40 Best Teen TV Shows of All Time
Growing up is hard to do, but teen TV shows about the horrors and hardships of high school—and ultimately finding yourself—sure are easy to watch.
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Teen TV shows that’ll take you back
Whether you consider teen TV shows to be guilty pleasures or must-see TV, there’s no debating the fact that these comedies, dramas, and soaps shape our wonder years and pull us in long after we’ve graduated from school. The material hits on universal experiences—after all, every human on the planet is either going to be a teen (much to their parents’ discontent), is currently suffering the horrors of puberty, or has already survived school dances, first kisses, brutal breakups, crushed dreams, overbearing parents, peer pressure, college applications, and all the other life lessons that occur while you’re assigned a locker.
The teen genre has experienced a welcome resurgence of late, especially thanks to streaming services rerunning classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The O.C., and Beverly Hills, 90210. There’s plenty of fresh content, too, with networks airing shows like Reservation Dogs, Riverdale, and Euphoria with hopes of capturing the same audience devotion and making a similar pop culture impact. It’s the perfect time to look across the decades at the best adolescent adventures to hit the small screen.
To qualify, a show had to focus primarily on teen characters and teen issues, telling their stories in their voices—which is why you won’t find any reality TV shows or shows about doctors here. We even disqualified shows that centered on a family’s interactions with one another versus teens’ interactions with the world (think Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Growing Pains, and Blossom), though many are fantastic programs. Of the teen TV shows that made our list, many have won awards and earned critics’ praise. One debuted back when LBJ was president, while several came of age in the midst of a global pandemic. A couple are among the best shows on Netflix and the best sitcoms, and others are based on the best teen books. A chosen few, such as Friday Night Lights and Gilmore Girls, even rose above their genre to become some of the best TV shows of all time.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)
Breakout stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, David Boreanaz, Seth Green
When announced, this teen TV show certainly didn’t look all that promising. It was a mostly unproven cast telling a story based on a mediocre vampire movie for a struggling new network. But it turned out to be a clever allegory for the demons you face in adolescence. High school can be hell, and Buffy lived, quite literally, on the Hellmouth. She answered destiny’s call to save the world (a lot) and simultaneously helped her best friend come out of the closet and had to manage brooding boy drama.
The creators never stopped taking chances: A glut of supernatural creatures ran around town, yet natural causes took Buffy’s mom, and it was handled so well that you felt her grief in your bones. The cult classic became the WB’s first hit and cemented the network (which later became the CW) as the teen genre leader, setting the stage for future hits like Roswell, Charmed, Felicity, and Dawson’s Creek. It also changed the game by employing a special musical episode and littering the characters’ snappy dialogue with pop culture references.
Friday Night Lights (2006–2011)
Breakout stars: Michael B. Jordan, Taylor Kitsch, Minka Kelly, Jesse Plemons, Zach Gilford
“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” It was Coach Taylor and the Dillon Panthers’ game day mantra, but it also serves to explain why NBC’s fictionalization of H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s tell-all book about Texas high-school football worked. The network started with an unequivocal goal: make a football show about far more than touchdowns and championships, and pull at heartstrings without going full cornball.
The creative team, quarterbacked by showrunner Jason Katims, who sharpened his skills on two other best teen TV shows on this list (My So-Called Life and Roswell), had a solid playbook of strategies. The show focused on all the F’s (feelings, family, friendship, the unknowable future, the futility of life, and yes, football), tackling real problems like gun violence, overzealous parents, racism, and lack of public school funding. The cast was stacked with capable young actors who pulled their weight against established stars Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.
Even viewers who couldn’t tell a punt from a field goal could relate, which may be why the show was voted the American Film Institute’s TV Program of the Year three times, won an NAACP Image Award, and scored three Emmys. After you’re done bingeing all five seasons, move on to the best football movies of all time.
Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000)
Breakout stars: Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Busy Philipps, James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Lizzy Caplan
We’ll never know what happened to the freaks and geeks of Michigan’s William McKinley High because this totally tubular teen TV show, set in the ’80s, was a one-season wonder. But for that one glorious season, we were privileged to follow mathlete Lindsay on her journey to find herself, the lovable burnouts she crossed paths with, and her brother’s attempt to survive freshman year as an awkward nerd with equally dorky friends by his side.
It made a good faith effort to present a genuine portrait of coming-of-age tribulations without ever forgetting to be incredibly funny. That formula earned it a faithful cult following. But in the end, its greatest legacy is in the talent it churned out. Even Ann Dowd pops up in two episodes. Just imagine how different comedy’s Judd Apatow-verse would look without this gem.
Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990–2000)
Breakout stars: Jason Priestley, Luke Perry, Shannon Doherty, Brian Austin Green
Given how many powerhouse teen drama shows and teen movies we’ve seen in the past 20 years, it’s hard to remember a time when high school students were scarce during prime time. But when Fox, at the time a fledgling network, financed the fishes-out-of-water tale of Midwestern twins transplanted to California’s most elite zip code, it was a gamble that almost didn’t pay off. Adults couldn’t have cared less. But the series, created by Darren Star and masterminded by Aaron Spelling, connected with 40 percent of American teenagers.
Fox capitalized on the target demo by running new episodes over the school-free summer break, an unheard-of strategy at the time, and it worked. The show logged ten years and 293 episodes. It made the actors stars. It started trends. It featured numerous now-famous guest stars, including Hillary Swank, Eva Longoria, and Jessica Alba. And it created a template that paved the way for future high school TV shows. So while there have been much better teen TV shows, there has rarely been one more influential.
Reservation Dogs (2021–present)
Breakout stars: Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor
Let’s be honest: Even if this FX/Hulu show was mediocre, it would deserve a place on this list of teen TV shows based on its remarkable and incomparable on-screen and behind-the-scenes indigenous representation and participation. The creators, Seminole/Muscogee Creek filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and Maori Oscar winner Taika Waititi, hired only indigenous writers and directors. The four leads are also Native American and real teenagers to boot. But it also happens to earn its slot the old-fashioned way: by being a genuinely enjoyable watch.
The critically acclaimed first season follows the misadventures of four friends living on a reservation in a small Oklahoma town while dreaming of an escape to California. Every once in a while, a few adults get to have their own (albeit brief) memorable moments. The comedy comes first, but plenty of real issues are tackled smartly and with care. And while raps about fry bread and the occasional forays into Native spiritualism and the supernatural are very much of their world, the overall takeaway is just how universal the teen experience is on a macro level.
My So-Called Life (1994–1995)
Breakout stars: Claire Danes, Jared Leto
Sadly, this sublime musing on teen angst, the search for self, the power of friend love, and the exhilaration of first crushes (who didn’t have their own Jordan Catalano?) was given only one season by the shortsighted suits at ABC. Fortunately, it took no more than those 19 brilliant episodes to elevate the teen genre and make up-and-coming execs, creators, and advertisers recognize the untapped potential of teen TV audiences and the benefit of treating their problems with the same dignity as grown-ups setbacks.
Many of 15-year-old Angela Chase’s concerns were trivial and temporary, like breakouts or picking the right shade of lipstick, but that’s something you realize with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The show treated all moments, from the irrational and silly to the important and poignant, with the same gravity because that’s how teenagers feel in the moment. And that made all the difference. The sole season was nominated for four Emmy awards and made household names out of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, who’ve since starred in some of the best movies of all time.
Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003)
Breakout stars: Michelle Williams, Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, James Van Der Beek
The kids of Capeside helped define the WB as king of teen TV shows and cement the change in how teens were written in Hollywood. To this day, it remains in the public consciousness as an accurate representation of growing up white in the ’90s. Dawson, Joey, Pacey, and Jen were normal teens with normal issues, but they spoke maturely, sagely, and poetically while using Scrabble words and a ton of pop culture references and sarcasm. Movie fanboy Dawson was allowed to be sensitive and smart; Pacey was the funny misunderstood one. Those dueling dynamics led to a love triangle that divided friend groups. It was one of the first cases in which the audience chose teams and hotly debated who Joey should end up with. It also featured television’s first passionate, prime-time gay kiss and moved the LGBTQ conversation forward.
The O.C. (2003–2007)
Breakout stars: Rachel Bilson, Adam Brody, Mischa Barton, Ben McKenzie
“Welcome to the O.C., b—!” The catchphrase will live in infamy for anyone who watched the soapy drama that kicked off a new age of teen TV. At its center was an unexpected bromance between Ryan, a troubled teen from the wrong side of the tracks, and adorkable smart-ass Seth, arguably one of the best and most interesting teen characters to come to life on the small screen. Seth’s big-hearted lawyer dad invited Ryan to temporarily stay in his shiny Newport Beach mansion. Ryan is shell-shocked by the wealth, privilege, and dismissal of outsiders but grateful for the do-over—and the girl next door. It quickly became appointment TV, thanks to its fish-out-of-water, root-for-the-underdog formula, meta humor, and quote machines Seth and popular girl Summer. It cleaned up for years at the Teen Choice Awards and even made television soundtracks cool again.
