There’s a scene in the first episode of the new series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series where the drama teacher, Miss Jen, quips, “When I heard that the high school where High School Musical was shot had never staged a production of High School Musical: The Musical, I was shocked as an actress, inspired as a director, and triggered as a millennial.” Her students roll their eyes at this line and one mouths “millennial” out of faux shock and playful derision. I felt personally attacked.
As a millennial who loved High School Musical DEEP even though I was maybe a couple years outside of the target demo (I was 18 and a senior in high school when it premiered), I too was triggered by the above line. I am now the age of the teacher in the 2019 iteration, not the students. Shudder. Watching Disney+’s wild and somewhat convoluted meta reboot of the franchise — which tells the story of the “real” students of a fictional East High (where the OG HSM was set), who stage a production of the movie musical filmed at their school — I realized that for a full decade, I’ve technically been too old to be consuming teen content.
I’ve done it anyway. No shame. If television starring twentysomethings masquerading as teenagers could be compressed into an inhalable substance, I would snort it like Serena van der Woodsen on a bender at boarding school. And I’m not alone. This decade, we saw adults slowly start to admit — willingly and gleefully without guilt — that teen television is our whole shit. It’s no longer uncool to be a grown-ass woman loves the drugs, sex(ish), and hormonal angst of high school. In the era of prestige TV, many of these shows (like Riverdale, Elite, and Euphoria) are being consumed, respected, and dissected right alongside adult content. (In 2017, The National Post declared Gossip Girl as “one of the greatest shows of all time,” citing it as “right up there with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire.”) Critics and viewers alike have woken up to the fact that some of the most progressive and boundary-pushing storytelling happens when told through the perspective of high-school kids — especially when the characters are complex and fully-formed young women like Blair Waldorf, Spencer Hastings, Brooke Davis, Rue Bennett, I could go on. (So much of the lauded prestige TV of the past focused on middle-aged white men: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, 24, The Sopranos.)
If television starring twentysomethings masquerading as teenagers could be compressed into an inhalable substance, I would snort it like Serena van der Woodsen on a bender at boarding school.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series comes on the heels of a teen TV renaissance with an onslaught of shows set in high school dominating networks and streaming services. Riverdale, which the New York Times compared to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, has continued the theme of beautiful young people solving inexplicable murders where Pretty Little Liars left off, and HBO’s Euphoria and Netflix’s Spanish series Elite make the risqué storylines of Gossip Girl look as tame as High School Musical. There’s also On My Block, Sex Education, 13 Reasons Why, The Society, Trinkets, and the latest critical darling, USA Network’s Dare Me, and Mindy Kaling’s upcoming, buzzy teen comedy series Never Have I Ever, just to name a few. Almost every major entertainment outlet has started regularly posting about “The Best Teen Shows” on television. Here at Refinery29, we’ve been writing about teen shows and recapping teen TV for years.
So what is it about fictional teendom that has us as engrossed as a 16-year-old on TikTok — and willing to admit it? Personally, my fascination with teen TV is part nostalgia for the high emotional stakes of teendom and part wanting to live vicariously through fictional teens doing all the things I never did in high school like make out (my first real kiss came at 19) or have sex (didn’t do that until 21) or have a teen TV kind of best friend (see Serena/Blair, Brooke/Peyton, Hannah/Emily/Spencer/Aya — you know, a ride-or-die, friends-since-birth, hate-but-love kind of best friend). Reliving our youth through television is normal. Everyone comes of age, so the content is relatable. Not everyone has had to help their best friend hide a murder weapon or lie to the police about the whereabouts of a dead body or found out they have a secret evil twin (yes these are all real plot lines from Pretty Little Liars) but the over-the-top FEELINGS are what we can cling to. Plus, the glossy and aspirational fairytale of teens without homework or proper supervision is just fun escapism and every adult can use some of that. A few years ago, InStyle’s editorial team weighed in on teen TV in a post called “Why Are Adults Obsessed with Teen TV Dramas, According to Psychology” and proved that “our brains are wired for stories above most other forms of information.” And the storytelling that teen TV does the best (cliffhangers, chaotic romance) is the addictive kind. See, it’s science. Plus, in a time when the news cycle is as soul-sucking as a Chuck Bass monologue, the lure of fantastical teen hijinks is even more appealing. Speaking of Chuck Bass, the archetype of a conflicted anti-hero white dude is never the focus in current teen TV and that’s refreshing. Maybe we’re just sick of seeing the same old heroes or in the past decade, we’ve had enough of predatory men masquerading as the good guys.
