Photo: Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix; Sam Taylor/Netflix; Eddy Chen/HBO; Netflix
Does anyone do drama better than teens? The answer – at least from anyone at all familiar with the wonder that is teen TV – is no. Perhaps that’s why many of our favorite shows revolve around the high school set.
In that (impossibly posh prep school) spirit, we’ve put together a list of our favorite shows about, but not necessarily for, teens.
– “Dawson’s Creek” (1998)
Streaming on Hulu, this soapy drama is a great choice for those who just finished watching the platform’s take on “Little Fires Everywhere,” featuring a grown Joshua Jackson. Because to many of us, he will always be Pacey Witter, one of four teens – the others being James Van Der Beek’s Dawson Leery, Katie Holmes’ Joey Potter and Michelle Williams’ Jen Lindley – falling in and out of love in a coastal town. – S.R.
– “Degrassi: The Next Generation” (2001)
Streaming on Amazon Prime, “Degrassi” is much more than the teen drama that introduced us to Aubrey “Drake” Graham. The Canadian franchise has existed, in various iterations, since the late 1970s, with each version offering a timely and authentic window into the lives of adolescents. “The Next Generation” – which premiered in 2001 and ran for 14 seasons – upped the ante on the show’s no-holds-barred approach to topics including teen pregnancy, LGBTQ identity, school violence, sexual consent and mental health while shrewdly incorporating social media and Internet culture into “Degrassi’s” thoughtful plotlines. (Note: “Degrassi: Next Class,” the similarly excellent spinoff to “The Next Generation,” is available to stream on Netflix.) – B.B.
– “Elite” (2018)
Streaming on Netflix, this Spanish thriller revolves around the intensely competitive students at an exclusive prep school. The series combines typical teenage drama with murder, blackmail and revenge, creating a potent (and addictive) cocktail. Also, everyone looks like a model. – B.B.
– “Euphoria” (2019)
Streaming on HBO Now, this provocative, Drake-produced series helped Zendaya graduate seamlessly – and definitively – from Disney star to arresting drama lead. Creator Sam Levinson channeled his own experience with adolescent addiction for the series, which was adapted from an Israeli series of the same name. “Euphoria,” which has been renewed for a second season, earned both praise and criticism for its raw depiction of teen sex and drug use, explored through a decidedly Gen Z lens (and lots of eye glitter). But the show’s bold choices largely paid off, and were elevated by standout acting and an entrancing score from British singer Labrinth. – B.B.
– “Friday Night Lights” (2006)
Streaming on Hulu, this NBC series about a Texas high school football team appeals to all kinds of viewers, regardless of whether they enjoy the sport itself. Sports dramas tend to be more concerned with the bonding involved, and it’s hard not to love watching Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) point troubled teens in the right direction. If you need further convincing, recall what comedian Jenny Slate said about football players: “They love to be best friends, and that’s why they wear the same outfit. And get together on a strict schedule to put on the same outfit and go rush after the toy. Oh my goodness, how darling.” – S.R.
– “Gossip Girl” (2007)
Streaming on Netflix, this CW series has re-emerged during quarantine as a worms-for-brains meme featuring prep school socialites Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester). The show itself is a top-tier source of rich people’s petty drama, and everyone’s questionable fashion choices – plus the impeccable music choices – will transport you to the late aughts. Regression has been a theme of pop culture consumption lately, so why not revisit this era? – S.R.
– “Never Have I Ever” (2020)
Streaming on Netflix, Mindy Kaling’s latest comedy series – co-created by Lang Fisher – follows Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an Indian American teenager navigating friendships and romances while dealing with the grief of losing her father. The show is especially notable for its diverse depictions of teendom and authentic portrayal of Devi’s relationship with her immigrant mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan). – S.R.
– “The O.C.” (2003)
Streaming later this month on HBO Max, this series tells the classic story of a troubled outsider struggling to fit in – specifically, high schooler Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), who moves to Newport Beach after he is taken in by his public defender, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher). The show, an essential teen drama, continues to pop up in conversations to this day, whether due to the “Saturday Night Live” parody, the depth of American teens’ crushes on Sandy’s son, Seth (Adam Brody), or the timeless indie rock soundtrack (selected by music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, who also worked on “Gossip Girl”). – S.R.
– “Pretty Little Liars” (2010)
Streaming later this month on HBO Max, this teen thriller follows a group of friends who find themselves tormented by an elusive enemy known as “A.” Adapted from Sara Shepard’s best-selling series, “Pretty Little Liars” quickly gained a following on Freeform with its intriguing mystery, angsty pop soundtrack and showstopping, occasionally wildly inappropriate, fashion. In full disclosure, the show goes off the rails in its third season and there’s been a fair amount of debate over whether the series finale even makes sense. But it’s a fun ride (and that’s no lie). – B.B.
– “Sex Education” (2019)
Streaming on Netflix, this frank British comedy explores the awkwardness, novelty and yes, romance, of teen sex. The show follows Otis (Asa Butterfield) – the 16-year-old son of a prominent sex therapist played by Gillian Anderson – who grudgingly agrees to set up his own impromptu therapy practice at his high school. The show surely isn’t for the prude, but it’s not tawdry either: In his review of the show’s first season, Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever wrote that “there’s an artfulness to the material and a genuine care on display here, too – a message that we are not just about the size and shape and inventive uses of our private parts.” – B.B.
– “Skins” (2007)
Streaming on Netflix, this cheeky British teen drama goes a step further than its American counterparts and earned much acclaim for its exploration of “controversial” topics like teen pregnancy, substance abuse and mental illness. The first couple of seasons – after which the cast changes – are the strongest in both storytelling and tone, and boosted the careers of several notable young actors including Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, Joe Dempsie and Kaya Scodelario. – S.R.
– “Switched at Birth” (2011)
Streaming on Freeform or Hulu + Live TV, this Peabody Award-winning series follows the converging lives of Daphne (Katie Leclerc) and Bay (Vanessa Marano), two teenage girls who discover they were switched at birth due to a hospital error. The shocking revelation has implications that ripple through their respective families: Bay’s wealthy parents and Daphne’s single mother – underscoring the very different lives the girls have lived. The five-season series, frequently praised for its thoughtful depiction of deaf culture (Daphne and several other characters are deaf), was equally compelling in exploring the daily lives of its characters. – B.B.