Gilmore Girls (2000–2007)
Breakout stars: Alexis Bledel, Lauren Graham, Melissa McCarthy, Milo Ventimiglia
The show walks a thin line between family dramedy and teen TV show, but it’s so endearing, whip-smart, exquisitely cast, pop culture–savvy, well-written, and funny that we’ll allow it. Besides, at least half of it centers on teen Rory and her journey to adulthood. She’s thriving with the help of her awesome, understanding, fast-talking single mom/best friend, Lorelai, who had her at 16 and therefore knows a thing or two about veering off your planned life path. Her postcard-perfect Connecticut town and its quirky residents are another reason Gilmore Girls is one of the best TV shows in the history of the medium. (Yeah, we said it.) It’s the sort of TV show for teenage girls who love books as much as boys—indeed, Rory’s reading habits have inspired book clubs, and her ideal leading man still sparks disagreements. Not only did Gilmore Girls launch the careers of Hollywood heavyweights, but the eternal fan love was enough to propel a comeback season on Netflix.
Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001–2015)
Breakout star: Drake
Since its inception in 1979, the Degrassi universe has encompassed three generations of students across five shows and several TV movies. While all of the chapters have their merits, Degrassi: The Next Generation took the brand international, was nominated for four Emmys, and became a cult favorite with American twentysomethings in the early aughts. As the tagline promised, Degrassi, which covered the lives of students at a fictional school inspired by a diverse, mixed-income Toronto neighborhood, wasn’t afraid to go there. It hit on issues like abuse, homophobia, racism, sexism, bullying, sex, school shootings, LGBTQ+ rights (it featured the first scripted transgender teen in TV history), and a whole lot more. Was it over the top, with a heavy Afterschool Special vibe? Sure, but it was also bold, well-intentioned, and featured age-appropriate and multicultural characters. Plus, it gave the world its first look at the superstar rap skills of Aubrey Graham, whom you probably know as Drake.
Never Have I Ever (2020–present)
Breakout stars: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Darren Barnet, Jaren Lewison
The Office‘s Mindy Kaling took inspiration from her own upbringing as a first-generation Indian American to create this teen TV show on Netflix but chose to set it in the present day. Named after a drinking game, it’s about Devi, a hot-headed and hormonal teen who is still mourning the sudden loss of her beloved father while trying to deal with the pressures of high school, rebrand herself as cool, navigate the complicated relationship she has with her traditional and very strict mother, maintain her constantly evolving friendships, and figure out how to get the hottest guy in school to sleep with her.
The coming-of-age comedy is quick-witted, well-written, smart, original, brimming with charm, and stocked with characters you like, root for, and buy as high schoolers. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but it’s also very important from a representation standpoint; Not only is an Indian family at the center, but secondary storylines involve biracial, Asian, Black, Jewish, and LGBTQ+ people. To get a taste of another culture, tune in to one of the many Netflix Korean dramas.
Veronica Mars (2004–2007; 2019)
Breakout stars: Kristen Bell, Tessa Thompson, Amanda Seyfried
For many of the same reasons this show ranked on our list of best crime shows, it also earns a place on the best teen TV shows list. It’s excellently written, extremely quotable, and excessively watchable. It’s also a refreshingly original tale of a wiser-than-her-years teen detective who sleuths for her classmates and her dad, a disgraced sheriff turned PI in an affluent coastal California enclave called Neptune, all while trying to solve the case of her dead best friend. Headlined by a young Kristen Bell, who had great comedic timing and charisma to spare, the dramedy dives delicately into the aftermath of trauma and deftly into class politics and high-school hierarchies. If you’re more into the cases than the kids, check out these true crime documentaries on Netflix.
The Wonder Years (1988–1993)
Breakout stars: Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Giovanni Ribisi
Considered one of the most beloved feel-good, family-friendly shows of all time by both critics and audiences, the suburban saga won a distinguished Peabody Award as well as four prime-time Emmys during its initial run. Set to a killer classic rock soundtrack, the action follows Kevin Arnold as his girl-crazy hormones kick in and send his “adolescent mind spinning out of control” during the tumultuous late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s a rare show that can cross generational lines, but The Wonder Years brought together grandparents who had parented up in the era, parents who connected with the family, and kids who identified with Kevin and friends.
