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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

The Evolution Of The Teen Drama Series : Buffy 1997-2003

Kelly West

Monday 19 June 2006, by Webmaster

The Clicker Acknowledges The Evolution Of The Teen Drama Series The existence of the American Teen Drama series is something that most teenagers today take for granted. Afterall, on any given night, a kid can turn on the TV and find some show set in a high school or college that involves teenagers and young-adults battling a myriad of dramatic issues. This was not always the case though. Only in the last twenty years or so have networks begun to recognize the huge teen demographic in this country that are craving TV shows they can relate to. Aaron Spelling’s ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ was one of the first truly successful teen drama series. After ‘90210’ aired, an onslaught of teen drama shows followed in its wake, hoping for the same success.

It would be an understatement to say that while ’90210’ may have paved the way for future high-schooly type shows, it was by no means, the best of it’s genre. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of ’90210’ (One of my guiltiest pleasures is the collection of ’90210’ reruns on my Tivo) but show’s like ’Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ and ’Veronica Mars’ outstrip ’90210’ by miles. And while shows like ’The OC’ carry the torch for one-dimensional teen drama shows like ’90210’, writers such as Joss Whedon (’Buffy’) and Rob Thomas (’Veronica Mars’) are catering to the teens and young adults who don’t mind thinking and feeling while watching TV.

So here’s my breakdown of some of the more popular teen dramas.

’Beverly Hills, 90210’ (1990 - 2000) - In its 10-year run, ’90210’ captured an audience ranging from about 13 to 25. It started out centering on a family from Minnesota who moved to Beverly Hills and attempted to adjust to the ritzy LA lifestyle. In their high school years, twins Brenda and Brandon Walsh and their gang of over-privileged pals battled the usual issues (sex, mild drug abuse, cheating on exams, etc) but by the end of the series the group’s issues had expanded greatly. In fact, if you added up all of the crazy things that have happened to the ’90210’ friends, you’d realize just how ridiculous it all was.

Sure there has to be an element of suspension of disbelief but the writers of ’90210’ took the show to the level of soap-opera-fakeness. If the ’90210’ gang could make a list of all of their misfortunes, it would include: rape, murder, unplanned pregnancy, alcohol abuse, dozens of infidelities (many of which included members of their tight group of friends), drug abuse, gambling addiction, theft, wrongful accusations and abusive boyfriends among other things.

In essence, the show relied on dramatic circumstances to keep viewers interested. While that’s all fine and good because afterall, this is a teen-drama series, other shows that came later proved it wasn’t necessary to over-dramatize the lives of regular people in order to produce a watchable show. ’Party of Five’ was not one of these exceptions.

’Party of Five’ (1994 - 2000) - Like ’90210’, ’Party of Five’ was supposed to center around an "average" American family, however, the Salingers were by no means, average. After losing their parents in a car accident, the Salingers have to raise themselves. Charlie (the oldest of the siblings) as the reluctant father-figure, Bailey, Julia, Claudia and Owen (the baby) attempt to make it on their own so they wont get split up. The premise of the show was good and lasted about half a season before the real drama set in.

Writers apparently ran out of normal, realistic circumstances to put the Salingers through and decided to throw the not-so-typical problems into the mix. Alcoholism, abuse and date rape, among other things became part of the daily Salinger life. Once I realized nothing good ever happened to the Salingers, I stopped watching. I don’t mind a bit of drama but who wants to watch a show where the characters are always miserable? ’Dawson’s Creek’ fans, maybe.

My So Called Life ’My So Called Life’ (1994 - 1995) - ’My So Called Life’ was a short-lived drama series that managed to capture the truth of a generation. If I wanted to show my kids what it was like to be a teenager in "my day", I would hand them the DVD set of ’My So Called Life’. Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes) was just your average American teenager. Going through the usual teen identity crisis, she abandons her childhood friends in favor of the outcast-crowd. The show essentially centers on Angela, her old friends, her new friends and her family, all of which are intertwined. In the eyes of many teens that watched the show, she was a real girl.

The show’s demise was said to be a combination of poor ratings and Claire Danes’ desire to pursue a film career. It ended prematurely, leaving viewers to wonder if Angela would end up with dreamy but somewhat mentally vacant Jordan Catalano (Mmmm Jared Leto) or nerdy but sweet Brian Krakow? Chances are if the show continued, she wouldn’t have ended up with either of them. In the end, the show stayed as true to real-life as it got and how often does high school romance last, anyway? Either way, viewers were devastated when the show was cancelled. MTV reran the episodes on and off for a year or two afterwards and die-hard fans managed to get the show distributed on DVD for a brief time. I like to think ’My So Called Life’ was a bit to ahead of its time in terms of writing.

’Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003) - I just heard all the Whedon-haters sigh. Hear me out, though! I myself was anti-Buffy until very recently!

’Buffy’ was a phenomenal show that I regret having missed the boat on. In fact, I didn’t watch the series until two years after the final season aired. It was one of those shows that annoyed me even though I’d never caught more than a few minutes of it. It wasn’t until after I watched the series that I realized it was/is the fandom surrounding the show and not the series itself, which tends to irritate non-’Buffy’ fans. Scoobies

Joss Whedon put the ’Buffy’ series together a year or two after the film version of ’Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ came out. The show was nothing like the movie and perhaps that was what drew some viewers in and drove other viewers away. Set in the fictional town of Sunnydale, California, ’Buffy’ is the "chosen one". There’s one Slayer in every generation and Buffy’s it. She and her mother move to Sunnydale, which Buffy quickly learns is set on the mouth of hell. Sunnydale being all hell-mouthy means its basically a magnet for demons. As fate would have it, Buffy shows up in time to repeatedly ward off the forces of evil while maintaining a decent GPA.

Demons aside, ’Buffy’ was one of the best teen drama series in television history. Definitely in the top three. Joss Whedon managed to capture the minds and hearts of viewers with characters who are not only good looking (a necessary factor in any successful teen-drama show) but also smart, funny and emotionally realistic.

It could be said that ’Buffy’ was one of the first teen drama shows that recognized the ability of teen and young-adult viewers’ to think and watch tv at the same time. The formula for the show defied the usual "OMG! Bailey’s an alcoholic! Dylan cheated on Brenda!" junk that other teen shows force-fed their viewers. Instead of the melodramatic ’90210’ route, Whedon addressed the hardships of adolescence indirectly through the supernatural stuff. In that way he was able to make a quality teen/young-adult drama series that didn’t recycle storylines from other shows.

Each season had the overall "Big Bad" that Buffy and her "scoobies" had to battle but there were also many stand-alone episodes. It’s in these episodes (usually when there’s a new demon in town who wont make it to the end of the episode) that the characters in the show are developed. Whedon’s characters are multi-dimensional. Not only do they have realistic attributes (including flaws!) but they also have memories. When I say memories, I mean they actually remember things that happened in previous seasons and reference them from time to time. Unlike shows like ’90210’ where its ok to date your friend because chances are, one year later it will be as though the relationship never existed, ’Buffy’ characters are actually affected by their interactions for more than just a few episodes.

It’s almost as though Whedon made a list of all the teen-drama clichés and said "How can I make a show that doesn’t have any of this and maybe even on occasion, pokes fun at these clichés". ’Buffy’ raised the bar when it comes to drama in a TV series and not just among teens and young adults. As a 28-year-old, I can honestly say that few shows (adult and young adult alike) measure up to the quality of writing in the ’Buffy’ series.

’Freaks and Geeks’ (1999 - 2000) - Another teen series that was squashed well before its time was ’Freaks and Geeks’. Set in the early 80s, this show would technically be defined as a "dramedy" because though it was quite a dramatic series, there was definitely an element of humor mixed in. freaksgeeks

‘Freaks and Geeks’ centered on Lindsey Weir and her younger brother. While Lindsey attempts to abandon her group of mathlete-band-geek friends in favor of the grungier crowd (you know, the ones who barely go to class and can often be found smoking under the bleachers), her younger brother Sam struggles with the realization that he is in fact, a geek. Like any significantly dorky kid in the 80s, Sam and his friends spend their time playing D&D, returning to the theaters repeatedly to watch Star Wars for the billionth time and of course, getting their butts kicked at Dodgeball. While Sam is busy getting pantsed, Lindsey wants desperately to shed her goody-goody reputation and manages to gain the friendship of some of the "freaks" in the school. Once in with them, she finds that the grass really is always greener on the other side of the cafeteria. The show got cancelled right around the time when it seemed Lindsey was finding a balance between who she was and who she thought she wanted to be.

Like ’My So Called Life’, viewers felt they could relate to the Weirs and the other characters in the show (both the freaks and the geeks). The show didn’t last to the end of its first season but was re-aired on Fox Family after its cancellation. The humor of the show centered mainly on the 80’s-ness. Common references to 80’s pop-culture were made throughout the series, which made the show all the more enjoyable. I blame the failure of the show on NBC for moving it around too much. The show’s inability to anchor itself to a timeslot no doubt affected its ratings. Afterall, it was aired in the pre-Tivo years. How can we watch a show when we don’t know when its going to be on? What a waste. Buy the DVD set. You wont be disappointed.

