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Realistic 'Coming Of Age' Shows Desperately In Need Of A Comeback

April 21st, 2008 10:00am EDT
My So-Called LifeTake a look at the television landscape, and you will see a mix of good and bad. There are medical dramas, shameless reality television programs, quirky sitcoms, and sappy TV movies. There are gritty action-thrillers, animated comedies, and shows that break the time-space continuum. There is one television genre that has been noticeably underrepresented: realistic, coming of age programs.

Quick, name three recent programs that dealt with young people finding their way in the world that didn’t pander to the audience, wasn’t a show driven by sexuality, and wasn’t a program that tied every loose end up in a pretty red bow. Having a hard time? You aren’t alone.

In an age in which Hollywood feels more comfortable feeding its audience spin-offs, and reality television shows such as “My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad” dominates primetime, is it any wonder that shows with believable characters dealing with real issues is an after thought?

Today's Teen TV

One could certainly argue that there are shows dealing with teenage life and the difficulties one faces. But are they realistic? Take CW’s “Gossip Girl,” a teen drama that revolves around young adults who attend elite academia institutions and deal with sex, drugs, and a host of other issues. The show is narrated by an omniscient character, "Gossip Girl," who runs a blog about her fellow Upper East Siders. While “Gossip Girl” is certainly a program that deals with young people attempting to face and overcome hardships in their life, it is evident that this CW program has an element of tabloid to it. The feeling comes across that the creators are winking at the audience, letting them know that what they are watching is solely visceral and not at all meant to be anything more than a teenage soap opera. In a recent magazine ad promoting “Gossip Girl,” there was a blurred image of a man and woman having sex. The only words on the page were “OMG (Oh My God).” It is abundantly clear that though this series deals with teenagers, it is set on being provocative rather than reflective; it’s focused more on sex than substance.



In the summer of 2003 there was the debut of the series “The O.C.,” which once again featured privileged teenagers who, in this case, lived in Orange County, California. A show filled with melodrama, “The O.C.,” was a clichéd program that helped spawn shows like “Gossip Girl,” yet itself was a product of series such as “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place.” A 2004 USA Today article stated it best. Writer Robert Bianco stated, “On The O.C., everything is exaggerated, from the problems to the solutions. Fortunes, children and marriages come and go on a whim, and no one bats an eye. You may enjoy the characters, but you're not expected to take them or their multiple crises too seriously.”

Ironically, that’s the problem with teenage, coming-of-age programs on television. They are fun and entertaining, but there are no characters that viewers can truly relate to. Is the average television watcher, regardless of age, truly able to relate to these spoiled, privileged kids that are paraded on to screens every week? Gone are the days of realistic teenage dramas, ones where viewers truly can understand the difficulty, confusion, and nuanced complexity that being a young adult entails. Where are the shows that allow intimate access into the mind of a young character where the viewer is able to see a broad spectrum of teenage life? Characters that are socially awkward or frustrated but are in desperate need of finding themselves and their way in the world? Shows that aren’t just explicit teenage soap operas but rather ones that can at times make viewers uncomfortable yet attempt to allow the audience the ability to watch characters grow and mature due to their successes and failures in many facets of life?

Classic Coming-Of-Age Shows

Take the 1994 teen-angst drama “My So Called Life.” On this program, Claire Danes played a 15-year-old sophomore in a Pennsylvania high school who was just trying to find her place in the world. Narrated by Danes’ character, Angela Chase, the show saw life uniquely from a young teenage girl’s perspective.

The series, though, dealt with a myriad of tough issues. From dating and sex to homophobia and drug use, this show was comfortable in wallowing in issues that are a part of teenage life but is often not shown on television. The program allowed its characters to not have all the answers. There were no snappy comeback lines, no laugh track, and no tidy endings. “My So-Called Life” was a special show that allowed its audience to get a rare peek inside the life of a young girl as she attempts her awkward and confusing journey towards becoming a woman.


Unfortunately, “My So-Called Life” aired for just five months before it was cancelled in early 1995.

Another program that met its demise far too early was the 1999 series “Freaks and Geeks.” Created by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow (the man behind hits such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin and “Knocked Up”), this brilliant series brought a unique blend of comedy and drama to teenage life. The series centered around siblings Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) who both attended McKinley High School in 1980 in Whitehall, Michigan. The show dealt with straight arrow, academically proficient Lindsay becoming involved with a clique of outcast “freaks.” Skinny and awkward, Sam attempted to tackle ninth grade with his Dungeon and Dragon playing friends Bill (Martin Starr) and Neal (Samm Levine). The show follows Lindsay and Sam’s yearning for acceptance by others, and their attempt to find out not just who they both are, but who they want to be.

