High school is an age ripe with drama, so it’s no surprise that writers continue to feature teenaged protagonists in books, movies, and television. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best contemporary realistic (sorry Buffy) high school television series from the last two decades, whether you’re looking to create or expand a YA DVD collection or just want some weekend entertainment. Am I missing any of your favorites?
Best of the Best
My So-Called Life
Angela Chase, My So-Called Life‘s protagonist, set the bar for angst-ridden teens in the grunge-filled ’90s. As a high school sophomore trying to figure out who she is, Angela forges new relationships, tests her boundaries, and frustrates her parents. While the show only lasted 19 episodes in 1994/95, its realistic take on high school issues made a big impact on both its target audience and the genre of teen television shows. Bonus! The full series is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
With its fast-talking, pop-culture-referencing teens, Dawson’s Creek caused quite a stir when it premiered in 1998 and defined an era for the WB network. Set in the fictional small-town of Capeside, Massachusetts, it originally followed four high school sophomores: clean-cut Dawson, literal girl-next-door Joey, bad-boy Pacey, and new-girl Jen. While new faces joined the cast, notably the eventually openly-gay Jack, the quartet’s relationship highs and lows remained the core of the series as it moved from high school to college over six seasons. At times, the melodrama can be too much, but it’s worth watching at least the first season to get a taste for this influential show and to see the nascent acting chops of Joshua Jackson, Michelle Williams, and Katie Holmes.
Freaks and Geeks
While this is technically not a contemporary show, since it’s set in 1980, but made in 1999, it’s so amazing that I couldn’t leave it off the list. Focusing on siblings Sam and Lindsay Weir, a freshman and sophomore in high school respectively, Freaks and Geeks presents an honest, hilarious, and often heartbreaking look at what it means to feel like an outcast. With Sam and the geeks, viewers get AV Club, PE humiliation, Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, and awkward moments with girls. With Lindsay and the freaks, we get burnouts, fake IDs, terrible high school garage bands, the Grateful Dead, and crazy family drama. Backed by truly awesome soundtrack straight from 1980 and featuring a huge cast of now-familiar faces (James Franco, anyone?), this 18-episode series is a must-see.
In this high school mystery series by one-time YA author Rob Thomas, our sarcastic, take-charge heroine Veronica Mars doesn’t let anyone get in her way while she investigates the events surrounding her best friend’s murder. The daughter of a private investigator and the former town sheriff, she also works on cases for her dad and for her fellow classmates on the side, often aided by her friends Wallace and Mac. (Oh yeah, and there’s some steamy romance too.) Through the series’ three-season run, the show touched on issues running the gamut from class warfare to date rape to teen pregnancy to family relationships without losing its acerbic wit and intriguing plotlines. Bonus! The full series is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Now, where’s the long-rumored movie?
Friday Night Lights
It’s a show about football, that’s not really about football. This gritty, cinematic, hour-long drama is a spin-off of sorts from the 2004 film of the same name, based on a 1990 nonfiction book by H. G. Bissinger. The show centers on the coach, players, family, and community of a high school football team in small-town Dillon, TX. The football drives a lot of the storylines, but doesn’t take up much screen time. It’s the relationships between the characters that are the backbone of the show, and they are some of the deepest and most realistic ever depicted in a high school series. The writers aren’t afraid to tackle controversial issues and they do so in an honest, nuanced way that feels true to the characters and the setting. The fifth and final season is currently airing on NBC, but all five seasons are already out on DVD. The first four seasons are also streaming on Netflix.
Before creating Glee, Ryan Murphy helmed this lesser-known teen satire. Taking a no-holds-barred approach to the genre, this series featured over-the-top scenarios, plenty of sarcasm, and hilarious performances, like the larger-than-life Mary Cherry.
A spin-off from MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, Daria poked fun at the absurdities of suburban high school life in a wry, sarcastic way. Fronted by the cynical, unpopular Daria Morgendorffer, the show also included other memorable characters like her artsy best friend Jane, her ditsy cheerleader sister Quinn, and her totally clueless parents.
This series about a tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks who finds himself embroiled in the high-class world of Orange County, CA, set the cultural zeitgeist for teens and 20-somethings in the early 2000s with its generous use of pop culture references and indie rock hits. While its quality and popularity waned in the last few seasons, this show laid the groundwork for later hits like Gossip Girl and Skins.
Life As We Know It
Based on the novel Doing It by Melvin Burgess, this short-lived series features three hormone-charged teenaged boys navigating their way through school, family issues, and relationship drama. It didn’t have much time to fully develop, but the show is notable for its smart, frank dialogue and sharp performances.