I've threatened to write about teen TV for years. Now (sorry not sorry) I'm doing it.
When I was 14, I became completely obsessed with the TV show “The O.C.” I was enamored with Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), the “adorkable” (6-foot, startlingly handsome 24-year old) teenage son of the wealthy Sandy and Kirsten Cohen, who adopt Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), from “the wrong side of the tracks.” The show follows Ryan’s relationship with the tortured rich girl Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Seth’s with the sassy Summer (Rachel Bilson), whose catchphrase is “like, ew.”
I don’t know what it was that got me so hooked on the show. Perhaps it was because, as an actually nerdy teenager in my cookie-cutter suburb, I wanted to live vicariously through the teens’ exploits, drunken parties and dramatic hookups. I had little romantic experience to speak of and didn’t get invited to parties, so Seth and Summer were about as close as I could get. (I also had a giant crush on Seth, who at the time I fancied my ideal man. This got me into a lot of trouble in college!) Or maybe it was the fact that I was forbidden to watch it after I watched the fateful first season Valentine’s Day episode with my parents, when Seth and Summer have sex for the first time and Seth acts like being a virgin at 16 is the most humiliating and abnormal thing that can possibly happen to a person. (Eventually, my parents relented, on the condition we discuss the episodes after they aired. And we wonder why I wasn’t cool!)
I had an “O.C.” poster on my wall and a countdown on the refrigerator between the first and second season, when its quality made a precipitous decline. Later, I found other shows to fill the void—“Friday Night Lights,” “Skins,” “Lost,” “Gilmore Girls,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Gossip Girl,” “Veronica Mars,” “Pretty Little Liars,”—and spent a lot of time on the Television Without Pity forums reading about them (RIP TVWoP).
In high school, I spent a lot of my free time writing. I wrote two books worth of “Lost” fan fiction under a pseudonym and another original novel that took significant influence from “Friday Night Lights.” The novel I wrote followed the plot of a teen television show. There was a popular football player brother and a dorky brother, who had a crush on a popular girl-next-door who later became a bad girl. These kinds of tired tropes repeat themselves across all manner of media. What I was writing in a lot of ways paralleled the experience I wish I’d had in high school—the messy, sexy stereotypes I’d seen on TV.
As I got a bit older, my interests shifted. Once I got to college, I fit in more and made more friends, which meant I mostly left my insular world of late-night binge writing behind. I bored of reading and writing about interpersonal drama and switched my creative writing classes for courses on Latin American history and literature, social movements, and international politics. Learning about the military coups in South America, aided and abetted by the U.S., indubitably changed the course of my studies and my career.
As my interests were changing, so was my generation. After two terms of the Bush era, on the heels of not just 9/11 but the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the bright light of Barack Obama’s election quickly turned to anger when the economy crashed and we watched big banks get bailed out over working people. No one could get jobs. Student debt was exploding. The military budget continued to swell, while healthcare got more expensive and worse, despite the advances made under Obamacare. Climate change continued unabated. The police killing of Mike Brown set the Black Lives Matter movement into motion. But with a few exceptions, television hadn’t quite caught up to the kinds of sentiments and frustrations held by millennials, the first downwardly mobile generation.
The 2016 election changed a lot of things, and this newsletter is not the place to discuss them in depth. But suffice it to say it also changed the terrain of television. This moment of fear, fury, and disillusion came about right as Gen Z-ers were becoming teenagers and coming of age, and an increasing number of television shows targeted towards them seemed to latch onto those feelings, even if subtly. At the same time, there was more pressure in Hollywood for gender and racial equity, and writers’ rooms began to respond. ABC Family rebranded itself as “Freeform,” whose motto is “a little bit forward.” It quickly slated spin-offs to shows like “Black-ish” and The Fosters”—shows that consistently grapple with class, political, and racial issues—while filing away ones like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a retrograde soap in which every girl who ever has sex gets pregnant.
I’m sure that the networks’ decisions to back shows like these were in part financial: for better or for worse, Donald Trump had made the #resistance profitable. Sometimes these efforts fall flat. (See, the “Gossip Girl” reboot.) But the slate of programming has often left me pleasantly surprised at how often my two main interests—social justice and television—intersect. There are so many shows today, like “Good Trouble,” “The Bold Type,” “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” “Euphoria,” “The Wilds,” “Dear White People,” and countless others, that embrace a broader cross-section of society, with diverse characters who learn important lessons, exposing young audiences to new issues. In moments, some of these shows have been accused of having after-school special vibes, but more often than not, they succeed in creating plot lines around things like police shootings, sexism in the tech world, and affirmative action that have important lessons and bring the drama. It may sound a bit cheesy but I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with friends about how much we wish that the kinds of shows that are on now had been on when we were teens. Maybe then instead of thinking I was a loser, I would have been thinking about pay equity and body acceptance.
For years, I’ve threatened to write about “woke” teen TV, but I haven’t been able to work up the courage until now. In this newsletter, I’ll not only be overanalyzing a bunch of TV shows I hope other people watch (My current favorite is “Good Trouble”), but also thinking about why some shows work and others don’t, the depth and shortcomings of these shows’ attempts to weave politics into their plots, how this shift came about (“Orange Is The New Black” was an absolutely critical moment for television, I argue.) Yet for all of the references to Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and getting out the vote, there are few occasions in these shows in which we see any broader critique of capitalism. I’ll be talking a lot about that too.
My hope is for this newsletter to come out every other week, and it will be 100% free. It’s more of a personal experiment than anything, a place for me to do something completely different than what I’ve done for most of my journalistic life. In addition to overanalyzing my favorite shows and their connections to progressive politics and current events, I’m hoping to also include interviews with some of the people involved in these shows and networks.
Lastly, though I do earnestly believe in the power of television to shift our culture, I don’t intend for this newsletter to be too serious. Mostly, I’m hoping to become more successful in my #1 favorite hobby of evangelizing television shows to friends and strangers, and have a platform to write about this stuff instead of clogging my friends’ iPhones with messages live-texting my reactions to shows they don’t watch.
Thanks so much for indulging me!
LOVE!! So excited to read