Gossip Girl belonged to an era of teen TV that paved the way for today’s more progressive content. In 2010, I was 22. Fresh out of university and entering the real world and workforce for the first time. I was working as a production assistant at a TV station that started airing Pretty Little Liars in the same year (it lasted seven seasons and wrapped in 2017). Gossip Girl (’07 – ’12) and One Tree Hill (’03 – ’12) were in full swing. Ratings juggernaut Glee was in its first season (its finale aired in 2015). The Vampire Diaries (’09 – ’17) had capitalized on the success of Twilight (and the inherent horniness of vampires) and the love triangle of Damon, Elena, and Stefan became fodder for weekly content on the show I worked on. I obsessed over every single one of these shows, and even though they all had glaring blind spots when it came to race (every Black character in the shows I just mentioned were either thankless sidekicks or unmemorable love interests), I clung to them for their attempts at social commentary through the lens of young women coming of age.
Around this time, critics started taking notice, too. Vulture started running its now legendary “Reality Index” Gossip Girl recaps (written by Jessica Pressler of Hustlers fame and Chris Rovzar) which covered the show with snark and sincere devotion. Acclaimed writer Rembert Browne recapped Pretty Little Liars for the now-defunct Bill Simmons’ brainchild Grantland, a site which featured some of the best writing of the decade. Teen shows weren’t just guilty pleasures you whispered about to your best friends — they were now pieces of appreciated content you read about in your grown-up publications.
Today’s critics are the millennials who grew up on Degrassi, Dawson’s Creek, and The O.C. We have no shame in treating teen narratives like they are just as important as adult ones because we saw Degrassi handle abortion with more depth than any other show at the time, we saw Jack McPhee’s coming out story handled with care and authenticity on Dawson’s Creek (which is hailed as the first passionate gay kiss on primetime TV) and we watched Marissa Cooper and bisexual-queen-before-her-time Alex Kelly (played by a young Olivia Wilde) fall in love organically (albeit not perfectly) right alongside The O.C.’s straight relationships.
It’s not just about youthful wistfulness. Teen content has, in recent years, been at the forefront of depicting social issues and real-life problems on television, so it’s no surprise that we’re entering a new decade with a plethora of teen shows that are doing just that. And they’re finally starting to (slowly) fix their diversity problems. There’s Trinkets, about a trio of teen girls in a Shoplifter’s Anonymous group, which is quietly handling domestic violence, mental health, and sexual identity in a really beautiful way. There’s The Society, a show where the young women are running shit — literary, they take over their town when their parents mysteriously vanish. There’s On My Block, a lighthearted yet grounded comedy about Latinx kids living in a low-income neighborhood. Sex Education is the smartest and most progressive show about sex on television. 13 Reasons Why is divisive but it’s also sparking some much-needed conversations about teens and suicide. And, of course, Euphoria is already one of the best shows of the decade after one season and features a richly complicated trans character actually played by a trans actress.
Teen TV can tell us where our values lay as adults and since these shows aren’t actually made by teens or starring them, they are more about grown ass people reflecting on their own adolescence anyway (Euphoria creator Sam Levinson has said Zendaya’s Rue is based on his teenage self). I may be the age of the teacher in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (seriously, a chill runs down my spine every time I type that), but I’m not going to stop identifying with the teen leads or crushing on 2019’s version of Zac Efron (he’s 18, I swear). I’m just happy that social media (where we share our innermost thoughts and preferences) and the Internet’s communal rebuke of adulting has made it so that there is no more shame in this shared love.