OldVenue, TV

Teenage dreamers

You have your audience: the teens. Then you also have their parents. Take, for example, the US remake of the beloved British teen drama Skins. It was cancelled by MTV after one season of only ten episodes. Why? It was too risqué for Americans. Advertisers withdrew their support due to low ratings, and controversy over teen sex scenes forced the show into dissolution. Imagine a bunch of angry parents complaining vigorously and adamantly until it was cancelled, basically. In a wholly un-teenage rebel fashion, no fuss was kicked up and no one really paid attention to the show enough for it to even garner cult status amongst its intended audience. Why didn’t it appeal to US teens in the same way that the original did with their UK counterparts? Do parents hold more sway over their sheltered young across the pond? The issue might be the long-standing way American shows view teens. Or rather, how they want them displayed.

“The desire for an idealised adolescence is the core principle of all these shows”

Shows like Glee, Boy Meets World and Dawson’s Creek left teens, and parents too, with a ‘deeper’ message at the end of its allotted timeframe. Characters lived and learned from their mistakes, and everything more or less always ended for the better. They teach while appealing to parental sensibilities. At the other end of the spectrum you have Gossip Girl and 90210 which portrayed a more outlandish teen

lifestyle that pandered to the superficial and unattainable, but made for highly entertaining TV. Parents and non-teens (one assumes) brush these shows off as ridiculous due to the very unrelatable situations these teens find or put themselves in. If teen shows can teach you an important life lesson (like an afterschool special) while still being over-the-top enough to hold an adolescents’ attention, then all the better for it. The appeal of the extreme, and the vital need for it, stems from the fact that teens get to live vicariously through their fictional counterparts. They already live a humdrum teenage life where everyone else seems to be having more fun than them, so a realistic teen show would offer no escape or entertainment.

Skins, however, is a bit curious, a show that is in-between what teenagers want to watch and what they’re experiencing themselves right now as they grow up. The earlier seasons had just the right amount of believability without boring its audience. It portrayed realistic teenage stories, un-sugarcoated.

“Skins felt non-judgmental”

Although actions had consequences, they felt more like general life lessons than specifically aimed at teen problems that desperately need to be fixed or stopped immediately. This show did not glamorize teen culture but it did sometimes take it to the extreme, like a lot of other teen shows. In realistic fashion, the characters would do things and then not quite learn their lesson or the moral point on which they were obviously failing. Thus, like the rest of us lowly humans, they would continue to err, repeating their mistakes.

“If teen shows can teach an important lesson and be over- the-top, all the better for it.”

The desire for an idealised adolescence – whether pandering to adventurous, thrill- seeking teens or to cautious, sheltering parents – is the core principle of all these shows. It just depends on who the audience is. Skins felt non-judgmental while dwelling on issues of morality, as well as the socially imposed morality of our culture and society versus an adolescent need to be individualistic and separate. In essence, to figure out who you are outside the bubble of society before you can begin to place yourself in it and feel like you fit in.

These are shows domineered by network executives and written by people long out of their teens (often also acted by people who have aged well, but are long out of their teens too). Last I checked teens weren’t writing their own television shows. If they were, who knows what amount of order or chaos would ensue. We can take YouTube as an example. It depends on the writers and their goals for the show. It’s a fine line. The writers need to titillate and want to educate. They want to inform the teens they once were and help them face the fundamentals of life they’ll now be facing as they reach adulthood.


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Nour Ibrahim

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October 2021
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