What makes a good teen drama? If the answer used to be privileged teens living troubled lives and cracking wise about it, Gossip Girl-style, these days it’s a little more complicated.
BBC3’s Overshadowed tackles anorexia with bleak honesty and brutal wit; Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, controversially, tried to do something similar with teen suicide; and one of the year’s most buzzed-about dramas has been Norwegian drama Skam (“Shame”), which built a fervent audience with its innovative real-time webisodes. This week it was announced that Facebook has commissioned an English-language remake – made by Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment for its new Watch platform.
“There’s a fallacy among TV executives that young people are so busy being bewildered by social media that they don’t have time to watch TV. To be frank, that’s bollocks” Bryan Elsley, creator of ‘Skins’
Riverdale and Sweet/Vicious both reimagined the teen drama as modern noir, complete with femmes fatales, double crosses and the sharpest of one-liners. BBC3’s recent hit Clique spun an addictive tale of friendship corroded and opportunities gained and lost. And next week sees the arrival of The End of the F***ing World, a deadpan adaptation of Charles Forsman’s cult graphic novel, which plays out as Badlands by way of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, following two outsiders on a dark yet funny road trip through hell.
“The focus wasn’t so much on making a teen show as on telling an engaging story about two 17-year-olds in a way that was funny, tender, shocking and dark,” says Charlie Covell, who adapted the series for Channel 4. “We tried to ensure that we honoured the tone of the comics by undercutting any sentiment with a deadpan joke or moment.”
That tone ensures the show sometimes feels like the sardonic British cousin to late-1980s cult teen film Heathers (a reboot is due to appear on TV early next year), with Alex Lawther’s nascent psychopath James both intrigued by the prickly Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and convinced he must kill her.
“I was drawn by its strangeness,” admits Lawther. “It is very dark at times but it’s also funny and you end up rooting for James and Alyssa because there is this very appealing sense of them thinking, let’s just get out of here and see what happens.”
“The appeal of a good teen drama is that everyone remembers feeling hopeless at 17. You never forget being a teenager: it’s the best and the worst” Jessica Barden, star of ‘The End of the F****** World’
Covell adds that comedy can make it easier to approach dark subjects. “It doesn’t mean not taking them seriously – quite the opposite: laughing at something is often a way of coping with it.”
A similar irreverence powers Riverdale, which returned to Netflix last week. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s show reimagines the Archie comics as a world pitched somewhere between Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars. This River-dale is both a world away from the all-American comic strip it draws inspiration from yet recognisably the same world, and Aguirre-Sacasa has a great deal of fun playing with both noir and teen drama tropes, allowing his characters to be both world-weary femmes fatales and everyday kids.
“The most interesting work in teen drama at the moment is being done in the Young Adult [YA] area,” says Bryan Elsley, the creator of celebrated teen drama Skins – but he adds that there is still work to be done.
“I honestly think the chances of a show such as Skins being made today are zero. We’d never get it past compliance – the language, the sexual behaviour, the examination of drugs, the level of experimentation in both form and format. It’s also the case that teen shows have to have a hook these days and shows about nothing in particular, as Skins was, tend not to be made.”
Elsley is currently working on a show with just such a hook – an adaptation of Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First, a dark YA thriller about lies, loneliness and the online world told from a female teenage perspective, which is due on E4 early next year.
“I honestly believe that the only reason people dismiss teenage girls is because of misogyny; the reality is that they’re hyper-smart and hyper-critical” Hildegard Ryan, writer of ‘Overshadowed’
“There’s a fallacy among TV executives that young people are so busy being bewildered by social media that they don’t have time to watch TV, and that if they do, it has to be whiz-bang to get their attention because young people get bored easily,” he says.
“To be frank, that’s bollocks. Young adults are among the most engaged audience for dramas; they stick with things, they hunt you down, they tell you when you’re a pillock who has screwed up. When they commit, they go all in.”
Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan, the twentysomething Irish writers behind Overshadowed, which tells the story of one girl’s battle with anorexia through a series of YouTube style vlogs, agree that you dismiss teen viewers at your peril.
“The response from teen girls has been incredible,” says Ryan. “They are a major fan base; they devour everything from books and music to film and TV. I honestly believe that the only reason people dismiss them is because of misogyny; the reality is that they’re hyper-smart and hyper-critical. It would be great if, instead of talking down to those fans, people realised it’s a genre that really says something.”
“I honestly think the chances of a show such as Skins being made today are zero. We’d never get it past compliance” Bryan Elsey
“Teenage female fans are among the most loyal fans you can have and they know when something isn’t good,” adds O’Connor. “And when they like something, they really like it, which is why Skam took over Scandinavia.”
Interestingly, given Esley’s (valid) concerns about hooks, the key to Overshadowed’s success lies largely in the ordinariness of its heroine. Imogene is enthusiastic and awkward, sullen and upbeat. As with the teens from Skam, it’s easy to relate to her story because she feels so real, and when events take a darker turn, we root for her.
“I think shows aimed at younger people can get away with more controversial subjects, because it’s an easier pill to swallow – there is hope because you’re not living your full life yet, so it can get better,” says The End of the F***ing World’s Barden.
“The appeal of a good teen drama is that everyone remembers feeling hopeless at 17. You never forget being a teenager: it’s the best and the worst and it gives you a lifetime of things to overthink at 2am.”
‘The End of the F***ing World’ starts on Tuesday at 10.20pm on Channel 4; the entire series will then be available on All 4. ‘Overshadowed’ is available on BBC3. A new episode of ‘Riverdale’ is added on Netflix every Thursday