“In death comes peace, but pain is the cost of living. Like love, it’s how we know we’re alive.” — Elena Gilbert, The Vampire Diaries
“Now we have allies that used to be enemies, we have protectors, we have friends willing to fight for us.” —Scott McCall, Teen Wolf
“Do you know the Greek myth about the girl who tried to escape from Hell? There’s only one rule: You don’t look back.” —Spencer Hastings, Pretty Little Liars
I don’t know if you remember this about being a teenager, but those years are one long stretch of being intellectually adrenalized and chronically overbooked. Teens, especially in a Golden Age of Too Much Television And Also YouTube, don’t have the patience for adult shows to just get around to saying something already, nor the time to “just watch the first five episodes/ten episodes/two seasons” for a show to finally get “good.” For a series to find traction with teen audiences, it has to go big, go fast, and go hot, and it has to say something new: If, in its ideal form, television is a looking glass through which a kind of cultural clarity might be glimpsed, then teen television, tasked with capturing the current mood quicker and with more already-over-it flash than its adult- and kid-oriented counterparts, is the crucible in which the raw materials of tomorrow’s looking glass are first forged together. (Why else do you think the hotness of teen casts is so universal? Those crucibles won’t light themselves, people.)
For proof of concept, look to the four touchstones of modern teen television that each ended their juggernaut runs this year: The CW’s The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017), Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars (2010-2017) and Switched at Birth (2011-2017), and MTV’s Teen Wolf (2011-2017). The cultural moment these shows were born into—right at the beginning of social media’s ascent in the shaping of the cultural conversation, right after we elected our first black president, right as we were officially withdrawing from the Iraq War and unofficially Occupying Wall Street; right, that is, when there was a surfeit of propulsively optimistic energy in the air—was a Big One, and the looking-glass crucibles of these shows fired up in kind, grabbing hold of that propulsively optimistic energy and challenging it to do more:
Don’t just pull the rug out from under an audience’s feet at the end of an episode, The Vampire Diaries said—do it every ten minutes, with as much blood as Standards and Practices will allow and as many wholly earned tears as you can wring out of the audience, every episode, for eight years.
Don’t just include a lead who likes kissing girls as a trick to get a quick-and-dirty ratings boost, Pretty Little Liars said, years before the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage—give that lead the same emotionally rich and soapy romantic entanglements as all the straight girls have; screw the patriarchy. (Screw it, that is, until the fans come clamoring for the most problematic ‘ship, then lean in body and empty soul and shift all the show’s emotional energy over to support them. Hi. I have so many issues with where Pretty Little Liars ended up romantically. AMA.)
Don’t just include one Deaf character as a “bold” update on the Big Issues family drama, Switched at Birth said—incorporate the whole Deaf community as an integral part of show, and make history by airing an episode (mirroring a real moment in Deaf history) almost entirely in American Sign Language while you’re at it.
Don’t just lean into the camp and sex expected from an MTV-produced teen supernatural joint, Teen Wolf said—ask the hard questions of what leadership and honor and power-imbalanced friendship mean; ask how to make the right choices when the world wants you to accept a kill-or-be-killed binary, when violent racial supremacists want to eradicate your kind, when it is humanity that is monstrous.
Of course, the most more that all the teen shows premiering in the late aughts/early teens did—Glee and Gossip Girl and Supernatural and Awkward included—wasn't on the TV screen but on our computers, taking the platforms all the shiny new social media sites were offering and using them as launchpads to a whole new stratosphere of fan engagement. In 2017, the bespoke branded hashtag emoji is expected for even the briefest cultural event, but in 2009, when the Salvatore brothers brooded onto the scene and set up two opposing romantic poles for Elena (Nina Dobrev) to be alternately attracted to and repulsed by, the fan-generated #TVD, #Stelena and #Delena marked a new frontier—a frontier which was rapidly filled with #PLL, #Spoby, #Ezria, #Haleb, #Emaya, #Paily and #WhoIsA the following year, and #TeenWolf, #Sterek and #Stydia the year after that. By the 2012 Upfronts, network execs were strategizing with social media front of mind (The CW, curiously, stood out among networks questioned as the only one without official show accounts or tags in place: “The Vampire Diaries” fans are vocal, getting things like #Delena and #Stelena trending [organically] all day worldwide before and during big episodes,” their social guru told The Huffington Post).
