Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
Even though I’m older now, I still love a good teen-based show. I’m worried I’ve seen them all, though. What do I watch next? —Lauren
I’m with you, Lauren. I love teen shows. It might actually be my favorite genre, which is why I’ve put together a list of 101 of them for you. Enjoy.
These shows are required viewing for fans of teen TV and pretty close to required viewing for TV literacy in general. They’re in alphabetical order because I’m not trying to start a riot.
American High (2000): One of the best documentary-style reality shows ever. High-school seniors (and one very charismatic junior) were filmed over the course of a year, but they also kept their own video diaries and filmed their own home lives — and this is back before the days of the selfie. Fantastic.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003): Back in the day, Buffy helped define what teen dramas — and teen heroines — could be. If you’re still sitting there wondering, Should I watch Buffy?, I don’t know how to help you.
Daria (1997–2001): Somehow, Daria and Jane feel as fresh and essential now as they did almost 20 years ago. Misery chicks forever.
Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000): Oh, Weirs, you were always too precious for this world.
Friday Night Lights (2006–2011): It doesn’t usually get described as a teen drama, but it is: It’s set at a high school, features frank talk about sex, virginity, drug and alcohol use, boundary-setting, etc., and it reminds viewers that telling trusted adults about your problems is always a good idea.
Gilmore Girls (2000–2007): Patter, coffee, repeat.
My So-Called Life (1994): Arguably the most revered show on this list, and for good reason. Its single season is one of the best of any shows, ever.
It’s not that all of these shows are so good (some are!), but they are landmark shows in the genre. Your personal mileage may vary.
Beavis and Butt-head (original run: 1993–1997): A generation of fire and music-video enthusiasts owe their joy to B&B.
Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990–2000): The Walshes et al. are an essential fiber in the fabric of our culture.
Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003): Hard to imagine someone reading a whole article about teen television if he or she hasn’t seen Dawson’s Creek.
Degrassi (original run: 1987–1991; 2001–present): Old-school Degrassi was overwhelmingly earnest. D:TNG can be, too, but it’s also as soapy and melodramatic as they come. In a good way.
Fame (1982–1987): It’s gonna live forever.
Gossip Girl (2007–2012): Perhaps it stayed on the air too long. But season one is unimpeachable.
Laguna Beach (2004–2006): The current brand of lifestyle pornography centered around teens — coupled with the aesthetics of a scripted show — really took off in a new way post-Laguna.
Party of Five (1994–2000): Not as sappy and corn-dog as you remember.
These are wonderful shows that many of us would put in the time capsule for future generations but other (wrong) people would not.
Felicity (1998–2002): Yeah, it got a little smurfy there at the end, but the wonderful outweighs the wonky by a lot. In this life, there are Bens and there are Noels. Know which one you want, and be able to tell which one is which.
The Fosters (2013–present): Maybe the series will jump the shark, and if this list gets updated a few years from now it won’t be in this category. But for now, The Fosters is one of those little treasure shows, tiny in scope — just one family, though a patchwork quilt of one — but big in ambition. Plus it’s quietly one of the most progressive shows on TV.
My Mad Fat Diary (2013–2015): This British series about a depressed, self-harming, overweight teen girl is a gutsy, often dirty delight. Sometimes teen shows (and … teens) get a little show-off-y about how many layers their characters have, and how — ooooh — she’s secretly not how she seems! But of course in this life none of us is exactly how we seem, and MMFD is matter-of-fact about it.
The O.C. (2003–2007): We just talked about this. The O.C. is wonderful.
Undeclared (2001–2002): I’m not saying it’s better than Freaks and Geeks — that show’s trying to tell a different kind of story — but I’ll say this: I have rewatched Undeclared more, and I think of it more and more fondly. College is so weird.
Veronica Mars (2004–2007): Pri-i-vate eyes, watching you. If that song doesn’t immediately conjure Vinnie Van Lowe’s terrible dance moves for you, you’ve missed out on one of the sharpest shows in the genre. Season one’s carefully plotted mystery would land the show among the greats, but the other two seasons knock it down a category.