Even little ones were allowed to watch this mostly innocent show (though they probably would have preferred something from the best kids shows list). While many of the scenarios Kevin found himself in are universal, the perspective was very specific: white, middle class, suburban, and Christian. If that doesn’t sound like you, you might prefer the 2021 reboot featuring a Black family and the voice of Don Cheadle.
Breakout stars: Sydney Sweeney, Hunter Schafer, Maude Apatow
Sam Levinson’s unrelenting, distressing, and very dark teens-in-crisis HBO series should probably have come with a trigger warning for parents of teens and tweens because it—as the kids say—is aggressive. After all, the main character is a 17-year-old addict named Rue (Zendaya, who deservedly won an Emmy for her nuanced portrayal) who suffers from multiple mental disorders, got hooked on drugs when she took her now-dead father’s cancer meds, and just spent the summer in rehab. As she rejoins high school society, viewers are introduced to her tangled web of friends and foes, including her transgender love interest (first-time trans actor Hunter Schafer).
They, too, make one bad decision after another and continually put themselves in dangerous scenarios. From the jump, the show takes a no-holds-barred approach to covering myriad hot-button issues, including body shaming, abuse, sexuality, social media ills, and toxic relationships. It does so with stunning cinematography, lurid lighting, and a perfect score and soundtrack. It’s a tough but important watch that should be used by parents to start conversations with their Gen Z offspring.
Breakout stars: Chris Colfer, Lea Michele, Darren Criss, Harry Shum Jr.
Ryan Murphy’s paean to unpopular misfits and pop covers was an overnight sensation turned cultural phenomenon that Fox parlayed into a profitable U.S. tour, numerous albums, and even a reality show. It was so popular that several of the leads leveraged their seemingly overnight fame to kick-start solo recording careers or (in Chris Colfer’s case) ink book deals. Before its shine was tarnished by a lazy fifth season, ridiculous or rehashed plot points, and numerous scandals and tragedies, the show was darn near perfect television.
Viewers tuned in for characters they loved and some they loved to hate, electric cast chemistry, acerbic wit, catchy musical numbers that breathed life into dusty tunes for a new generation, grade-A guest stars (including Gwyneth Paltrow, Britney Spears, Idina Menzel, and Neil Patrick Harris), and touching moments that dove deep into tough subjects like coming out, grief, and body image. And we haven’t even gotten to Sue Sylvester yet. Jane Lynch’s sarcastic, tracksuit-wearing coach is one of the best small-screen foils/frenemies of all time.
Breakout stars: Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, K.J. Apa
The CW favorite takes the small town and characters made popular in the Archie Comics of the early 1940s and gives them a major glow-up. Out is the wholesome, all-American purity. In its place are murder and other dark mysteries, scandalous subplots—serial killer parents, student-teacher hookups, twincest theories, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg—a noir look, on-point costumes, and love quadrangles. The first season sees Archie and the gang trying to solve a fellow student’s murder while coping with family strife, school woes, and young love. Turns out their little town isn’t as innocent and harmless (read: boring) as they thought.
Things just get stranger from there; the creators aren’t slaves to realism, but if you can hang with that sort of Lynchian model without questioning every kooky twist and turn, it’s a fun ride. Those who miss the musicality of Glee will appreciate that these characters tend to break into song for a whole episode at least once a season. (Fun fact: In issues 641 to 644 of the comic books, Archie and his pals actually cross paths with the troubadours of Glee‘s William McKinley High.)
Breakout star: Sally Field
Before she was covered up as the flying nun, unionized textile workers as Norma Rae, or tried to save her small Texas farm as the widow Edna Spalding, two-time Oscar winner Sally Field was freaking adorable as a precocious, bikini-clad ’60s SoCal surfer girl who liked to boogie, chase boys, and talk on her rotary phone in this classic TV show. Today’s teens might think they won’t be able to relate, but watching Gidget explain how to do the Jerk (a type of dance) to her perplexed but supportive dad, her older sister, and her clueless brother-in-law or accusing them of being square will surely hit home with any kid who has ever had to defend a TikTok dance challenge to their ‘rents.
Gossip Girl (2007–2012)
Breakout stars: Blake Lively, Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford, Leighton Meester, Ed Westwick
Marrying teen TV shows, soap operas, and social satire, Gossip Girl offered a glimpse of the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite—namely, best frenemies Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen, golden boy Nate Archibald, scholarship student Dan Humphrey, and the womanizing slimeball everyone loved to hate, Chuck Bass. The first couple seasons of this book-to-screen adaptation were glorious guilty-pleasure fun, featuring unapologetic frivolity, scheming, backstabbing, underage drinking, drugs, racy sex scenes, and general amoral abuses of power and station.
