People love to joke about keeping up with the youths, but for television creators, that can be a real concern, particularly when their show features characters of a certain age. For the writers behind teen television shows, it isn’t always as simple as creating an interesting love triangle or capturing the magic of the seminal moments that make up so many people’s teenage experience. It’s about staying relevant to teens today. In other words, it really is about keeping up with the youths.
When asked about the most difficult part of creating a teen show, The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz takes no time before responding, “Getting older. All those emotions are very close to the surface for us, but we’re also not fooling ourselves that we know what the latest meme is.”
Everwood creator Greg Berlanti agrees, adding, “It takes younger people, ultimately, to capture those voices because they’re closer to all that stuff. And I think the hardest thing is to make sure that you’re being truthful.”
Some shows accomplish that by adding younger voices to their writers’ room. Others rely on actors to help them stay hip. (Helpful tip: Kids no longer say “hip.”) “I do really work hard to make sure that the slang is correct,” Never Have I Ever co-creator Lang Fisher says. “A lot of times I’ll ask the cast. If I write something I’m like, ‘Would you say this?’ Then they’ll be like, ‘No.’ And I’m like, ‘Great. Okay, well, how would you say it?'”
But even if shows are able to perfectly reflect the teen experience of today, there’s one little problem: Not even fictional characters stay young forever, which leads us to another obstacle for teen shows. It’s the moment so many shows try to put off (and for good reason, as EW critic Darren Franich points out in this essay). Yep, we’re talking about high school graduation.
“The other hardest part about writing a teen show is college,” says Schwartz. Anything that creates space between your core characters is going to interrupt your story, which is why you’ll see shows keep characters in high school for far too long, create fake universities that allow everyone to stay in town, or just skip it all together.
“In Gossip Girl we decided to blow through college,” says executive producer Stephanie Savage. “Everyone would go to college for a little while and then it wouldn’t be that great and they’d do other things and just be mini-adults. It’s just so tricky.”
But those challenges — staying relevant and dealing with college — are pretty timeless. Shows have dealt with them for years, and they’ll continue to deal with them in the future. However, there’s one obstacle that has come about in recent years, and it has everything to do with a trope seen in just about any teen show: The bad boy.
“So much of what I would call the water-cooler moments, the shipper bait that I loved as a fan, like Damon and Elena, now if you look at it through a different lens, it can be toxic, it can be anti-feminist,” says Vampire Diaries co-creator Julie Plec. “Gothic romance and bodice-ripping romance doesn’t really have a place in today’s society. It’s kept me on my toes trying to figure out what can be romantic and powerful and epic without the male grabbing the girl and throwing her over his shoulder. It’s a new language of storytelling that has made traditional romantic storytelling more difficult, especially when you’re writing for teens because you don’t want to be putting a Damon and Elena out there in the world. The entire bad boy trope is kind of a toxic trope.”
That’s not to say that teen TV is done with bad boys, but rather that writers are having to reevaluate how to handle the trope. (Don’t worry, we’d bet the leather jacket won’t be going anywhere.) Although, maybe a little reevaluation is a good thing in terms of keeping the genre fresh. Because, as Berlanti points out, teen shows can be challenging in many ways simply because “there’s been so many.”
And yet, we’re still eager for more.
Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW’s summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.