Some of these are aimed at teens, and some are simply about teens.
A Different World (1987–1993): Like FNL, this seems more like a mainstream show than a teen show — and yet.
Aliens in America (2007–2008): This one-season CW sitcom about a Pakistani exchange student living with an American family flew under most people’s radars, but it’s a sweetheart of a show.
Blossom (1990–1995): Not all of it has aged well, but some of it has.
Everybody Hates Chris (2005–2009): Oh sure, everyone loves Terry Crews now, but where were you all ten years ago? (He plays the dad.)
The Facts of Life (1979–1988) Obviously.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996): Even more obviously.
Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006): Surprisingly underappreciated. Malcolm is weird and subversive and worth a rewatch.
Moesha (1996–2001): There should probably be a separate ranking or appreciation of BFF characters from teen shows. (The show was not the same after Kim got her spinoff.)
That ‘70s Show (1998–2006): Hyde and Jackie could go on that BFF list, too.
THE OVERLOOKED GEMS
These shows might have escaped your notice, which is a pity — since they are awesome — but also a treat, since now you know exactly where to start with your to-watch list.
Bunheads (2012–2013): It’s the methadone to Gilmore Girls’ pure heroin, but it gets the job done.
Everwood (2002–2006): Some of us were pro–Chris Pratt ten years ago.
Greek (2007–2011): Few college shows capture the giddy lunacy of being on one’s own for the first time, but Greek absolutely nails it. Honestly, if you’re gonna pick one new show from this list, pick Greek.
Grosse Pointe (2000–2001): It’s a teen soap about a teen soap, and it’s wonderful.
Huge (2010): “Why didn’t Winnie Holzman from My So-Called Life make more teen shows?” In fact, she did.
Jack & Bobby (2004–2005): One of them grows up to be president! But also cool for the pre–Mad Men John Slattery and Jessica Paré.
Joan of Arcadia (2003–2005) File under “is puberty magic?” along with Buffy. Sometimes becoming a grown-up feels like a superpower.
The L.A. Complex (2012–2013) “Teen show” is not quite right, since almost none of the characters are themselves teens, but it was initially going to be a spinoff of Degrassi, so it counts. It’s also a blast.
Life Unexpected (2010–2011): Earnest teen drama and a really sweet rom-com? Be still, my heart.
Popular (1999–2001): Early Ryan Murphy! It’s not restrained, exactly, but it’s not as rococo as his later work.
Privileged (2008–2009): If you like Gilmore Girls, this will be your jam.
The Middleman (2008): Not a teen show per se, but it was on ABC Family. If only all supernatural shows were this smart and thoughtful.
More drinking and cursing; fewer episodes.
Brat Camp (2005–2007)” The American version is okay, too, but the British original — a documentary-style series where troubled teens go through “wilderness therapy” — is better. I can’t vouch for its therapeutic efficacy or ethical standards, but it’s good TV.
Fresh Meat (2011–2013): A ridiculously charming college-set raunchy comedy.
The Inbetweeners (2008–2010): It’s hard to depict the sheer dumbness of adolescent choices without judging or criticizing them, but The Inbetweeners pulls it off by balancing absurd silliness with genuine vulnerability.
Misfits (2009–2013): Delinquent teens develop superpowers, so this also fits in with the magical-puberty model.
Nearly Famous (2007): British Fame! Yes.
Skins (2007–2013): American Skins was not good, but the original British Skins was. At least sometimes.
Some Girls (2012–present): A high-school-set comedy that’s twice as funny and perceptive as you’d expect.
SHOWS I FEEL I MUST INCLUDE HERE BUT CANNOT PERSONALLY RECOMMEND
In the interest of completeness, I am including these shows. Many other people, some of whom I like and trust, enjoy these programs; maybe you will be among them.