Later seasons were less steady, but they still set fashion trends (so many headbands!), very effectively used product placement, inspired fandoms and social media discourse, were extensively quotable, and took home 18 Teen Choice Awards over the course of six seasons. The show was such a phenomenon that it got the HBO treatment (with a new cast and characters) earlier this year. These days, you can catch Penn Badgley on the hit Netflix show, “You.”
Breakout star: Keir Gilchrist
With well-formed parents who have distinct journeys, several storylines revolving around the family unit, and lots of the action taking place inside the home, Atypical has all the makings of a family show. But it makes this list of teen TV shows for its groundbreaking, sensitive, informed, and extremely funny handling of an autistic high schooler on the verge of manhood and the people who fill his world and help him grow and flourish. It sensitively balances his need to pull away and do things for himself with his parents’ need to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. Not only does it show that it is OK to be different, but it also argues that being different has advantages and strengths. This show contains one of the best-written sibling relationships we’ve seen in a long time, capturing the idea that your siblings can be jealous and love you simultaneously, tease you, and defend you when others do the same.
Stranger Things (2019–present)
Breakout stars: Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery
Hawkins, Indiana, is a small town with a secret underbelly that, when exposed, turns the throwback ’80s TV show completely upside down. And like in much of the ’80s sci-fi and fantasy cinema its creators, the Duffer Brothers, clearly revere, it’s up to a ragtag group of plucky, nerdy kids and their teen siblings to save the day again and again. What makes the show truly worthy of all-time-best status is the coming-of-age storylines, the portrayal of magical childhood friendships, the carefully crafted Spielbergian aesthetic, the sentimental depiction of suburban Midwestern life, the detailed character studies brought to life by kids who seem like real kids (and talk like them too), and the chemistry among the leads.
Through clever casting, reminiscent filmmaking techniques, authentic costumes, and an avalanche of pop culture references, the award-winning show became a wistful fever dream for those of us who lived through legwarmers while also creating a nostalgic yearning among millennial and Gen Z audiences for a time before they existed.
Party of Five (1994–2000)
Breakout stars: Matthew Fox, Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt
The gritty yin to 90210‘s glossy yang, Fox’s sorrowful story of the Salinger orphans was sadly a little more rooted in reality than the Aaron Spelling–curated lifestyles of the rich and famous. Most kids fantasize about being free of their parents’ rules, but these brothers and sisters, whose parents are killed by a drunk driver, very quickly learn you should be careful what you wish for. Eldest child Charlie must return to the roost to become an instant parent to his younger siblings. Over the years, they each deal with their own demons and dilemmas, including alcoholism, date rape, grief, abortion, and disease; often calling on lessons learned from their parents before the accident. Yes, there was a lot of drama, but this Golden Globe winner felt true to life because was written like a prestige drama and conscientiously acted.
The Wilds (2020–present)
Breakout stars: Sophia Ali, Reign Edwards
Lost with teens? Yes, please! Lord of the Flies but with young ladies? Don’t mind if we do. Castaway meets the Stanford prison experiment? Sign us up. Whether because it debuted in the early days of the pandemic and featured a cast of relative unknowns or because the streamer didn’t allocate enough of a marketing budget, this Amazon Prime TV show flew unfairly under the radar. But if you happened to stumble upon it and give it a chance, you were likely hooked from episode one, in which a group of girls from disparate backgrounds, each with secrets and traumas, gets stranded on a deserted island on the way to an empowerment retreat.
Like Lost, each episode reveals one character’s backstory while flashing forward to island time, where it is quickly established that there’s more to this story than meets the eye. The reveals are well-paced, the characters layered, and the themes weighty yet deftly handled. Heady, emotional moments are interwoven with thriller and mystery elements to keep you bingeing. Great news: A second season is in the works.
Saved by the Bell (1989–1992)
Breakout stars: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen, Mario Lopez, Leah Remini
Saturday mornings were better with NBC’s Bayside High bunch, led by outgoing California teen poster boy Zack Morris. He and his friends— feminist Jessie Spano, jock A.C. Slater, cheerleader Kelly Kapowski, fashionista Lisa Turtle, and goofball Screech Powers—were a slightly less cool or iconic Breakfast Club who imparted life lessons about love, friendship, jealousy, rivalry, working hard, and sportsmanship while roaming the halls wearing neon, falling in and out of love, pranking beleaguered educator Mr. Belding, starting a band, and pigging out at The Max. The show found such a following that the makers and studio kept it going into the college years, produced Saved by the Bell: The New Class from 1993 to 2000, and staged a revival in 2020 under the guise of a more diverse student body being bused to Pacific Palisades as part of a program instituted by Governor Morris.