The Vampire Diaries (and Glee) got in on the ground floor, of course, but of the teen television titans that ended this year, it was Pretty Little Liars whose first and lasting claim to fame was utter social domination — its second-ever episode hit the #2 spot on Twitter Trends the following day, with only TVD, Teen Wolf and the occasional prestige genre series elbowing it out of the way. When the series wrapped this summer, it managed to nab one last round of “Breaks Twitter Record” headlines (1.7 million tweets in less than one day from air) before a final slew of reminders that it bowed out as the “most social show in history.”
The fact that these four juggernaut teen shows wrapped in the same year—wrapped, specifically, this year—points to the end of an era: Social TV is here; the age of propulsively blind optimism is over. What teen television gets to do now is to take the legacies these juggernauts have left behind and hunker down in its cultural crucible.
So what are these legacies? Well, as a whole, the normalizing of a lot of the things we have started to take for granted on much of teen television (adult TV is, as always, slower to adjust)—the increasingly less effortful diversity in casting and storytelling; the refusal to let girls be silenced and the insistence on giving them complex characterization; the seamless integration of new media as both engagement tool and storytelling device.
Individually, The Vampire Diaries gave us the silver lining of 2017 in a nutshell: men holding themselves accountable for their own sins, plus literal #blackgirlmagic, as badass Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham) and the ghosts of Bennett Women past saved all of Mystic Falls by facing down and turning back the fires of Hell.
Switched at Birth, meanwhile, put Daphne (Katie Leclerc) and Bay (Vanessa Marano) on solid ground, making adult decisions about a future that was informed but not defined by the past—Daphne as a dedicated surgical student despite her would-be mentor’s prejudiced dismissiveness, Bay “following the truth” of her character and not ending up with her high-school love.
ended as it began: full of plot holes, deep friendship, many beautiful dudes kissing each other as the badass women fight their way out of certain death, the outsmarting of thinly-masked Neo-Nazis, and Scott McCall (Tyler Posey) being the dumbest, lovingest, truest alpha ever to alpha.
Pretty Little Liars wrapped its central mystery up in a remarkably neat, screamingly fun bow, but its real and disappointing legacy will ultimately be the fact that all four historically badass, intelligent, professionally ambitious Liars returned to the hometown that had terrorized them for half their lives, recoupled with their high-school sweethearts (one of whom was their predatory and gaslighting English teacher, another the person who began the pattern of terrorizing them in the first place), and wound up baby crazy at 23.
This, remember, is the most socially engaged television show in the history of the metric.
Hi, 2017: The abject oppressiveness of your regressive everything is showing.
So that is what the next generation of teen television has to work with: a lot of promise, a solid social media footing, and one big rock of toxic patriarchy to, ideally, blow up.
Apart from the certainty that streaming will play a big role in one way or another, it is difficult to predict what teen television will rise to the challenge of becoming the next era’s crucible. The Real Teens I know who think I’m cool enough to talk TV with listed everything from Star to Narcos to Shadowhunters when I quizzed them on their favorites. All of them listed Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why (which crashed into Twitter’s trending topics like a tidal wave when it was released at the end of March, eclipsing both The Vampire Diaries and The Walking Dead) along with Paste’s occasionalfavorite, Riverdale, as shows that, if they aren’t obsessively watching them, they at least know people who are. One loves the retro Good Times (she and all her cousins are convinced it stars their grandma); another adores the neo-retro Fuller House (despite never having seen the original). For its part, Netflix thinks that Friends and The West Wing might be equally appealing “Teen TV for BFFS” as The Secret Life of the American Teenager and every K-Drama they have on offer. Norwegian serial Skam, meanwhile, which streams nowhere, has no professional translations, and had made no notable traction in American teens’ lives in 2016, appeared gud ut maskinen at the very top of Tumblr Fandometrics’ Top Live-Action TV Shows list for 2017. (The fandom- and art-centric Tumblr isn’t only for teenagers, of course, but it does skew younger than most other social platforms, and clearly values a different balance of pop culture than the communities in other networks do.)
I’m really digging the dreamy SoCal vibes of Hulu’s ultra-diverse Runaways, but not one teen I talked to had ever even heard of it. No one mentioned The Fosters, either, which has been doing some quietly boundary-burning work of its own throughout its run, including a historic on-screen trans-sex scene this summer.
We’ll just have to see what teen-wrought crucibles the next few years bring. (grown-ish and Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger and Sweet Life, I’ll be looking with extra excitement at you.)
In the meantime, thank you, Vampire Diaries, Switched at Birth, Pretty Little Liars, Teen Wolf. You made the this last long era of teen television so fun.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult , Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.