Angel (1999–2004): It’s fine, really, but it’s no Buffy.
Glee (2009–2015): I can’t believe I used to watch Glee. My goodness. I will say, though, that The Glee Project brought me many hours of joy, and I recommend it without reservation.
One Tree Hill (2003–12): How many times can a dog eat a donor heart before you’re like, “Ehh, I think this show has run out of ideas”? The answer is once.
Smallville (2001–2011): This isn’t Smallville’s fault, I just personally do not care at all about any Superman stuff. If you do, though, you will probably enjoy this.
Swans Crossing (1992): Sarah Michelle Gellar’s early years. (This earned two mentions on Twitter yesterday, hence the suggestion, but it is the only show on this list that I have never seen.)
The Vampire Diaries (2009–present): Eh, no thank you.
Some places just churn out teen television. MTV is one of them.
16 and Pregnant (2009–present): Not to be confused with Teen Mom; this is the one that features different young women every week. Nowhere near as exploitative as it could be, and yet, as with The Paper, one wonders if it’s ever a good idea for teens to be on an MTV reality show, even a documentary-style one.
The Ashlee Simpson Show (2004): Way better than Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica.
Awkward (2011–present): The quirk has now worn a little thin, but the first few seasons are solid.
Buckwild (2013): RIP, Shain.
Clone High (2002–2003): What an odd, memorable little show. It would be at home on, say, Adult Swim now, but at the time it was a real outlier.
Faking It (2014): A show about high-schoolers pretending to be lesbians to get attention could be awful and tone-deaf, but Faking It figured out how to be both over-the-top and grounded in real emotions.
Finding Carter (2014–present): Not a masterpiece, but certainly fun enough, especially for fans of The Face on the Milk Carton kinds of stories.
Generation Cryo (2013): Meet Breeanna, a self-possessed, thoughtful 17-year-old on a quest to meet many of her biological half-siblings — a bond they share thanks to a common sperm donor. A gentle, warm exploration of how we form families.
If You Really Knew Me (2010): A doc-style series where facilitators go to different high schools and encourage students to share things about themselves that other people might not know (in order to combat bullying, rigid social sorting, and isolation). Cue the waterworks. I can’t even think about this show without getting choked up.
Made (2002–present): Not every episode is about a teen, but the best ones are. Identity is secretly so malleable, and yet we all feel so trapped in our rigid roles. Sigh.
The Paper (2008): High-school students shouldn’t be able to be on reality shows, just because it’s so ruinous and unfair to put a spotlight on what’s already an emotionally challenging time period. MTV doesn’t follow that rule, though, and this show set in a high-school newspaper evoked an intoxicating combination of schadenfreude, horror, and joy.
Rich Girls (2003): Some shows are just magical.
Sorority Life (2002–2004): There was a time when our culture was slightly less saturated with reality television, and so the subjects of reality TV shows were frequently less guarded, less polished, less “on.” Sorority was among that era’s last gasps.
Taking the Stage (2009–2010): Real-life Fame! Yes!
Teen Mom (2009–present): It started out good, at least.
Teen Wolf (2011–present): If you want a teen werewolf show, you’re not gonna do a lot better than this.
Underemployed (2012): Not quite teen characters, but a strong teen vibe. There were so many weird and off hiccups on this series, and yet … several hugely appealing aspects, too.
Undressed (1999–2002): How were there so many episodes of this show?
ABC FAMILY SHOWS
Mostly good, sometimes earnest.
10 Things I Hate About You (2009–2010): No one cared about this show, which is a real shame: It was actually pretty good.
Beautiful People (2005–2006): A single mom and her two daughters make a go of things in New York. Low-impact, and just soapy enough.
Kyle XY (2006–2009): A perfectly acceptable sci-fi/government conspiracy series.
Lincoln Heights (2007–2009): It’s more of a family-set shows than purely a teen drama, plus there are crime-solving aspects (dad is a cop) and curiosity about urban poverty and decay.
