To me, there have always been two types of teenagers: regular teens — brace-faced and nervous — and TV teens — charismatic, elegant, and always wearing heels. Characters that fit into the latter camp include Serena van der Woodsen, Brooke Davis, Spencer Hastings, Lydia Martin, Summer Roberts, Santana Lopez, and Veronica Lodge. Don’t get me wrong: Teens on TV were always flawed. They dabbled in cocaine, or they stayed out too late, or, in the case of Teen Wolf’s Lydia Martin (played by Holland Roden), they became banshees. It’s all a part of the TV fantasy — watching television is meant to be entertaining, so why not watch life through glamazoid glasses? TV is just different; in this elevated world, the apartments are a little bigger, and the people are a little more flawless. The better for HD lenses to pick up on their lack of pores.
Then, there’s Netflix. The streaming service is doing a lot for the current state of television. To start, we now watch shows in 6-hour binges instead of pert, one-hour periods once a week. And, since the streaming giant has increasingly pivoted towards producing its own content, it’s heralded something even cooler: a bridge in the reality gap for TV teens. Finally, offscreen adolescents can see themselves reflected in characters on their favorite shows.
The show Atypical, a Netflix original that begins streaming August 11, follows Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a high school senior on the autism spectrum. The teenagers surrounding him aren’t the average television high schoolers. His sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is a sophomore, and she doesn’t match the traditional high-school teen mold. She has a pageboy bob for starters. It’s all one length, and she parts it down the middle. She doesn’t wear visible makeup. She might, in fact, have a tiny bit of acne, makeup-created or otherwise. Casey is a track star and lives her life in a sweatshirt and jeans. She’s nearly a carbon copy of my best friend in high school, who wore the same green sweatshirt for two years. (She was also a track star. Perhaps it’s a trend.) It’s not that Lundy-Paine looks any different than the average actress; it’s that she’s not styled like she’s about to appear on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Casey’s friends reflect her level of formality, as does the rest of Atypical’s cast. Slightly awkward and not showing signs of having purchased a lip kit recently, her clique looks, by television standards, almost too young to be in high school. Maybe it’s because the characters are being played by actors close to their age, versus the Beverly Hills, 90210 and The O.C.’s of yore. Sam’s best friend Zahid, played by Nik Dodani, has the swagger of a television teen but the looks of an authentic one. He has a floppy, Bieberian haircut that most mothers would hate and lives his life in a polo.
The styling of the show also adds to this effect, with the clothes looking like they were inspired by a middle America high-school yearbook. All the characters are dressed down, which means that when a character does dress up — as with Jenna Boyd’s Paige, who has a blue streak in her hair and a love for clashing patterns — it's significant. Paige isn't glamorous per se — with all due respect to her flippy skirts and Converse — but she is styled. Her attire stands out as part of her character. For the same reason Casey's low-key look reinforces her low-key persona, Paige's fashion choices demonstrate an anxiety surrounding her looks and a love for detail.
Netflix’s Stranger Things reflected a similar aesthetic. Steve (Joe Keery) was ostensibly the coolest kid in school, but he looked nothing like the beefy jocks that rule the school in Riverdale. He’s scrappy, almost, a kid grasping at being an adult. (This combo of braggadocio and looks recalls Zahid from Atypical. It’s a thing — teen boys look awkward and act awesome.) Nancy (Natalia Dyer) could pass for a middle schooler, and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) has hair so unstyled, that it almost looked different from episode to episode.
The same goes for Netflix Original 13 Reasons Why, a show that teens and adults alike devoured in March of this year. The women in the show, unlike the women of Rosewood, rarely looked like they had their hair “done.” Did I spot flyaways in Jessica’s (Alisha Boe) hair? Or a one-length bob — a clunky wig, at my estimation — on Hannah (Katherine Langford)? The teens in the show weren’t walking the runway; they were just teens, grappling with the trauma of high school. (Honestly, it’s hard enough without having to curl your hair everyday, right?)
Unstyled teens are important for the same reason un-Photoshopped modeling photos or celebrities being open about their acne resonate with a large internet audience — they reflect the average pimply majority of teens. Rosewood and other network TV high schools present unrealistic expectations of teenagehood, which already comes with a hefty set of expectations.
Broad strokes in styling could also beget broad strokes in character and plot. Teens in the Netflix age are too self-aware to stand for this, though. The attention to detail being paid to the superficial appears to lead to more granular —and realistic — plot details.
In the latter half of Atypical, Casey, after considering a scholarship to a private school over her current public one, is “bullied” by her clique. Sharice (Christina Offley), a cherubic high schooler on the track team with Casey, participates in the activity, despite the fact that she’s Casey’s best friend. The track team steals Casey’s clothing as she tries on a slinky dress in preparation for homecoming. Just before doing the deed, though, Sharice leans in and whispers to her best friend, “I’m so sorry for this.” It’s a detailed portrait of portrait of teenage bullying. Instead of bully-victim broad strokes, the show presents the reality: a group of friends spasming because one is thinking about jumping ship. Sharice agrees to hurt Casey because she’s hurt that Casey wants to leave. But she knows she’s being hurtful, and the rest of the girls probably do, too.
Netflix has wised up to the fact that it’s the nuances, like Casey’s undyed hair or Nancy Wheeler’s nervous energy, that count. And it’s working: 13 Reasons Why broke Twitter records for a Netflix original — interest in the show surpassed 3 million tweets in the first week it was on Netflix. Maybe we don’t want to watch an elevated version of our lives — it’s the mirror version that resonates the most.
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