Breakout stars: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle
Anaïs Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” Pretty sure comediennes Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle created a Hulu TV show to accomplish the same goal. Now adults, the talented duo play realistic versions of themselves as goofy middle-school dorks who yearn to be cool in the dial-up Internet era while surrounded by actual preteen actors. They relieve touchstone moments in their development, including attending their first boy-girl party, running away from home, stealing (and then taking turns wearing) a pair of thong underwear, trying smoking, and dealing with divorcing parents.
Hailed by critics far and wide, the series captures the magic and complexities of female friendship just as it starts to be tested by a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex and the competition it often sparks. More concerned with landing the joke than looking flawless, the twosome provides the most amusement when the actors are at their most awkward. But they also get props for handling sensitive subject matters with delicacy and heart.
Breakout stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Kaya Scodelario, Jack O’Connell
It was Britain’s answer to Degrassi, peeking behind the curtain to provide a realistic yet fictional facsimile of teen life in gritty Bristol by going to the source. Notably, Skins was created by a father and son and employed several age-appropriate folks as writers, including future Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya. It took that insider information and covered the tough stuff: mental illness, coming out, unreliable authority figures, substance abuse, and sexuality. In fact, the show often got in trouble for its warts-and-all depictions of partying and sex, but it also got kudos for regularly showing the consequences of risky behaviors. Another part of its legacy is its extremely deep bench of young talent. Whatever you do, don’t settle for MTV’s subpar American adaptation.
13 Reasons Why (2017–2020)
Breakout stars: Katherine Langford, Dylan Minnette, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn
Although later seasons weren’t as powerful, poignant, or cerebral as the popular and super-sad book it was based on, this Netflix teen drama’s first year was an engaging and thought-provoking study of a topic that probably isn’t discussed enough: suicide. Hannah takes her own life, but not before recording tapes to explain how she arrived at her tragic decision. When the show begins, the tapes have made their way to Clay, her friend, coworker, and crush, and while viewers see pivotal moments from his perspective, they also get Hannah’s point of view as well. Each installment focuses on someone who wronged her and pushed her closer to ending it all.
In the process of unraveling the mystery (why did Hannah kill herself?), it shines a light on themes like cyberbullying, sexuality, rape, toxicity, peer pressure, and male privilege. Her pain is palpable, as is that of her parents and Clay, and witnessing that might leave a lasting impression. Go into this one knowing the creators didn’t hold back, and it may not be appropriate for teens—or adults—who find suicide triggering.
The Vampire Diaries (2009–2017)
Breakout stars: Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, Ian Somerhalder
At the height of the vampire craze, which included a string of vampire books and movies, came this TV tale of epic love triangles centuries in the making. The main vein it taps is the bloodthirsty rivalry between the two Salvatore brothers, who were turned just after the Civil War and keep falling in love with the same women. Most recently, they’ve set their sights on Elena, who plays an important role in defeating the Big Bads that just keep coming to town. The pilot attracted the largest audience the CW had ever had for a series premiere and was the network’s most-watched show until Arrow came along in 2012.
Big Mouth (2017–present)
Biggest stars: Nick Kroll, John Mulaney
If you find enjoyment in endless references to masturbation, pubic hair, and periods, or appreciate crass but frank depictions of the humiliations of changing bodies and raging hormones, this two-dimensional take on the angst and antics of adolescence is a must-watch teen TV show on Netflix. Admittedly, it might be more appropriate for older teens and adults, despite being about tweens. The animation is much simpler than the points it is making. It’s weird, repulsive, and gross; but also original, very relatable, endearing, and filled with an insane level of voice talent. The roster includes established comedians like Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, and Jordan Peele. And it’s extremely funny to boot.
