Apr 10th, 2024, 10:00 AM

They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

By Mary Brooks Bruner
Image Credit: Mary Brooks Bruner
Is the golden age of teen-dramas truly gone?

Is the TV industry out of ideas? Or is everyone just creatively lazy now, recycling tired tropes and storylines? The chokehold that the classic, witty, drama-filled, coming-of-age TV shows had on society in the early 2000s was nothing short of exceptional. From the halls of One Tree Hill to the scandalous world of 90210, these shows not only entertained but defined a generation. They captured the essence of American teenage angst, love, friendship, and rebellion in ways that resonated deeply with audiences worldwide.

Fast forward to today, and it seems like the well of originality has run dry. The era of iconic teen dramas was characterized by innovation and risk-taking, but now it seems like most studios are playing it safe, unwilling to take chances on new concepts. Where are the modern equivalents of The O.C. or Gossip Girl? And I don't mean just lazy reboots. The landscape of teen drama television appears barren, devoid of the gripping narratives and compelling characters that once dominated primetime slots on network TV.

Author's note: For argument's sake, we're focusing specifically on American teen dramas taking place in the present day, that revolve around the kids being in high school, leading somewhat "normal" (this term is used very loosely) lives. Therefore, shows like Stranger Things or The 100 and similar shows will not be included because the plots, while based around the kids' ages, do not actually revolve around them being in high school. However, shows encompassing other unrealistic elements like vampires, werewolves, murderous stalkers, and show choirs will, in fact, be included.
Gossip Girl, Season 1, Episode 1, Opening scene. Arguably one of the most iconic intro-scenes to a show, ever. This scene is ingrained in the brains of an entire generation. The shots? The voiceover? "Young Folks" playing in the background? Perfection, if you ask me.

While streaming services have provided unprecedented opportunities for creators and viewers alike, their impact on the industry's ability to produce more quality TV shows is mixed. Though they bestow outlets for creative expression, they also put pressure on production budgets. With the need to produce a constant stream of content to satisfy subscribers, streaming services often face financial constraints that can impact the quality of TV shows. This has led to a proliferation of lower-budget productions, as well as Hollywood's unwillingness to pay their writers (as seen in the five-month-long Writer's Strike in 2023) and a reliance on quantity over quality in many cases. If we learned anything from the WGA (Writer's Guild of America) strike, which is reminiscent of the similar 2007-2008 WGA strike, it's that quality matters over quantity. During the strike, many scripted television shows, including All American and Euphoria, were forced into hiatus and/or had shortened seasons because of the lack of new scripts. Similarly, back during the '07-'08 strike, shows like Gossip Girl, iCarly, One Tree Hill, and Supernatural all faced shortened seasons due to the strike. This just further proved the dependency of television networks on quality writing to maintain viewer interest and loyalty. Some networks have turned to alternative programming formats such as reality TV, game shows, news programs, or even AI-written scripts. While these formats can be popular and cost-effective, they also highlight the value of scripted content and the creativity that writers bring to storytelling.

I've always wondered why it's so common for people to go back and watch their favorite shows from the early 2000s. Is it because of the nostalgia we feel for when the show was first airing or when we were first watching it? Is it because we take comfort in knowing how the story will play out; there isn't anything to surprise or stress us over? Maybe. Or it could be tied to the fact that most shows at the time had longer seasons, usually 22 episodes per season, which allowed for much more sweet and simple moments in scenes. Now, seasons of shows are shorter, usually 10 to 13 episodes per season, so plots are often more rushed, and episodes are jam-packed with different storylines.

Audience preferences have evolved. With the rise of streaming platforms and a plethora of entertainment options at their fingertips, today's viewers have become more discerning. We can watch (or re-watch) all of the classic teen dramas anytime we want. Yet we still crave authenticity and relatability in new ways, traits that many modern teen drama shows struggle to deliver. Furthermore, the industry's failure to connect with Gen Z, the very demographic these shows target, has contributed to their downfall. The teenage experience has evolved due to things like social media, and yet many teen dramas seem stuck in the past, unable to reflect the realities of contemporary youth culture.

Maybe it has something to do with everyone pretending for years that it made sense to have actors in their 30s playing high schoolers; it’s somewhat easier to follow along with and believe in the fictional storylines if they’re so distant from the truth in that way. In fact, many of the 2000s shows often acknowledged their unrealistic aspects, using humor and self-awareness to entertain the audience. They weren’t trying to tell you about your high school experience; they were trying to entertain you with a fake one. In perhaps one of the most stupidly dramatic yet hilarious shows to date, Glee, the characters constantly poked fun at themselves on screen. Everything was a joke; they hardly took themselves seriously, and, in turn, we got great TV out of it. But, there’s been a shift in dynamic; most high schoolers are now played by actors at or around the same age, and they all tend to take themselves much more seriously. While this does have the tendency to make shows somewhat more realistic, it somehow also makes them less relatable. 

Streaming platforms tend to rely more heavily on formulaic approaches and recycled storylines when it comes to shows in the teen drama genre. Recently, shows like The Summer I Turned Pretty and My Life with the Walter Boys have blown up because of their messy love triangles involving a girl and two brothers. However, many argue that the trope is overdone and lazy as it was already made famous by shows like One Tree Hill and, even more notoriously, perhaps the most infamous sibling love triangle, The Vampire Diaries. You know what they say: lightning doesn't strike twice, let alone four times? Then, there's the 30-something, single mother who had a baby in high school and is trying to navigate parenting her annoying teenage daughter; first seen in Gilmore Girls and chewed up and spit back out in the form of Ginny and Georgia.


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It's worth noting that these claims could also be made for other categories of Television: Sitcoms (Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Office, Modern Family, etc.), Disney and Nickelodeon (Victorious, Zoey 101, Lizzie McGuire, Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, etc.), Dramas (How to Get Away With Murder, Breaking Bad, OG Grey's Anatomy, OG Criminal Minds, etc.), are all classics of their respective genres. These categories are still mostly dominated by their forerunners and show little to no hope of being revived anytime soon (especially Sitcoms and Disney/Nickelodeon shows). Particularly, shows of the past were notoriously full of more satire and dark humor, often riddled with dirty jokes and innuendos that evidently wouldn't fly these days (see shows like The Office or Glee)

Despite these challenges, there remains a small glimmer of hope. A few recent attempts to revive the teen drama genre have shown promise, albeit with mixed results. While somehow managing to produce even more dramatic storylines than their predecessors, shows like Euphoria and Outer Banks have been able to tell their stories in original and captivating ways. While these shows don't have nearly the same style or tone as past teen dramas, they have found new ways to encapsulate the feelings of the teenage experience, giving "us a taste of the teenage freedom we've never truly known." But which of these shows, if any, will be referred to as the cult classics of the 2020s? Only time will tell.

Authors Note: The Classic Shows I had in mind while writing this include One Tree Hill, Glee, The O.C., Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, The Vampire Diaries, 90210, Dawson's Creek, Teen Wolf, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, H20, etc..