Putting this out into the world makes me feel like a dust-covered skeleton, but I've noticed something strange about shows made for the teens today. They seem to be designed for anxious, jaded adults. Growing up, I watched "teen" shows that had an entirely different picture of what the teenage mind wants. They were light, fun, and even occasionally funny. I'm talking about Saved By The Bell, Boy Meets World, and Dawson's Creek, with the latter reaching the pinnacle of its seriousness with an episode like "After their kiss at the end of Season 1, Dawson and Joey have doubts about the future of their relationship, as Joey is still mulling plans to go to France." You know, low-stakes stuff, because it's understood that the viewers are literally still children.
"I can't date you because I might want to go to France later" is a pretty precious storyline, and downright quaint as compared to The CW's Riverdale, wherein teens break up because they're on the run from a corrupt prison where they were forced to fight for rich people's entertainment after being framed for murder by their girlfriends father. It's a lot like Dawson's Creek, except the creek is full of blood.
How Did We Get Here?
So why is every modern show for teens like the Rob Zombie remake of a show I enjoyed when I was in middle school? One of the most dramatic comparisons between old and new teen shows is the Sabrina The Teenage Witch of the '90s vs. Netflix's current version, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. Old Sabrina dealt with problems like accidentally infecting her classmates with her bad mood. She has to cheer them up by conjuring a big magical flan! New Sabrina is the literal queen of actual hell.
This isn't just me, right? I Googled "lighthearted shows for teens," and after feeling so ancient that I should probably start haunting the paintings in decrepit mansions, I found a suggestion for "What are good shows for 13-year-olds." The list included Pretty Little Liars, The Innocents, 13 Reasons Why, The 100, The Rain, The Vampire Diaries, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, and 3%. That's three post-apocalyptic dramas, two murder mysteries, two dark paranormal romances, and one show about balancing the difficulties of being a teenager with being in a satanic cult.
I'm not saying that watching Zack Morris be terrible to his friends actually helped me cope with the pressures of being a teenager, and I'm not saying that shows like Riverdale and Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina aren't fun. Those shows couch their darkness in camp. (Sabrina performs a jaunty musical number to distract the devil. Riverdale's cult leader villain builds a rocket ship to flee from the police. It's fun!) But they're also really, really violent. 13 Reasons Why covers suicide and bullying in such a realistic way that there's an official viewing guide with information on how to contact a crisis hotline right at the top of the page.
The Entertainment Landscape Has Totally Changed, For Better And Worse
I realize that if you ask teenagers about this, they'll probably say, "Wait, is television still a thing?" I know that demographic spends more time on Twitch and YouTube. So sure, maybe there aren't any TV shows about pretty teens doing nothing of consequence, but there's certainly a lot of that on YouTube. Oh God, is Logan Paul the new Zack Morris?
For me, that's kind of a terrifying thought. Zack Morris was being written by a team of trained professionals for a network that enforced a set of standards. He made mistakes, but he always learned a lesson. Logan Paul is just a guy who's making it up as he goes along. There's no lesson, only the noisy randomness of a guy desperate to think of things to film that day. He's out there electrocuting rats and picking fights with other YouTubers with no consequences, as he makes bigger and bigger mistakes. The only thing he teaches teenagers is that being Logan Paul would be dope AF.
Meanwhile, actual teen shows know they have to also attract an older audience. Riverdale isn't just popular with teenagers -- according to Nielsen ratings, it's also big in the 18-34 demographic. And so the storylines are made to appeal to that broader audience of us olds. That's why the teenagers on the show are living the lives of adults. Their parents aren't around, or if they are, they certainly aren't telling them what to do. Archie runs a gym and owns a construction company. Veronica runs a nightclub. Jughead is hired to write a series of mystery novels. How many teenagers can relate to the hardships of launching a boutique liquor brand?
That means I'm part of the problem. People like me in that 18-34 demographic probably wouldn't tune in to a modern Saved By The Bell. We certainly didn't for the modern version of Boy Meets World. It was called Girl Meets World and only lasted three seasons on the Disney Channel. If they had rebooted it as Boy Murders World, it might have been successful.
Some people would probably argue that teen shows are darker because the world has gotten darker, but hasn't being a teenager always been hard? Hasn't there always been peer pressure, drug use, and mental health issues? That's why we need goofy shows sometimes! To escape that shit! Our teens will have the rest of their lives to get beaten over the head with how the world is a howling labyrinth full lurking terrors. Why not let them have fun while they can?
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