Breakout star: Brandy Norwood
There had, of course, been Black teens on TV before singer Brandy Norwood embodied the headstrong, outspoken, and stylish high schooler. But most of them were side characters or came to screens as part of a family unit. Moesha put a Black teen front and center and highlighted her experiences with social issues like premarital sex, race relations, gender inequality, and peer pressure. The creators made conscious choices to help sell the “typical teen” aspect: They gave her braids, featured designers that spoke to the characters’ real-life equivalents (Moesha wore Christian Louboutins a couple years before Carrie Bradshaw made the red soles famous), set the show in a historically upper-middle-class Black neighborhood in Los Angeles, and hired black musicians as guest stars. The role model helped shape TV’s future depictions of funny, flawed, smart Black girls. In the process, it was recognized with awards from the NAACP and the Parents Television Council, among others. For more Black girl magic, try one of these books by Black authors.
The Facts of Life (1979–1988)
Breakout star: George Clooney
When compared to recent shows like Euphoria, this Diff’rent Strokes spin-off, like many ’80s movies and TV shows, seems so tame and innocent. But in the context of the decade, the goings-on of a dorm at an all-girls boarding school was edgy enough to tackle pressing issues like sex, drugs, and racism while imparting a moral lesson couched between silly jokes. (Bonus points for that catchy theme song, which was co-written by TV super dad Alan Thicke.) The first season was muddled with too many characters, but a retool before season two narrowed the field to students Blair, Natalie, Tootie, and Jo and their wise but oft-flustered den mother, Mrs. Garrett. That fix, plus oodles of heart and a hunky neighbor with a memorable mullet (a pre-ER George Clooney), made the series NBC’s most successful.
On My Block (2018–2021)
Breakout stars: Brett Gray, Sierra Capri, Jason Genao
There are several quality teen TV shows on Netflix, and one of the most worthwhile watches, whether or not the perils and pitfalls of high school are in your rearview mirror, is this South Central–set story about four street-smart and smart-smart friends trying to figure out how to stick together and survive the four years until they can escape to college. The journey is complicated when two of them hook up in secret and one of them is folded into the family gang after his brother, one of the hood’s most legendary thugs, returns from a stint behind bars. Netflix deserves another pat on the back for picking up a program about underrepresented groups—this time it’s Latinx, Black, and low-income, inner-city families. The kids feel real: cute but not CW-esque supermodels, mature but also goofy. And while some of the subject matter is heavy and emotional, the writers use levity and lighthearted moments to let the audience exhale and smile.
Pretty Little Liars (2010–2017)
Breakout stars: Lucy Hale, Shay Mitchell, Ashley Benson, Troian Bellisario
Teens love a soapy mystery, and the rabid fan base for Pretty Little Liars, based on the best-selling novels for teens, is one plot point on the graph that proves it. It follows high school best buds Aria, Spencer, Emily, and Hanna as they investigate and cope with the disappearance and supposed death of mean-girl-in-chief Alison DiLaurentis. They soon find themselves being taunted by an all-knowing foe who goes by A and who threatens to reveal their deepest, darkest secret à la Gossip Girl. It capitalized on the mystery-meets-psychodrama format, was endlessly fun while keeping you guessing, gave fandom “shippers” plenty of couples to root for, and was one of the first shows to strategically use social media to interact with its die-hard fans for seven seasons full of shocking twists and reveals.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018–2020)
Breakout stars: Kiernan Shipka, Chance Perdomo
Darker and more macabre than both the coming-of-age Archie comic books and the 1996 Melissa Joan Hart vehicle it was conjured out of, this bildungsroman about a teenage witch proves it’s OK to fail and to be different (yes, even in high school), that traditional parenting isn’t always better, that blood isn’t the only thing that makes a family, and that all teenagers struggle with managing their emotions. Sabrina is an imperfect, ever-evolving person, clocking entrenched injustice while suffering the consequences of her actions. To that end, it’s a surprisingly layered and apt look at the gender politics of power and what happens to women who dare to lay claim to it. Just like most of us ladies, she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. For her, it’s just a wee bit more literal.
One Tree Hill (2003–2012)
Breakout stars: Chad Michael Murray, Sophia Bush
This story of two estranged half-brothers whose lives collide for the first time on the basketball court was soapy, often gratuitous, and at times wacky. (Remember when a dog ate Dan’s transplant heart, or when he used the school shooting as cover to murder his own brother?) But it also left a lasting impression on teens who followed along for nine seasons and has seen a resurgence as many a Gen Z viewer binged the series in a pandemic Hulu hunt. As much as this show was about boys being boys, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention and herald the spectacular ladies in the brothers’ lives who often marched them into the light of reason while making sex tapes, having babies, being stalked, or falling into comas on their wedding nights (yep, it happened).
