ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars follows four girls whose clique falls apart after the disappearance of their queen bee
As the best television programming keeps moving away from the traditional September to May season structures, and shows go off the air for extended periods at a time, I’ve taken to keeping a list on my computer of the shows I watch so that I don’t lose track. Every season new shows get added to my list and ones I’ve lost interest in get cut. Last year I added ABC Family’s Awkward (a coming-of-age comedy) and The Lying Game (a soapy-drama). This year, the CW’s Carrie Diaries made the list. In university I was a Veronica Mars and Friday Night Lights fan, and in the years around teen-dom I perched on the sofa attentively gazing at Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls and The OC. I’ve done the My So Called Life and Freaks and Geeks marathons, and, while I watch plenty of shows set in the adult world as well, there’s no denying that, in my blissful age of quarterlife, prime-time high school dramas have not lost their appeal. I’m not proud of my vice, but I’m not alone.
Take, for instance, The CW. With a strong target market consisting mainly of adults — mostly females — aged 18-34, the network is home to masterpiece theatre like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and the 90210 reboot, not to mention a good chunk of the shows mentioned above. Because of its programming, The CW has steadily attracted viewers that skew younger and older than the high school-aged characters that inhabit the plot lines of sex and lust, or of the supernatural and the superficial.
Perhaps we can relate to teenage heroines and that, in turn, makes us nostalgic for times that have only just escaped us. “High school is the time we start to act like grown-ups, or at least think we do. It’s a world of firsts: first boyfriends, first sexual encounters…first drunken party. I’d say not much is set in university because many people don’t make it there — it seems a bit elitist,” points out a male colleague. “But everyone went to high school.” There’s no doubt that high school is a highly relatable experience that can trigger a lot of powerful memories in viewers. Even though the storylines aren’t the most realistic (hello, the worst things that can happen to anyone happen to everyone on Degrassi), it’s more than just relating that makes these shows popular.
Nicolette Hirsch Stacey, still a teenager herself, explained that the scenarios played out in her favourite television shows provided “a constant ‘Oh I’ve been there’ feeling.” At the same time, she pointed out they “start with something viewers can relate to and then expand… to the highest most dramatic point to attract the viewer and keep the show interesting. If shows like Vampire Diaries or Pretty Little Liars were realistic, then surely they wouldn’t be as popular as they are,” she says.
A fellow 20-something friend had a similar thought: “Western society has romanticized high school,” she tells me when I ask what she thinks is so attractive about this milieu. “It’s a time that we all really remember vividly in our minds because of the physical and emotional changes that coincide with it… [making it] a great period to set a story full of heightened drama and romance.” These are the kinds of stories that the prime-time world of high schools thrives on, the perfect construction of escapism. With lavish parties, surprise inheritances, unattainable internships and opportunities attained, and curiously lax parents, these high school kids make living well look effortless — and damn it if we’re not just a little envious.
As aspirational cultural artifacts, shows like The Carrie Diaries and Awkward give younger viewers a reason to look forward to the “ideal” high school experience and older viewers a chance to rewrite their own high school traumas by living vicariously through the characters on screen. Didn’t make it into an Ivy League college? That’s fine: Rory can walk you through it on Gilmore Girls. Always wondered what it’s like to work at a fast-paced, exciting New York publication, public relations company, or fashion house? The Carrie Diaries and Gossip Girl got you covered. Missed out on being the outcast that lands the popular jock for a star-crossed romance? Don’t you worry, child, any number of the aforementioned shows will help you play out that fantasy.
It helps that most of the characters on these shows don’t speak like real teenagers — adults who can look back on high school with wisdom and perspective write their lines. The characters created are more insightful and relevant than true teenagers might otherwise be. What’s more, the actors themselves are often not teenagers either and we find ourselves relating to their real life personas as much as their characters. (Crazy fact: 34-year-old hunk Trevor Donovan played a 17-year-old gay jock who, duh, has a torrid relationship on 90210.)
But if we’re after characters that resemble us, can’t we find shows with heroines our own age to relate to and entertain us? Or does the ability to look back on our high school years with impunity add to the allure? Maybe we keep watching these shows even once we’ve entered the adult world because now that we have distance from the situations of these fictional characters, we feel wise and experienced in comparison. We feel for them, not with them. In a time where most 20-somethings, and even in those in their 30s, are still “soul searching” — figuring out careers like we were figuring out high school, forever navigating heartbreaks like teens do — this semblance of superiority is important. Sure, we may not be acting out our lives as we scripted them, but at least we’re not in high school.
“I don’t think that I’ll be watching any of these shows as I get older,” said Hirsch Stacey when I asked her if she thought she’d one day find herself in my situation. “The farther away I get from high school, there will be a new age group and a new set of shows I can relate to.”
Maybe if I wasn’t still watching these shows from the same couch in the same house that I spent most nights back in high school, I would be less attracted to their ever-repeating plots. Maybe if I felt like a real adult, I would only watch adult shows. But what the hell is an ‘adult show,’ anyway?