What made “Freaks and Geeks” such a one-of-a kind series is that it was able to both portray high school in a realistic way but also convey humor in the many embarrassing and uncomfortable situations. Each character had flaws, and their imperfections further endeared the audience to them because everyone remembers going through that “awkward phase.” The producers created a program that was completely self-conscious, awake and aware in the hardships that some young people face on a daily basis to merely “get by” in both high school and at home.

In one particular episode titled “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” Kim (Busy Philipps) mercilessly bullies Sam at school. Though Lindsay is a part of Kim’s “freak clique,” the two rarely see eye to eye. To make it up to Lindsay, and in part to start their relationship anew, Kim invites Lindsay over for dinner. To Lindsay’s surprise, Kim lives in a ramshackle shack with highly uncouth and volatile parents who not only embarrass Kim but deeply frighten Lindsay. Though this scene is uncomfortable to watch, it allowed the audience to better understand Kim’s tough demeanor. Though she was a bully at school, one was able to actually sympathize with this complex female character.


Similar to “My So-Called Life,” “Freaks and Geeks” was cancelled in early 2000 after only producing 18 episodes.

Unlike the first two series that saw were removed from television far too early, the comedy-drama “The Wonder Years” enjoyed six successful seasons airing from 1988-1993. Debuting directly after Superbowl XXII, the series revolved around an immensely unique concept. The show dealt with teenager Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) and his attempt to deal with social, family, and relationship issues during the turbulent 1960s. The story, though, was narrated by an older, wiser Kevin Arnold (voiced by Daniel Stern), who is looking back on his life and sharing his experiences as a kid in an utterly nostalgic tone of voice.

Though the format was unique, the characters and story made the show exceptional. The show’s pilot episode, for example, was centered around a funeral. The series had the unique ability to make one laugh at irony and be heartbroken at the failure of missed opportunity. “The Wonder Years” showcased a young Kevin Arnold who resisted change but yet had no choice but to find a way to adapt to his ever-changing environment. Friends moved away, family members died, parents quarreled, and relationships ended. The ability for the older Kevin to narrate the story and bring an adult perspective to a teenager’s mindset was powerful to watch.

“The Wonder Years” was a rare show that also made the audience think. Oftentimes, episodes ended on somber notes, thus creating a situation that was real and sometimes difficult to watch. As a viewer, one felt Kevin’s joy and pain, therefore creating a climate in which heart wrenching scenes became deeply personal for the audience. The series allowed viewers to reminisce about their own child and young adulthood and how they themselves viewed the world and their relationships at that time. The show created an emotional connection with the characters that denied passive viewership; the audience was profoundly invested in not just what happened to a character, but why and how. It created a culture where the audience was yearning to see not just the consequences of what transpired, but what lessons were ultimately learned.


Where Are They Now?

So why aren’t there more shows like these on television? It’s a good question. Although “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks” were both quality programs, it cannot be argued that they received poor ratings. Though the networks are partly to blame for often shifting the timeslots of these programs, it is possible that viewers don’t want realistic, coming-of-age programs on television. Some could certainly argue that television is escapist entertainment, and one doesn’t want to turn on the TV and see a realistic portrayal of life that they themselves either already lived or are currently living.

Another problem may be the target audience. All three of the aforementioned shows deal with teenage protagonists. Though someone in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond might be interested in watching series that involves high school age characters, it’s also possible that audiences would rather watch a show in which they see characters that resemble them both in age and mindset.

On the other hand, “The Wonder Years” was a highly successful program, so it is evident that this genre has an audience.

Whatever the reason, networks need to find a way to bring back realistic, coming of age shows. It does needs to be mentioned that there is nothing inherently wrong with sappy teenage programs or melodramatic coming of age shows. America is diverse, and there’s a large spectrum of interests and tastes. It would be nice, however, if networks could once again develop teenage centered shows that didn’t pander to the most common denominator. Ones that weren’t an exploitation of teenage life but rather a poignant examination of it.

While it’s entertaining to see who is going to hook up with whom on shows such as “Gossip Girl,” it would be great to truly care about characters on television again. Characters that don’t quite have it all together but are striving to fit in and understand a world that at the time seems far too foreign to them. Characters that are awkward and encounter uncomfortable situations but attempt to overcome them while trying to learn something new on their journey of self discovery.

Michael Langston Moore
Story by Michael Langston Moore

Starpulse contributing writer