’Veronica Mars’ (2004 - present) - Like ’Buffy’, I was late in the game with ’Veronica Mars’. Its on UPN and as I barely watch that channel, it never occurred to me to give this show a chance. Season 2 finished up this year and after hearing that the writing was comparable to ’Buffy’, I decided to give it a chance. I netflixed the first disc of Season 1 and after four episodes, I bought the season on DVD. I’d seen enough in the first four episodes of the show to know that this was one of those rare quality teen-drama shows that comes around once every five years or so. I was not about to miss the boat this time around. Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars is a high school student whose father is a private detective. As the apple to her father’s tree, Veronica takes after her old man by moonlighting as a private detective. In season one, we’re introduced to the cute and perky Veronica, a high school student who, after the death of her best friend Lily, has been cast out of the "cool crowd" (The ’09ers). Along with doing side-job detective work for her fellow classmates, she does her best to find out who really killed her best friend.

What makes ’Veronica Mars’ one of the best series on TV today? Good writing, plain and simple. While the show’s reality definitely leans towards the make-believe existence in which many teen-drama shows reside (by season 2, four of the main characters were living on their own without parental supervision despite the fact that they’re all still in high school), the characters in ’VM’ are well developed and more human than most of the plastic characters you see in teen dramas. Their behavior has a reason as well as a purpose. Throughout the first two seasons, getting to understand what motivates the characters has been part of what draws viewers back.

The hook of ’VM’ is the detective work. A common theme between the first two seasons is the big mystery. In season one it was "Who Killed Lily?" and in season two it was "Who caused the bus to crash?". But it’s the little mysteries that keep ’VM’ fresh. Whether she’s finding a lost dog or proving a friend’s innocence, Veronica is almost always willing and able to take on a new mystery. She’s loyal and well intentioned (unless you get on her bad side, in which case, watch out!).

Veronica’s personal relationships with her father, her friends and boyfriends (especially the on-again/off-again relationship with Logan) have definitely played a part in the growing number of viewers (mostly teens and young adults) who are addicted to the show. Again, I attribute this to a combination of good writing and good chemistry among the actors. Never once in the 10 years that ’90210’ was I ever so caught up in the relationships of the characters the way I am with the ones in ’Veronica Mars’. Granted these teenagers barely act like real teenagers but the intensity of their relationships and the way they’re portrayed on screen have put the show very high up on my list of best tv shows ever (I’ll write it in pencil though, as the show is only in onto its third season). The show can deliver a simple moment like two characters having their first kiss, in such a way that viewers will find themselves holding their breaths through the scene and then clawing for their DVR remote to roll it back and see it again (ok maybe I’m just speaking for myself here but there you are).

The right lighting, the right music, well written lines (thank you Rob Thomas!) and phenomenal acting all contribute to the success of these moments and its these moments that make the show as good as it is. In this way, ’Veronica Mars’ makes shows like ’90210’ look like cheesy teen soap operas with corny story lines and absolutely no suspense or plot-momentum. Then again, that is pretty much what ’90210’ was.

Much like ’Buffy’, ’Veronica Mars’ seems to have developed a pretty intense fan base. When UPN and WB were deliberating over which shows to keep and which shows to dump once the networks officially merged into the CW Network, fans launched internet campaigns to make sure season 3 of Veronica Mars would happen. Some fans even went so far as to have a banner flown over CW headquarters just to make sure execs knew the show was wanted. Their voices were heard and the show is set to air on the CW Network this fall.

So there you have it. I know there are a number of other teen-drama shows out there that went unmentioned (’Popular’, ’Felicity’, ’Degrassi High’ etc) but it was my intention to touch on the ones that I think had the biggest impact on the genre (for better or for worse) or served as the best example of its kind.

Many people look down their noses at this type of show but I consider my tastes in television programs to be pretty eclectic. Teen Dramas seem to be evolving from what they once were (soapy fluff) and finally giving teenagers and young adults a genre they can latch onto and realistic characters that they can idolize or demonize to their liking. While there will always be ‘OC’ type shows out there catering to the future soap-opera addicts of America, its comforting to know that shows like ‘Buffy’ and ‘Veronica Mars’ are raising the standard for teen drama series’.