By Sang Kromah
Think about all of the U.S.-based, teen television dramas you watch. Now, how many characters do you see that look like you or the people you know currently or when you were that age?
If we’re all being honest, I can’t think of one TV show that fits that description, and that’s problematic. And when there are teens on dramas, they’re so made up that they look like they’ll be collecting a pension check any day now. Every physical flaw is airbrushed or surgically removed or enhanced. No one is realistically flawed or believably awkward. Now, let’s think about the issues. Are the issues they deal with remotely similar to the ones teens are dealing with today? Do they resonate with the intended audience?
Producers, casting agents, writers, Hollywood, you’ve got to do better! In the words of Kendrick Lamar, “Show me something real.” Everything we see is telling teens they aren’t good enough and that their problems are unique to them because there are no examples of what teens go through or how to overcome it or even consequences of certain behaviors. Representation matters. Characters that look like you matter.
I’m no snob, but let’s be honest, when it comes to teen drama, these days, there’s one thing missing from U.S.-based teen TV. Authenticity. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Pretty Little Liars, 90210, and Gossip Girl as much as the next girl, but even the dramas that aren’t meant to be fantasy appear to be so, because their problems are so far-fetched and their physical appearances are so perfect you have to wonder if the popular kids in your high school were ever that flawless. It’s hard to believe the turmoil of the characters because they don’t even look like teenagers.
In real life, popular doesn’t always translate into physical beauty. Sometimes it’s just the swagger that person has that makes people gravitate towards them, which makes them seem invincible. And even when someone is physically beautiful, they are far from being physically flawless. This is where U.S.-based TV is failing us. Nothing about what we’re presented with is relatable and a dangerously unrealistic standard or beauty is being set that have teens second-guessing themselves physically and following dangerous trends to fit in.
So then it must be asked, is it possible to create a television show that’s appealing to teens, where the characters are realistic and relatable? Is it possible for that same series to be honest, compelling, and likable?
The answer is yes. These realistic and compelling teen dramas have worked and still work in Canada and the U.K. These series all have very different takes on teenage life and they are popular, so why not the United States?
Because of the lack of realistic characters and stories, I often find myself in search of international TV series to find a dose of reality in the entertainment I consume. The first thing that is apparent on all the international teen dramas I watch is that they cast actual teens to play teenagers. They act like teens, have legit and relevant teen problems, they’re diverse and look like kids you’d see in your neighborhood. Dig a little further and you’ll find that many of them are first-time actors and actresses, so they’re raw and bring something fresh to each series. They talk about issues from perspectives we aren’t used to seeing on TV in the U.S., but in real life, we know people who’ve dealt with these things.
No wonder people are looking for alternatives. By now, we’re all familiar with at least one international TV series. Or if you’re like me, you’re constantly on the lookout for new content from abroad.
But not everyone is blind to the U.K.’s formula of teen drama success as Netflix is currently increasing its investment in British TV, and is currently producing a British-based teen drama. So, when are U.S. television producers and casting directors going to take a look at actual teens and produce something authentic? While we wait for that to happen or create a television series of our own, let’s go through a list of international teen dramas that get it right.
“My Mad Fat Diary” is based on the autobiographical book, written by Rae Earl about being bullied and suffering from mental illness at seventeen. Set in the glorious 90’s in Stamford, Lincolnshire (England), the television series is a realistic look into the world through seventeen-year-old Rae Earl, who struggles with her weight, is bullied, and has spent time in a psychiatric hospital. Nothing is wrapped up nicely with a bow as she struggles to balance friendships within the hospital and out, love, her weight, home-life, being bullied, self-love, school, and her family life. It’s real and absolutely brilliant. Outside of Rae’s own struggles, you are allowed to see the ups and downs of those around her, who seem to be perfect but have demons of their own they struggle with. The entire series can be found on Hulu.
“Some Girls” is one of the most diverse casts I’ve ever seen. It’s a series that follows Viv, a teenager, who lives in a London housing project and attends high school with her three close friends. The series follows Viv and her friends as they navigate through their teenage years and struggle to find themselves in an ever-evolving world. Although there is some comedy, it’s realistic as they deal with teen pressure, cultural obligations, struggling single-parent homes, boys, sex, and sexuality. You can watch “Some Girls on Hulu.”
Since 1987 The “Degrassi” Franchise has been popular around the world with it’s “Law & Order-style” ripped from the headlines storytelling. Each “Degrassi” installment features a cast of real kids, who have their awkward stages, braces, bad haircuts, questionable fashion (remember Manny’s thong? I was guilty of wearing a visible thong as well), but most importantly, they always realistically address issues that real teens and families face. The issues dealt with are so visceral that you feel as though you’re being directly affected. Issues like rape, gun violence, terrorism, cyberbullying, religion, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, plastic surgery and more. No problem has an easy fix. The characters have to deal with the decisions they make and it isn’t over by the end of the episode. “Degrassi” has also created some big name stars like Drake and Nina Dobrev, and is still casting real teens and evolving with the times. Every throwback episode of Degrassi can be found on Youtube, while new and current episodes are on Netflix.
“Skins” is one of those rare television series that can not be duplicated. With each episode being told from the perspective of a different teen in the group, viewers are given insight into the lives of diverse characters with unique backgrounds and struggles. Set in a London suburb, “Skins” doesn’t sugarcoat anything. It is extremely raw with an inside look into drug use, school issues, mental illness, rape culture, and the consequences that follow the choices we make. Each ensemble cast stays on for two seasons to be renewed with an entirely new cast. MTV (US) tried to recreate “Skins” in the U.S., but it fell short and didn’t last long. The series launched the international careers of many young actors/actress from Nicholas Holt, Dev Patel, Jack O’Connell, and more. “Skins” can be found on Netflix.
“Waterloo Road” could easily be looked at as the U.K.’s answer to “Degrassi”. This critically acclaimed series follows the struggle this community school endures as they fight an uphill battle to prove that the school and its students are worth fighting for. For ten seasons, we watch the growing pains of the pupils and teachers as they cope with issues like pregnancy, HIV, sexuality and gender identity, domestic violence, guns, gangs, suicide, and more. Although there’s the occasional posh kid to attend Waterloo Road, most of the kids are struggling and come from troubled homes, and don’t want to be defined by that. Most of the actors and have gone on to many other prestigious projects in the U.K. with Tom Payne going on to playing the role of Jesus on “The Walking Dead.” Episodes of “Waterloo Road” can be found on Youtube and DailyMotion.com.
“Ackley Bridge” can probably be described as the lovechild of “Waterloo Road” and “East is East”. The England-based series follows a new multi-cultural school that brings together a segregated English and Pakistani community. The environment is initially turbulent as students, who rarely interact are forced into social settings where tensions are high. The two main characters, Nasreen and Missy are neighbors and best friends, but the new school puts a strain on their relationship as the realities of the world outside of their comfortable bubble begins to set in. From budget cuts to drug abuse and child welfare issues to juggling cultural beliefs and sexuality, “Ackley Bridge” proves that real life issues can work well in teen drama. Episodes can be found on DailyMotion.com.