Make It or Break It (2009–2012): I will never understand why there aren’t more gymnastics shows. Never.
The Nine Lives of Chloe King (2011): I will never understand why there aren’t more secretly-a-cat-witch shows. Never.
Pretty Little Liars (2010–present): Hope you like murder-mysteries! And more importantly, never solving them.
State of Grace (2001–2002): Technically this was before ABC Family was ABC Family, but let’s not split hairs. The show starred baby Alia Shawkat and baby Mae Whitman as two BFFs back in 1965.
Switched at Birth (2011–present): I wish more people would give this show a try. It can be a little cheesy once in a while, but it’s also captivating, and one of very few shows to acknowledge, let alone include, deaf culture.
Twisted (2013): A dark, murder-y show in the vein of PLL — so of course it ended on a cliff-hanger.
Wildfire (2005–2008): Troubled teen heals herself by working with horses. Behold, so much ranch romance.
Canada might be the true homeland of the teen series. Watch out for sore-eeys.
Heartland (2007–present): Another horse show, somehow.
Higher Ground (2000): Another troubled teens show, somehow.
Instant Star (2004–2008): What happens after you win a reality contest show? You become awesome. At least that’s what happens in this (scripted) series about an up-and-coming singer-songwriter. Bonus points for some actual good songs.
Radio Free Roscoe (2003–2006): Funky teens start an underground radio station. I don’t know how, but they make it seem very cool.
Whistler (2006–2008): A murder-mystery set within the snowboarding world. No great shakes, but some enjoyable soap nonsense sprinkled here and there.
NOT GOOD, AND YET …
These aren’t shows that are outstanding in any quality-oriented ways, and yet they are strangely addictive and somehow compelling. No judgment.
The Bedford Diaries (2006): A college-set show where everyone’s studying human sexuality. Get it? Because, you know, we’re alllllll studying human sexuality.
Dance Academy (2010–2013): Australia is no Canada when it comes to teen shows. Dance’s acting is generally wooden, and the dialogue very clunky. But … it’s a show set at a dance academy! Of course it’s fun!
H20: Just Add Water (2006–2010): Another entry in the “Really, Australia?” list. It’s not that there’s anything so wrong about a show about teen mermaids, it’s that the acting is somehow less believable than the mermaidhood.
Hellcats (2010): Honestly, this isn’t bad-bad. It’s just a short-lived CW cheerleader drama starring Ashley Tisdale.
Summerland (2004–2005): After their parents die, three sad teens have to move in with their aunt. Luckily, she lives at the beach and is also Aunt Becky from Full House.
Young Americans (2000): Just be Dawson’s Creek.
AND FINALLY, THE STRAGGLERS
These shows are maybe not at the absolute highest level of excellence, but they are worthy of your viewing.
The 100 (2014–present): Battlestar Galactica Jr., and with more kissing. If they could ease off on how many characters use the phrase “my people,” that would improve things greatly, but as-is, a smart and well-paced sci-fi series that grounds its futuristic elements with emotional anchors.
The Carrie Diaries (2013–2014) AnnaSophia Robb glowed as a young Carrie Bradshaw, and even though the show was way better than anyone expected it to be, it never quite established itself outside of Sex and the City’s shadow.
Life As We Know It (2004–2005): More boy-centric than most of the shows on this list, Life centers on a clique of high-school dudes who each take turns addressing the camera. Lots and lots and lots of sex talk.
Point Pleasant (2005): Is this teen girl the devil? Maybe! Could have just been pure schlock, but PP was zippy and sudsy instead.
Puberty Blues (2012–2014): Okay, Australia, you acquitted yourself with this one. The show is set in the ‘70s, with a slightly gauzy aesthetic to match. It’s a patient show, one that moves slowly enough to give small moments major significance.
South of Nowhere (2005): Half-hour dramas aren’t really a thing, but every once in a while one comes along. Come for the transracial adoption stories, stay for the teen lesbian stories.