series, and gets caught by his recently-dumped girlfriend Cassie, who has just returned from Scotland to make up with him. Cassie then tells everyone, including Sid’s best friend and Michelle’s ex-boyfriend, Tony. Phew!