I have a not-so-secret secret: I love teen TV. Always have. I love it so much I once wrote a post about it for Gawker, which was a glorious day. (It was Gawker.tv at the time, so it made a lot more sense that they’d let me do that.) It’s some of the most fun, drama-filled, soap-tastic stuff on the airwaves. And you know what else?
It’s definitely helped make me a better YA writer.
Sure, a lot of it is trashy, and massively unrealistic, but even while the storylines read faker than blond Lindsay Lohan, a lot of the smaller stuff that gets through is what really matters. And yeah, maybe at times it can be a bit ridiculous, but if you pull out one storyline – just one subplot – you might be able to take something tiny in the grand scheme of a primetime drama and make it the center of your characters’ world.
To that end, here are a few shows, past and present, that I recommend watching for YA inspiration:
Veronica Mars – Look, even if you don’t write, or you hate teens, just do yourself a favor and watch this show anyway. Season 1 is pretty much the greatest season of any show, ever. But if you happen to want to get a little more out of it, here are a couple of things you probably won’t be able to help but notice:
- Character Development. I’d venture to guess that no teen girl would mind being VM for a day – she’s tough, she’s smart, she’s funny, and sometimes, she’s even a marshmallow. But she’s also vulnerable, and her relationship with her mother isn’t exactly the stuff of dreams, and she doesn’t have money, and, oh right, when the series opens, everyone hates her. The girl has no friends, no allies, and for multiple episodes, just about all her relationships revolve around business transactions. Compare her to the girl she used to be in the flashback scenes and she’s essentially a different person. Then look at her at graduation at the end of season 2 and she’s a different person there too. Her evolution as a person, the way events and injustice and relationships have shaped her character arc, is exactly the sort of thing a good writer should be aiming for.
- Use of Setting. Neptune is a made-up town, of course, but in the very brief description of it as “a town with no middle class” lies the key to understanding the entire series and everything that happens within it. This one simply stated socioeconomic classification turned Neptune into a character of its own, an antagonist of sorts who could find a way to screw everyone simultaneously simply by virtue of its being just who it was.
Switched at Birth – I almost didn’t watch this show because I thought the premise sounded absurd and one of the main characters is played by the actress who basically ruined Gilmore Girls, but I am so, so glad that I did. The show actually does raise some interesting questions around the title incident regarding nature vs. nurture, the luck of the draw (which they’ve used with regard to class and are just starting to use with regard to immigration), and who you are when it turns out your entire identity is a lie. But all of those things pale in comparison to the revolutionary things the show is doing that have almost nothing to do with the switch.
The real heart of the show lies in the exploration of deaf vs. hearing and what happens when they invade each other’s worlds. In addition to (of course) Marlee Matlin, the show features a number of deaf characters, played by deaf actors, and entire scenes go by in which all conversation takes place in sign language. If you’ve ever considered writing a hearing-impaired character, this is definitely the show to watch. If you haven’t, it just might make you start.
(For a far more eloquent treatise on the show than I could ever hope to write, check out this review by Emily Nussbaum for the New Yorker.)
Degrassi: The Next Generation – Nothing against its predecessor, but I’m not all that young and even I find it hard to relate to the teens of the eighties. No single show has covered as much ground when it comes to teen issues as this Canadian import, and if you’re writing an issue book, I dare you to find a topic they haven’t covered first. Cutting? Got it with Ellie. Abuse? Got it with Craig. Date rape? Paige. Teen pregnancy (kept the baby or gave up for adoption), attempted suicide, anorexia, homosexuality, bisexuality, abortion, paralyzation? Mia/Liberty, JT, Emma, Marco/Alex, Paige, Manny, Jimmy.
And those are just the mainstream issues.
My highest recommendations are for the date rape arc (if for nothing else than to watch the progression to Paige’s getting her confidence and control back), the two-part abortion episode that was originally banned in the US, and the school shooting, which is a progression of the abusive relationship. But really, whatever tough teen issue you’re writing about, I’d say it’s worth watching how they handled it first.
The Vampire Diaries – This show is just so good. Obviously it already is a book series, by LJ Smith, but there are a lot of lessons to be learned by watching the show, and there’s just no way I could articulate them any better than i09’s Charlie Jane Anders, so I’ll just leave you with this.
Pretty Little Liars – Ditto on the fact that this is obviously already a book series, but having never read it, here are the kinds of things I highly recommend gleaning from the show:
1) The way all four characters have their own very strong individual styles and personalities.
2) Why a completely forbidden and totally illegal relationship works, and why you root for it to do so against all your better judgment.
3) That you can have a character who’s gay without making him or her exist to be “the gay character.” In fact, he or she can have totally unrelated storylines and relationships that look like everybody else’s!
And, of course, 4) That being an obscenely twisted character comes in many shapes and forms.
Make It or Break It – One of my favorites, and all too short-lived, especially considering a show about trying to make it to the 2012 Olympics should probably include said Olympics. But, for what it’s worth, it’s my favorite example of how passionately teens can pursue careers, the struggles of working like an adult while experiencing the issues and drama of adolescence, and what teen life can look like beyond the classroom. The absolutely pure drive and passion of season-1 Payson Keeler is probably the most refreshing model of a virtuoso I’ve seen on the small screen, and if you’re thinking of writing about a prodigy, whether in music, dance, gymnastics, or beyond, this is definitely a show to watch.
So, those are some of my faves – have any of these shows taught you anything about writing YA? Any other shows come to mind?