Breakout star: Justice Smith
Created by two gay industry dads and their out-and-proud daughter while she was still attending high school, the new HBO Max LGBTQ+ show bravely and unapologetically swims in controversial waters of gender identity, teen sexuality, religion, pregnancy, drugs, mental illness, school shootings, divided politics, and wokeness through a Gen Z lens. It features a rainbow flag’s worth of genders and sexualities and combines comedy and drama like the aforementioned Euphoria. But unlike its network mate, it allows for a vast amount of queer joy. Yes, there are serious moments—Greta’s mom is deported; Chester pursues the new guidance counselor on Grindr—but the stronger moments are actually when these kids stop debating the gendered language of math problems or fighting with one another and just let their not-yet-adult sides come out to play.
The Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008–2013)
Breakout star: Shailene Woodley
This ABC Family drama aspired to show the positive and negative consequences of unprotected sex, unplanned teen pregnancy, and teen motherhood on the birth mom and bio dad. Through its five seasons, it showed how those decisions reverberated through a close-knit group of friends and family members. It was at times over the top and brimming with soapy ridiculousness, but it was earnest in its attempt. Viewers really rooted for Amy, thanks mostly to the charisma of Shailene Woodley in a star-making role. And while the show easily could’ve gone the trite route of portraying a bad girl from the wrong side of town whose sexual exploits caught up with her, it offered a fresher take, with the wholesome good girl from a strong stable family who accidentally got pregnant. Ultimately, the show was a cautionary tale that kids could learn from, with a hefty dose of drama on top.
Boy Meets World (1993–2000)
Breakout star: Ben Savage
Ben Savage followed in his brother, Fred, into teen TV territory just as the elder Savage’s award-winning show signed off. And so he became an icon for the next generation of TV fans as Cory Matthews. The series starts when Cory is in middle school and follows him into high school, the material maturing with the characters (and audience), tackling issues like kissing another girl during a ski trip, almost eloping too young, and underage drinking. It’s not without fault, of course. Given the show’s Philadelphia setting, it was a little too white and too wholesome. And the producers effectively clipped the wings of Topanga, Cory’s love interest and clearly the smartest and most driven of the bunch, by allowing Cory to convince her not to go to Yale. Despite its faults, it’s a ’90s classic that was popular enough for a 2014 remake.
Breakout star: Tracy Grandstaff
Beloved by Gen X cool kids and outcasts who were in their 20s when MTV debuted this animated and angsty eye-roller, Daria Morgendorffer (the surname alone deserves kudos!) was first seen on the music video channel’s megahit predecessor Beavis and Butt-Head. But the dry and sarcastic misfit in big glasses earned her own show when her family moved to Lawndale, she met BFF Jane Lane, and her wry wit blossomed. When it came to the popular girls at her high school, inept teachers, her annoyingly effervescent sibling, and other relatable situations we all found ourselves in at that age, she repeatedly found the words all of us wished we had said. This cartoon show continues to find new generations of adoring fans thanks to reruns and streaming services. In fact, in a testament to her importance, multiple new Daria-related series are currently in development.
Breakout stars: Katherine Heigl, Shiri Appleby
Supernaturally enhanced peeps experiencing puberty dominate today’s teen TV landscape. Not so much in the late ’90s. Back then, even Buffy and her crew were only a couple of years old. So when three extraterrestrial-human hybrids landed on the WB, people paid attention. Frankly, given how apt metaphor aliens are for teenagers, we’re not surprised this series took off. At its center is the epic love story between champion brooder Max and local waitress Liz, whom he healed using his alien powers. Roswell easily could have easily veered into cheesy territory, especially given the lower TV budgets back then. But the alien drama was saved by the balance of science-fiction world-building, great cast chemistry, and nuanced character development that was likely spearheaded in the writing room by Jason Katims, who went on to create heartfelt gems like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, and Ronald D. Moore, the mastermind behind the Battlestar Galactica reboot and the time-travel romance Outlander.
Welcome Back, Kotter (1975–1979)
Breakout star: John Travolta
The titular Mr. Kotter, now a teacher, returns to work at his alma mater only to be assigned to the remedial class he was once in. It’s full of Sweathogs, the gang he once belonged to and now gets life lessons from (much to the amusement of the home audience). In the halls of James Buchanan High, the creators tried to accurately reflect the diverse Brooklyn borough within which it was set. You’ll meet characters named Juan Epstein, Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, Arnold Horshack (he of the unforgettable chortle), and Vinnie Barbarino, the porcine posse’s leader played by a then-unknown John Travolta. It also boasts one of the greatest opening ditties of all time, which became a hit in its own right.