“I just learned this and I’m obsessed with this fact,” Grown-ish star Emily Arlook — who plays no-B.S. bisexual sophomore Nomi Segal — says over the phone in a conspiratorial tone. “Sometimes when [the writers] are writing for us, they will go on [our] social media accounts to see how we write and what our voices are.” Then, the Freeform scribe in question will write exactly in that Twitter-friendly, Instagram-ready tone for the college-set Black-ish spin-off’s cast.
Up in Vancouver, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina star Tati Gabrielle reveals her Netflix show’s creator, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is similarly open to his young cast’s input, often in a far more personal way. “If at any point we feel like something feels weird or uncomfortable, or [we] say ‘This doesn’t feel right,’ he’s so open to having a conversation about it,” Gabrielle, who brings to life witch-y cool girl Prudence Night, explains. At the end of that chat, the performer either understands how the words in their script ended up on the page, or Aguirre-Sacasa makes “a change happen.”
Little by little, the days of on-screen young adults mindlessly parroting their adult creator’s lines (see: the verbose speechifying of Dawson's Creek and 30-something adults with thinning hairlines populating Beverly Hills, 90210 as “youths”) have ended. So, as real-life teens like R29’s Z-List vanguards are changing the world forever, television has started reflecting the way their lives actually look and feel. That is how teen TV conquered television — especially Netflix — at last, and it isn’t letting up anytime soon.
The tipping point for young adult television came in spring 2017, when the CW’s Aguirre-Sacasa-created Riverdale and Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why premiered. The shows’ respective leading men were just 19 and 20 at the time; the cast around them was equally young and talented with their Twitter (and Instagram) fingers.
Each series connected with both adult and teen audiences — Riverdale through its hot soap operatics, 13 Reasons Why due to its tragic, headline-making drama — making them social media and streaming hits. That’s how Riverdale, which arrived on Netflix days after its freshman year finale on linear TV and whipped up a “cult” following over the subsequent summer, enjoyed “stunning” ratings when it returned to the CW for its season 2 premiere. That’s how 13 Reasons Why became 2017’s most tweeted about series… until Stranger Things 2, another Netflix series led by young people, took that title months later.
Not only did these shows confirm everyone would tune into young adult programming — a genre previously dismissed as B-list, smirk-worthy eye candy — they proved it was still possible for television to create water cooler moments. Even as linear TV sees industry-wide declines and teenage TV consumption split in half over just five years. You simply needed to hand the reins over the actual teens.
“What’s exciting about streaming shows is that the creators allow the internet and social media to be a part of its journey, so [young] audiences can be more active in what they are watching … it's totally their playground. Teenagers basically own the internet,” Jessica Barden, star of Netflix coming-of-age black comedy The End Of The F***ing World, told Refinery29 over email. “A lot of those shows, and ours, wouldn't have been as successful had the internet not helped them along.”
TEOTFW, an Emmy and BAFTA nominee, was gifted a surprise second season this past August.
Following Riverdale and 13 Reasons’ premiere season banner year, networks started doubling and tripling down on YA content. Netflix kicked off the first week of 2018 with Barden’s TEOTFW, a British acquisition, and Freeform premiered Grown-ish. In the spring, 13 Reasons Why debuted its originally unplanned second season, making it the most tweeted about streaming show of the year (and netting Katherine Langford a Best Actress Golden Globe nod). In the fall, the success of Riverdale, 2018’s tenth-most-tweeted about show, helped birth fellow Archie Comics universe series The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina onto Netflix. Throughout the year, that streaming service also gave us glimpses into the lives of international teens thanks to hormone-fuelled fare like spring’s The Rain, fall’s Elite, and winter’s Baby.
Now, in 2019, there’s practically a new teen show premiering every single week: on Tuesday it was Freeform’s Good Trouble, Friday gives us Netflix’s Sex Education, and next Wednesday will officially introduce Syfy’s Lana Condor-starring Deadly Class. In February, the teen-friendly Umbrella Academy will arrive on Netflix. The superhero drama is a series inspired by graphic novels from My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, a man who made guyliner, scene-y band leader fashion, and Hot Topic shirts cool for an entire generation of teens.
All of these casts are filled with young actors of all colours playing characters of different socioeconomic backgrounds, heritages that are actually spoken about, and sexual identities. Sabrina’s Tati Gabrielle, who brings to life a Black witch with a thing for sexually fluid orgies, has been on the frontlines of this transformative moment.
“I’m really happy the way [production chose] the entire cast. They did choose diversity and did choose to reflect the real world in that way,” Gabrielle, who joined the series through colourblind casting, says between filming of her supernatural series’ April-premiering part 2. “So that people all over the world and people of all colours can see a new future.”
Considering the hallways, parties, Shawshank Redemption-style juvie fight clubs, and group sex locales of YA TV right now, that bright new future might already be here.