With hundreds of original series airing every year, sometimes it feels like there is nothing left unexplored on television. But then, TV proves us wrong. Though HBO, Showtime, and other networks have spent years pushing the boundaries of both what you can do on TV and the kind of stories you can tell, there is still room for the fresh and new. In the last year, a new and captivating frontier for television has popped up in an unexpected place: teen drama.
But whereas shows of yesteryear like Dawson's Creek. One Tree Hill and The O.C. relied on more digestible tropes like dating, first kisses and heartache, a newer crop of shows - specifically Netflix's 13 Reasons Why and The End of the F***ing World - have instead opted to address issues with much more relevance to today's youth. In turn, they have received critical acclaim and stand out in a crowded TV landscape.
While we have seen almost everything you can think of on TV when it comes to adults, these shows feature an unflinching look at the dark possibilities of teen life. 13 Reasons Why, a meditation on the suicide of a high school girl, and The End of the F***ing World, which takes on murder and mental illness in a bloody star-crossed romance reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers, don’t shy away from tough conversations. Though the two shows couldn’t be more different in tone (13 Reasons is an earnest soap and The End of the F***ing World is a snarky, tense dramedy), they share something very important: the conversations they start are just as much a part of enjoying the shows as watching them.
Although some of the aforementioned shows from yesteryear would occasionally tackle more serious issues like suicide or abortion, that move into challenging territory was almost always accompanied by a warning that it would be a “very special episode.”
We all remember the most egregious examples of this like Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley) taking pills on Saved By the Bell, but there was a time that these were practically a requirement.
With these new shows, every episode attempts to be ”very special,” by digging into the darkest recesses of teen trauma - thus providing not only entertainment, but also an important outlet for those who may be personally coping with issues they think are solely unique to them.
The rare show that would deviate from this middle of the road path, like Freaks and Geeks, couldn’t survive in a broadcast TV environment that demanded millions of eyeballs a week. Now that there is fierce competition for smaller viewerships, shows can cater directly to a niche audience by discussing issues relevant to them.
13 Reasons Why takes on depression, suicide, violence, rape culture, and abuse. The End of the F***ing World tackles mental illness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, murder, and sexual assault. There is no shiny veneer, family dinners, happy school dances, or Danny Tanner's easily digestible paternal wisdom to punctuate the episodes. Instead, they are visceral and honest depictions of the turbulent world of post-adolescence. Even when these shows can be hard to watch, they feel real. The reality is they reflect the world that many teens no far more accurately than Joey climbing in Dawson's window.
Brash authenticity, it turns out, is equally appealing to adults. The savvy television viewer might feel jaded these days: you could do a top ten list of serial killer shows that aired last year. However, seeing teenagers deal in a real way with the thorny, complicated issues of sex, violence, and growing up, is actually a novel concept for TV. We’ve never seen high schoolers encounter the world in so frank a way on television. The opening moments of 13 Reasons Why linger on a dead girl’s locker, announcing her suicide. The End of the F***ing World begins with James (Alex Lawther) telling us, “I’m James. I’m seventeen. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.”
Gone are the days of the opening Full House theme song refrain, "Whatever happened to predictability. The milkman, the paperboy, evening tv?"
Simply put, those themes never reflected teenage life. And for parents watching, these shows provide an outlet for snooping on teenage life without having to try and break into their child's Facebook account.
These shows don’t always tackle tough issues perfectly. Even fans of 13 Reasons Why have been critical of the way that the show handles suicide, and some critics have found the show a moral failure. Variety’s Maureen Ryan was a fan of 13 Reasons Why, and she wrote beautifully last year about how these potential shortcomings, and conversations they start are a feature, not a bug, of the teen trauma show. She writes:
“There’s a lot going on when it comes to 13 Reasons Why: complex mental health issues, how suicide is depicted, rape culture, bullying in schools, and whether 13 Reasons is simply a good show or not...the ongoing debate about all these topics is actually welcome, and, in this case, it’s perfectly appropriate for schools to join in.”
This points to another reason why these shows work so well in 2018: they do very well on social media. Whether teens are discussing the relatability of these shows on SnapChat or TV snobs are picking apart their missteps on Twitter, these series are generating a conversation online. This is essential in an era when a soft premiere can doom a show to anonymity, setting it adrift in an endless sea of streaming options.
13 Reasons Why was one of the most tweeted about shows of last year. Memes from The End of the F***ing World are all over social media. So many publicity departments work tireless to get their shows social traction, and series like these generate buzz many shows can only dream about.
Both 13 Reasons Why and The End of the F***ing World are meant to be messy, and it’s clear that a large segment today’s TV audience likes messy. Not only are these two shows hits, but they are affecting how other networks are doing business. The CW was the first to follow suit with Riverdale last year. Freeform has built a brand on trying to replace Pretty Little Liars. The Paramount Network is set to reboot Heathers this year as well. It’s clear that other outlets are following Netflix’s lead. The streaming giant has found an unserved audience, and has connected them with a new type of engaging storytelling. In doing so they’ve found that holy grail of modern TV: not only are people watching these shows, they are talking about them. Expect more channels and streaming services to follow suit.
It is likely that this is just the beginning of an onslaught of “teen trauma” dramas that will be offered from a variety of outlets. Of course, some of them will work better than others. But, every one of them will start a conversation.
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